The CNO on the Future of Warfighting: Reflections on the Future


2012-07-26 By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

There were only four men in U.S. History awarded the five star rank of Fleet Admiral: Chester Nimitz, “Bull” Halsey, William Leahy and Earnie King. From their days at Annapolis to commanding the greatest Naval Fleet in history, each man spent significant time at sea interspersed with time ashore furthering their education. Not only did they consistently demonstrate physical courage but they honed a profound grasp of the harsh reality that all military technology is evolving and thus in a constant relative action/reaction cycle against a reactive enemy.

In 1924 a very accomplished Admiral grasped that action/reaction vision for the future

The President of the Naval War College overseeing these discussions (studying the complexities of British and German Fleet tactics during the Battle of Jutland in WWI) was none other than Admiral William S. Sims, who had already influenced King’s and Bill Halsey’s development of destroyer techniques, not to mention the convoy system. When Sims spread his war games fleet across the plotting board, he introduced aircraft carriers to the mix–even though Lexington and Saratoga were still months away from commissioning-and he argued that the aircraft carrier would replace the battleship as the navy’s capital ship. The reason was that carriers presented a 360-degree range of firepower via their aircraft that far outdistanced the radius of a battleships’ guns.

Sim’s fixation with a widening circle of projected power may have influenced Nimitz’s fellow classmate-both at Annapolis and now at the Naval War College-Commander Roscoe C MacFall when he took his turn at the plotting board. Rather than placing his ships in long lines, MacFall arrayed his fleet in concentric circles around his capital ships-admittedly still battleships. The tactical advantage was that with a common pivot point in the center of the circle, all ships could turn together and remain in formation.

(Page 131 The Admirals by Walter R. Borneman, May 2012)”

Building on the shoulders of such giants, Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, the Chief of Naval operations, in a recent piece in the US Naval Institute Proceedings provides some insights into his thinking about the future of warfighting.  Somewhere along the way this effort was hijacked into a discussion about the F-35.  The CNO responded to the hijack attempt through his press spokesman, and tried to put the discussion back on track.

But let us look at what he said in his article and through a reflection on his thoughts suggest the way ahead in the future of power projection, for that is where the Navy can be found.  In today’s environment, the service chiefs provide guidance on building forces that are then available to the combatant commanders.

On July 13, 2012 Admiral Greenert along with the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force and the Commandant of Coast Guard were honored at the USMC Evening Parade at the Marine Barracks, the famous “8th and I” by the Commandant of the Marine Corps. This joint service team, taking “the pass in review” of the Marines, is at the heart of shaping the next generation of power projection forces especially in the Pacific.  The thoughts of the CNO are then to be understood as his contribution to this conversation.

At the heart of his presentation are two crosscutting points.

  1. Platforms are the foundation for capabilities.
  2. But just as important a diversity of capabilities will be developed over time carried by those platforms in delivering payloads for strike operations.

The first point underscores that the core capital platforms need to be built with longevity in mind.  And, of course, survivability is an important ingredient to longevity.  He cited the example of the USS Enterprise, still sailing in Harms way today, as a platform, which has through its 50 years evolved its capabilities dependent upon what it carried.

These platforms need to be built so that modularity and inherent modernization is enabled.   Rather than hard wiring systems into platforms, the CNO advocates a key trend, which is clearly happening, namely an ability to swap out systems over time via software or other means to upgrade platforms.

In World War II, especially in the Pacific theater the concept of a “big blue blanket” evolved. It took thousands of ships and planes with appropriate logistical support to fight and win. Now with a 21st century electronic revolution of sensors, shooters and in a honeycomb of networks a modern version of a big blue blanket can be shaped and which can enable the fleet.

According to the CNO:

We will instead need to change the modular weapon, sensor, and unmanned vehicle “payloads” a platform carries or employs. In addition to being more affordable, this decoupling of payload development from platform development will take advantage of a set of emerging trends in precision weapons, stealth, ship and aircraft construction, economics, and warfare.

An MV-22 Osprey takes off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) during test operations. Credit: USN

And later he added:

The use of modular payloads that can be changed out over a platform’s life offers an effective and affordable way to maintain our adaptability and warfighting advantage against evolving threats.

Another key element he highlighted was the need to get economy of scale in building basic platforms because of the learning curve which can come only with long series production.

Taking advantage of that learning curve while ensuring each hull or airframe has relevant capability for its time requires that we look at platforms more as trucks. The truck will load and plug in successive generations of modular payloads as it goes through decades of serial production.

And later he added:

We will continue to work to decouple payload development from platform development and design platforms from the start to accommodate a changing portfolio of payloads. This will allow us to build the same hulls and airframes for decades and exploit the industrial learning curve while still evolving our capabilities to keep our warfighting edge against improving adversaries.

The proposition underlying much of this thinking is what we have called “no platform fights alone.”  We have argued “No platform fights alone” is a key point in understanding the design of the attack and defense enterprise of the 21st century.” This point was underscored in our recent Space News piece.

