Confronting the Challenge of Peer Competitors: Insights from Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space 2018 Exposition


By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

We have been working the challenge of the transition from the land wars to contested operations with peer competitors for several years.

Now it appears this is becoming a challenge more visible Inside the Bletway.

For example, the Navy League is holding its Sea-Air-Space exposition in Washington from April 9-1, 2018 and, it appears, that ways to operate in a contested environment is becoming recognized for the game changer it is.

According to the Navy League:  “The largest maritime exposition in the U.S.Sea-Air-Space is now the largest maritime exposition in the U.S. and continues as an invaluable extension of the Navy League’s mission of maritime policy education and sea service support.

“The Sea-Air-Space Exposition will continue to support the mission of the Navy League and lead the way as “THE” Exposition to attend each year to display the most current information and technology relevant to maritime policy.”

The event is well covered by the analytical press and we can harvest some findings from the coverage of the exposition with regard to the way ahead with meeting the core challenge, namely how do the US and the allies respond to the challenge of peer competitors and to the evolution of the maritime, now air-sea battle, going forward?

The evolving Allied perspective, one which we are heavily engaged in working on in the UK, the Nordics and Continental Europe, is how best to deal with the Russian challenge?

Russia is not the Soviet Union, and the new Russian air and sea strike and defense assets are being used to shape a strategy different from the Soviet Union, but a major challenge it clearly is.

A piece by John Grady published April 10, 2018 by USNI News highlights allied perspectives.

The optimism for peace at the end of the Cold War has proven to be a mistake as Russia used the lull in Western defense attention to occupy Crimea and aggressively support separatists in Ukraine and insert itself in the Syrian civil war, three chiefs of European navies agreed on Monday.

“We were very optimistic in 1989,” Vice Adm. Andreas Krause, Inspector of the German Navy, said on Monday at Navy League’s Sea Air Space 2018 exposition. “2014 came like a surprise.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese began paying more attention to affairs in and around the Mediterranean, including establishing its first overseas military base in the Horn of Africa

“It is a matter of fact that we need to take [Chinese presence] into account” in assessing the changed security environment. It also means improving our capability to deter possible future aggression, said Chief of Staff of the Spanish Navy Adm. Teodoro Lopez Calderon.

For Spain, it means building up its military-industrial strength to produce more capable submarines and frigates that can operate with NATO partners. It also means working with navies and coast guards in the West and North Africa to curtail human trafficking and other illegal activities. He estimated 70,000 illegal immigrants tried to reach Spain last year.

In Sweden, “we’re emphasizing our region,” the Baltic where Moscow is increasingly making its maritime presence felt at Cold War levels – in the air, on the surface and below. Rear Adm. Jens Nykvist, Sweden’s Chief of Navy, said.

“It is an increasing number of ships” of all flags – commercial and military, operating in the Baltic, and that has really changed Stockholm’s approach to security off its 1,700-mile coastline.

All three said these geopolitical changes have focused their nations’ attention on increasing defense spending and emphasizing modernization and replacement of aging systems. Calderon said that modernization spending was central to deterrence….

The US Navy is forging ahead with innovations with regard to the air components of their combat fleet operations.

One coming capability is the UAV tanker.

As Paul McLeary of Breaking Defense noted concerning the US Navy and its presentations at the opening of the conference:

One bright spot on the day was the progress seemingly being made on the Navy’s unmanned tanker drone program, the MQ-25 Stingray, with Lockheed Martin announcing that their entry into the competition will include the General Electric F404 turbofan engine (which powers the Super Hornet) and landing gear made by United Technologies Corp.

The company’s Skunk Works office unveiled a “flying wing” concept dubbed the Stingray that differs from the designs from competitors General Atomics and Boeing, who are working on wing-body aircraft.

Lockheed also raised some eyebrows on Monday in rolling out a video showing its MQ-25 launching two AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapons. 

The Navy says its on track to choose a MQ-25 vendor this summer, and will award a contract for the four engineering and manufacturing development aircraft.

A significant addition to the fleet this year will be the Triton. 

We have highlighted the importance of the coming of Triton in various pieces on our website, but its coming to deployment this year will be an important contributor to shaping a more effective extended reach combat force.

This development was highlighted at the exposition.

As Paul McLeary of Breaking Defense noted:

The U.S. Navy is preparing to deploy a new generation of high-altitude drones to the Pacific this summer, sending two MQ-4C Tritons to Guam.

The coming deployment comes at a time of heightened military tensions with China, which is also busily shipping surveillance and electronic warfare equipment to several of it scontroversial outposts in the South China Sea.

The deployment of the 131-foot-wingspan drone will give the Navy new new set of eyes in the vast reaches of the western Pacific, intensifying the building race between Washington and Beijing to push more ships, aircraft, and radar systems into the region.

Late last month, a 40-ship Chinese flotilla, including its only native-built aircraft carrier,sailed into the South China Sea.

 The Northrop Grumman-made aircraft, a variant of the Air Force’s Global Hawk, will deploy initially with electro-optical sensors capable of tracking maritime targets from as high as 60,000 feet.

It will push that data back to ground stations at Naval Station Mayport, Fla., or Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. Wash., or to nearby P-8A Poseidon submarine hunters.

“One of the main reasons that the Navy decided to fund Triton was to have that teaming arrangement, to be able to communicate back and forth between P-8s and the Triton aircraft,” Capt. Dan Mackin, the Navy’s Triton program manager, told reporters at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition.

The deployment will also allow the P-8s to focus more on the submarine hunting aspect of tis mission, leaving other ISR missions to the drones. 

 “You want to give the P-8 the ability to perform the anti-submarine warfare mission while tying to high-altitude ISR mission,” Mackin said.

