Reshaping Combat Architecture and Training: An Evolving Dynamic


By Robbin Laird

With the shift from the land wars to rebuilding U.S. forces for contested operations with peer competitors, the role of training is changing significantly. There clearly was innovation during the land wars, but the geographical battlespace was well known, and air and maritime power could operate with impunity in support of ground forces, whether for the maneuver force or counter-insurgency forces.

Those skill sets and concepts of operations reshaped U.S. military forces but in so doing created a generation which has not faced adversaries focusing on denying sea and airspace to those U.S. military forces.

As Major James Everett, Head of the Assault Support Department at MAWTS-1 has put it:

“The vast majority of us grew up in a Fleet Marine Force that understood and constantly trained to fight the insurgencies that ripened in these uncertain environments. And we’ve become quite proficient at it. However, over the past fifteen years, threat of another Great Power Competition has grown quietly in the background….

“Now, having been content to watch China’s rise and its concurrent development and maturation of a modern military, we are faced with a force of devastating potential. This problem set is wildly different than anything that we, as planners and operators, have ever faced before.”

So how do you train in such a way that you are able to break old patterns and learn new ones?

Or even more challenging, how do you shape what those new skill sets need to be?

Shaping a transition from the land wars to full spectrum crisis management is a very significant one, but that transition is enabled by the introduction of new platforms, technologies and approaches.

There is much discussion of multi-domain warfare, but what is really happening with the current force, is leveraging new capabilities to allow for force packages or modules to work together in new ways.

And this is built around a number of innovations in the ISR and C2 domains but does not require the entire force to operate as a multi-domain combat capability.

The combat architecture is evolving and being reshaped in operations, and in training.

In fact, training, operations, and development are part of an interactive cycle whereby U.S. military forces are being reshaped in a dynamic and ongoing manner.

During my visit to NAWDC in July 2020, one clear indication of the change could be seen with the focus there on hosting working groups to redesign the tactics, techniques and procedures, with the operators and for the operators.

It is not just about learning the TTPs for the integrated air wing; it is about rethinking, reworking and training the maritime force to work in an integrated, distributed manner, to deliver the desired combat effect.

Put bluntly, this is about force operational redesign driven by the inputs from the fleet planners as well as key military training centers.

What this approach will highlight are the gaps which emerge as integrability is worked and recommendations with regard to acquisition of where best to fill those gaps.

This is an open-ended process, not a closed loop.

During my NAWDC visit, I had a chance to discuss this evolving approach with CDR Jeremy “Shed” Clark, Senior Leader at the Naval Rotary Wing Weapons School (SEAWOLF) at NAWDC, and with CDR Tim Myers, the CO of TOPGUN at NAWDC.

The topic of the working group-led approach to redesign came into the discussion with CDR Clark after we finished our discussion on the Romeos’ ASW mission sets. He argued that they needed to look at where improvements would most benefit the fleet, and then consider the applicable platforms whose upgrades could address those areas most expeditiously and cost effectively.

The goal would be to look for the most advantageous solutions on a particular platform, rather than looking to upgrade the entire force. These solutions could well be provided via changes or upgrades to other (non-aviation) DoD platforms, identifying a need for a holistic approach.

CDR Clark argued that the U.S. Navy’s ASW community pursued something akin to this in the 1980’s and 90’s but moved away from the approach as ASW became of lesser significance. This meant that for the last decade plus, more stove piped views have prevailed.

But NAWDC is leading a new approach. “We have set up a number of working groups to look at the broader mission areas and to rise to the challenge of establishing the larger TTPs for those mission areas.

“For example, we are looking at how we can accomplish defense of the fleet across the joint force, and then identifying any mission gaps we may have. Then the question is how would we close those gaps across our joint force?”

He noted that they are scheduling quarterly working groups, which include the USAF and USMC as well. While COVID-19 has complicated the schedule, the trajectory is clear. “If we are going to do a full maritime strike, what would that look like and who can contribute?” In the first quarter of this year, NAWDC hosted such a working group which lasted for 2 weeks and essentially was focused on functional TTPs vice platform-centric TTPs. This was the first time NAWDC did this.