When one considers concept of operations and overall capability it is the ability to have synergy across the joint force structure that counts.

The future belongs to agile, modular, and scalable forces.

The CNO’s article in effect underscores this reality.

The CNO recognizes that he needs to make sure that the fleet is open to technological innovation rather than locking into a silver bullet platform solution to technological dominance.  By having viable and growth oriented platforms – based on modularity – the fleet can be shaped by open ended innovation, rather than locked into closed-loop systems which may be state of the art today, but are rapidly obsolescent.

The CNO’s approach is re-enforced by the kinds of platforms starting to come on line or in the pipeline.

The Ford class carriers are designed for upgradeability in terms of power, communications and eventual form, fit and function of weapons systems some only found today in labs and test ranges.

The America class LHDs are designed to carry a new generation of aircraft, which are inherently upgradeable.  The America class ships are virtually the same size as the Charles De Gaulle class carriers.

The F-35 is the most upgradeable aircraft ever built.  As software enabled aircraft, upgrades will occur overtime and changed out with cards and chips.

The platform foundation is sound.

Then the question is what technologies are changing the reality of warfighting?

The unmanned systems are about to be revolutionized.  These unmanned systems are the next generation weapons but are not the future of aviation as some non-aviators have speculated but they are part of the future of aviation.  Often forgotten is that weapons are the ultimate unmanned systems, and as we go forward we must move beyond what the former Chief Scientist of the USAF, Mark Lewis, the 3rd and 4th generation weapons we put on 5th generation aircraft. This is essential and requires a national effort before any musings on 6th Gen, what ever that means, is contemplated.

Robotics not just in weapons is undergoing a revolution.  In counter-mining the technology is available to de-platformize the counter mining operation.  Robotic systems can be deployed across the fleet rather than concentrated on a single asset.

And synergy across the fleet is increasingly significant.

The synergy between Aegis and the F-35 will guarantee the possibility of using weapons from surface ships as part of the strike force.  As we put it earlier, “Aegis can be my wingman” for the F-35 fleet.  As the CNO put it the use of short range weapons alone will not make sense moving forward. We could not agree more – there needs to be a weapons revolution to go along with the modernization of the fleet.

From our point of view, the F-35 is part of the synergy across the power projection services is a key enabler for the kind of innovation, which the CNO is asking for.  In our Joint Forces Quarterly article to be published this month, we argue that

The F-35 is called a joint strike fighter.  And it is just that.  The plane will replace multiple aircraft in the fleet, and by so doing create significant economies of scale and savings.  The aircraft is 80% common across the fleet and savings come from software commonality, new approaches to digital maintenance, and flight line enhancements and improvements.  And the ability to combine the F-35 with Aegis systems operated by allies worldwide provide an ability, not just to enhance combat capability, but to change dramatically the way the U.S. can work with its allies.

The CNO does discuss the limits of stealth.  But because the F-35 is not simply a stealth aircraft but integrated combat systems aircraft with the enablers built inside the plane and through such design is stealthy, the aircraft does not rest simply upon stealth.  It is not a silver bullet aircraft.

And for the USN and for the CNO as a former submariner, the core stealth platform in the USN is the submarine.

When the CNO speaks of stealth, it is this reality, which is paramount.  After all, the USAF has 30 years of experience in working with stealth aircraft and the USN has none.  Indeed, one of the exciting spin offs of the USN buying an aircraft flown by the USAF is that the crucial synergy required for the agile and scalable forces in the future can be generated by collaboration between the power projection services.

As LtGen Dave Deptual USAF (ret) perhaps the most successful “targeteer” in modern history points out –a conventional air campaign can have 40,000 to 50,000 aim points to fight and win.

A fighting force of F-22s, all F-35s (USAF, USMC, USN and Allied), B-2s, AEGIS, SSGNs, evolving robotics, UCAS, energy directed weapons and hypersonic cruise missiles, all tied in with but not dependent on space assets, and empowering legacy aircraft such as F-15, f-16, and F/A-18, will allow a Pacific Commander to fight and win any scale of an engagement below a nuclear exchange. With a strong, solid Military Sealift Command (MSC) in support, no other country has this capability. Americans going into an election just need the political will expressed in budget support to achieve this legendary transition.

And for the first time very soon, the USN-USMC-USAF team will bring a 5th generation fighter into the fight in the Pacific as the USMC deploys its F-35Bs to the Pacific in 2014.  In discussions with combatant commanders in the Pacific, it is clear that this modernization effort is central from their point of view.

As the CNO concluded:

Just as Apple’s fleet of platforms has provided incentives for the development of new ‘apps’ and peripheral devices that easily plug into its operating system, the Navy can spur the development of new capabilities and payloads to plug into the Fleet. This model will help us to maintain our warfighting edge, build the Fleet capacity that keeps us forward, and improve our readiness for today’s missions.

An earlier version of this article appeared on AOL Defense.