“One of the things we’ll do is pass information back and forth between the two aircraft and the situational awareness of the fleet will be enhanced. Both aircraft have the ability to do chat, so both crews will be able to communicate back and  forth”

And Sam LaGrone added this to the announcement of the deployment of the first Triton’s to the Pacific:

Under the current concept of operations for the platform, four airframes will make up one 24-hour, seven-day orbit.

“One on the way out, one on station, one on the way back and one in maintenance,” Mackin said.

The first capability will combine a series of electro-optical sensors and radar to track maritime targets from as high as 60,000 feet over the ocean and compare tracks to automated identification systems on ships.

A Triton will relay the information back to one of two main operating bases in the U.S. – Naval Station Mayport, Fla., and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. Wash. – or to nearby P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine warfare aircraft….

 Part of the IOC process will include adding a top secret “multi-intelligence” function to Triton that will eventually replace the Navy’s Lockheed Martin EP-3E Aries II manned signals intelligence platforms. Congress mandated the Navy retire the EP-3E Aries II only after it had found a way to field a similar capability.

Eventually, the Triton program will consist of five four-aircraft orbits around the world. The operators will reside in the two main bases at Mayport and Whidbey Island.

“The system is made up of an aircraft and a main operating base where the warfighter starts taking that data over wideband SATCOM link you start assimilating that data, put that data together to understand the [maritime picture],” Mackin said.

The Navy will have five operating bases where the aircraft will be maintained, launched and recovered. The forward bases will be at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy; an unspecified location in the Middle East; Naval Air Station Guam; Mayport; and Point Mugu.

With the coming of the Triton, which has highlighted in many ways the limitations of the cumbersome DoD requirements setting process, how might the Navy be addressing ways to get equipment into the hands of the warfighter more rapidly?

The new head of N-9, the Navy’s deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems, Vice Admiral Bill Merz discussed a way ahead during the Exposition.

In an article by Megan Eckstein, the way ahead was described by the Vice Admiral.

“Capability is where we would really like to put most of our energy – that’s where we can turn the capability and make our fleet more lethal much more quickly than just building capacity. And then there’s the capacity piece, the 355-ship navy….”

Merz told USNI News on Monday that he is looking to invest in projects that will boost fleet “capability, which is a slightly higher priority for us than capacity.”

“We can turn those much more quickly than building a whole new ship and getting it fielded,” he told USNI News after his Monday panel talk.

“If you just add new ships, that’s just a linear improvement to what we’re already doing. If you can build ships and put this kind of capability on it, now you get a geometric improvement or maybe even an exponential improvement.”

To give the innovations some top-cover from Navy leadership – and also to provide some oversight – the Navy and Marine Corps are working through an Accelerated Acquisition Board of Directors that meets quarterly and votes on which projects to take a chance on. Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts chairs the board alongside either the chief of naval operations or the commandant of the Marine Corps, depending on whose project the board is considering.

Merz said during the symposium that, thanks to acquisition authorities Congress gave the military services, they can bypass testing requirements and jump to the front of the line for funding in some cases – but not just any program deserves this kind of treatment, he said, and the Navy and Marine Corps are trying to prove judicious in using these authorities.

The Accelerated Acquisition Board of Directors must ask itself, “can we develop this? Can we develop it quickly or accelerate it? And then, should we? Because there’s an opportunity cost every time we do this,” Merz said.

“Sometimes things frankly don’t need to be accelerated,” particularly if a system’s entry to the fleet is properly phased with the sundown of a legacy system, or if the threat it protects against remains consistent.

But because the programs that are approved by the AA BoD can be high-cost and high-stakes programs – such as the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned carrier-based tanker and the Large Diameter Unmanned Underwater Vehicle programs – the BoD provides top cover and a “bubble of protection … until you get through a demonstration and show this thing works,” Merz said.

He added that the BoD approval to move ahead also signals a “full commitment” to the program…..

And finally a bit of reality shock setting in.

If you are going to engage in operations in contested areas, getting logistical support is a key enabler of whether you can fight at all and certainly whether you can fight and win.

In this report by Ben Warner, the Navy and Marines are clearly focused on working through better ways to deal with this challenge.

Future Navy and Marine Corps war games and exercises will include delivering supplies and personnel to contested environments with the goal of gaining an understanding of how using logistics wins fights.

The services want to rehearse delivering equipment to a contested environment because future engagements are likely to include fighting to the fight, according to a panel of military logistics experts during a panel discussion at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space 2018 exposition.

“We must definitively exercise plans and not fairy-dust logistics like may have been done in the past,” said Patrick Kelleher from the Marine Corps logistics command.

Wargames and exercises in the past have often started with the assumption all required equipment and personnel were in place for the start of the practiced engagement, Kelleher said.

The problem with making this assumption is the military has no way to see what deficiencies exist or experiment with new technologies. Now, the process is much more deliberate, with the Navy and Marine Corps learning what takes place when assembling forces, said Rear Adm. Pete Stamatopoulos, the Navy’s director of logistics.

“For the first time we have what’s called an expeditionary logistics needs assessment team,” Stamatopoulos said.

This team concentrates on figuring out how to address delivering supplies to expeditionary operations. Part of the challenge is the Navy currently has 250 logistic systems and about 1,600 applications.

“Those systems developed over many, many decades are stove-piped,” Stamatopoulos said.

“We need to move them to a different operating environment. something that’s connected but can be disconnected in a contested environment…..”

The shift from the land wars to operating in multi-domain contested operations is a profound shift and will affect the performance and redesign of the combat force. 

We will have a forthcoming report from a Williams Foundation seminar which focuses directly on this challenge and how to shape a way ahead.

The Arrival of a Maritime-Domain Awareness Strike Capability: The Impact of the P-8/Triton Dyad