Such a “training approach” raises key questions about how best to train to fleet-wide TTPs based on joint capabilities. “This will open people’s eyes to optimizing the acquisition process to fill critical needs.”

The first working group was done largely within the Navy weapons schools but with clear intent to broaden the joint participation. In addition, fleet planners are being included as part of the broader effort.  “The approach has been to bound the problem at NAWDC and then take the effort outside for wider fleet and joint force engagement.”

I was able to continue this discussion with the CO of TOPGUN.  He is also the action officer for the working groups.  “We want to shape a process that could deliver a valuable product, rather than just having a set of meetings. We want products that are key parts of the rethinking process.”

Now that they have demonstrated the proof of concept, they are focused on growing the effort. They are framing key questions which allow for interactive working on end-to-end con-ops. Frankly, from my point of view, what is really being discussed is shaping a kill web-enabled force; one in which the area of interest by the assets currently engaged in combat can work together to deliver the kind of combat affects you want to achieve.

For me, a kill web is focused on combat effects, while a kill chain is focused on targeting as its primary outcome. A kill web about creating a foundation to allow strike group commanders to think about how they employ their combat assets in conjunction with relevant joint or coalition assets, rather than just relying on what they organically own.

When we talked, the next working group was scheduled to meet to focus on integrated air defense. According to CDR Myers, who sent an update on that meeting after it concluded:

“The working group included USAF fifth generation pilots, unmanned combat asset operators, suppression of air defense experts, DoD weapons subject matter experts, and Navy undersea warfare and SEAL officers.”

CDR Myers noted: “We have shared the maritime strike concept of operations with the USAF as they are working on how to project power into the maritime domain. A lot of these TTPs translate nicely to USAF operations.”

The teams are working a very different approach to joint operations in the Pacific compared to joint practices used in the Middle East.

Their ultimate vision is to convene quarterly working groups that would focus on developing the right kind of methodology; maritime strike, counter IADS, full-spectrum defense of the fleet, then more classic air interdiction in more permissive environments. The classic Air Wing has lots of capital in this fourth one, but maritime strike, counter IADS and defense of the fleet required a significant rework, applying gap analysis to shape the way ahead.

He added: “The timeline for implementing these tactical changes is aggressive. To accelerate learning, we are providing these new CONOPS to the fleet and asking for feedback. Strike groups are executing our TTPS as a part of their work-up cycles, and we are immediately taking their lessons learned, what worked and what didn’t, and folding them back into the process.”

“Our CONOPS are written generically but can be applied to specific scenarios. We plan to take the counter-IADS product and have the working group apply it to some very specific operational plans. This will serve as an exemplar for the CONOPs, and hopefully provide constructive feedback to the operational planners.”

“Several feedback mechanisms are in play; we receive feedback on our CONOPS from the Fleet, and as a result of our integrated training events; we provide feedback to the fleet operational planners, including asset allocation, missions and target sets, prioritized targeting lists – all of these feedback mechanisms are going through NAWDC.”

“These functions are really not platform-centric and are happening across platforms; some platforms are optimized for specific aspects of the functions which need to be performed, and others for other aspects; and at certain periods of time, in the combat space.”

I would submit this is a very different concept of training than what was inherited from the land wars – one designed to empower the combat force with innovation from within, rather than being designed in a briefing room and enforced by a hierarchical centralized command. In other words, the ops, training, and development cycle is being reworked, and with it the combat force incorporating those changes and driving further change.

As a result, the kind of innovation required for escalation dominance and control is much more likely to be generated.

Featured graphic: Two The F-35 Lightning II and Aegis Weapon System, worked together for the first time during a live fire exercise at White Sands Missile Range on Sept. 12, 2016. The joint Lockheed Martin, (NYSE: LMT) U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps exercise was the first live fire missile event that successfully demonstrated the integration of the F-35 to support Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA).

As harbinger of the future, I wrote this piece in 2011:

The Long Reach of Aegis