Competing in the Competition Phase

do not wait until crisis and conflict

The last year, as most of the nation was focused on a highly contentious election and a global pandemic, the US Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard put on a the table multitude of documentation in to the conversation outlining our best minds' official view of where the Naval Services need to go; Tri-Service Maritime Strategy, CNO NAVPLAN, National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, Expeditionary Advance Base Operations, and more from recent years. How can one try to weave them together?

Back for another run at CDRSalamander, regular guest Bryan McGrath offers the below for your consideration.

Over to you Bryan!


The Navy had a sudden burst of intellectual energy in the last few weeks, joining with the Marine Corps and Coast Guard in releasing a "Tri-Service Maritime Strategy "and then issuing a “CNO NAVPLAN” to provide additional implementation guidance thereto. This essay will not attempt a comprehensive review of these documents. Suffice it to say that both documents provide useful insight into selected elements of strategic and operational thinking within the Naval Service (a term introduced in the Tri-Service Maritime Strategy as a proper noun, hence the capitalization). The timing of their release was unfortunate, both from the perspective of an audience busy with holiday merry-making and from the fact that a new presidential administration would shortly be entering office. To some extent, there is never a perfect time to release these kinds of documents, but the choice here was particularly problematic. That said, there are important implications to explore, and one of them is the basis of this essay. 

In these documents, the Naval Service has elevated the importance of what is referred to as the “Continuum of Competition”, a continuum comprised of a long-term competition phase, a crisis phase, and a conflict phase. The prominence of and emphasis on the competition phase is an important feature of this thinking, with implications for the three maritime services. For example, one of the impossible-to-miss implications of this strategy is the centrality placed on U.S. Coast Guard activities in the Western Pacific, and the force structure and logistics impacts that necessarily follow. 

Where the strategic thinking goes astray—not fatally, but importantly—is in the failure to recognize the importance of the fleet architecture and force posture appropriate to the day-to-day competition as the basis for all that follows in crisis and conflict. Put another way, the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy both emphasize conventional deterrence by denial, an approach that for the Navy at least, suggests greater capability, capacity, lethality, and distribution during the day-to-day competition. Yet, the enabling concept for this approach (Distributed Maritime Operations or DMO) is fixed in the strategy as a creature of the “conflict” phase. The Navy is not alone in misplacing its most important conventional deterrence concept, as the Marine Corps’ “Expeditionary Advance Base Operations” concept is also treated essentially as a war plan enabler, rather than a deterrent. This is not just a category error; it is an intellectual flaw with significant implications for fleet architecture and force structure, a flaw that could impact both the Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Targeting (ISRT) posture, and the logistics force.

Part of the problem in discussing DMO is the fact that there is no unclassified version of the concept available, and so there is confusion as to what it is and is not. The Marines have released an unclassified EABO narrative, which is referred to often in leadership communications. For the purposes of this essay, DMO will be (simplistically, improperly, incompletely) considered the extension of the Surface Warfare community’s 2014/5 “Distributed Lethality” concept into what the Navy refers now to as “multi-domain” operations. 

At the heart of Distributed Lethality was the recognition that it was an approach to conventional deterrence. By increasing the offensive and defensive combat punch of surface ships and effectively networking them, greater lethality would be available during the long, day-to-day competition phase. This was believed to have two main impacts on adversary thinking. First, it raised the effort required to achieve even modest objectives in an adversary’s near abroad (denial). Second, it diluted the adversary’s available ISR effort by creating more numerous operational problems for them to monitor, in addition to spreading their available weapons stocks across a greater number of targets. The virtue of “distribution” was in “spreading the zone” and making the business of everyday life in the Western Pacific more difficult on China. Once the shooting starts, virtues of distribution decline, as opportunities for mutual support are more difficult under geographically dispersed conditions. 

In an essay in Proceedings, VADM Tom Rowden—then Commander of Naval Surface Forces—made the requirement for increased ISRT central to enabling surface operations and Distributed Lethality. It is axiomatic that U.S. Navy ship commanding officers sail within the First Island Chain with the strong suspicion that their location is known and that they are targeted. For a conventional deterrence posture to be effective, the same certainty needs to be imposed on PLAN CO’s in that battlespace, which means a considerably more robust U.S. ISRT posture in peacetime—the “competition” phase. 

When considering how to field such a posture, fleet architects can turn to manned and unmanned ISRT aircraft launched and recovered from Navy ships, aircraft carriers, and from land bases, in addition to satellite and undersea sensors. Here’s where things get interesting. If the Navy looks at DMO as a concept for the “conflict” phase, it will necessarily default to more “survivable” ISRT options—to include stealthy aircraft and satellites—as ISRT sensors would be natural targets for destruction by enemy forces. The expense of such a force—owing largely to the technology required to pull it off—would be considerable. If DMO were placed firmly in the competitive phase, less “survivable” (and therefore, less expensive) options would suggest themselves. 

Additionally, a conventional deterrence posture in the competitive phase in which the U.S. fields a considerable number of “risk-worthy” ISRT platforms is a posture in which adversary destruction of ISRT platforms serves as a strategic tripwire signaling wider aggressive intent. This does not mean that the U.S. Navy needs no stealthy/survivable ISRT platforms. It does. But it also needs the ability to create and maintain a targeting picture 24/7 inside the First Island Chain optimized to the available weapons inventory riding mostly in surface ships, one that creates in the minds of PLAN CO’s the same certainty that they are tracked and targeted in peacetime as exists in our CO’s minds.  

Interestingly, the same (or similar) conditions apply to the Navy’s effort to recapitalize its logistics force. If the Navy sizes and shapes its logistics force to the requirements of DMO in the conflict phase, it will likely undershoot the requirement, as forces are likely to be MORE distributed in the competition phase (though more numerous in the conflict phase), presenting a different (and potentially tougher) logistics problem than the one faced where there is some consolidation of naval forces for mutual support. 

The bottom line is that if the Navy continues to look at DMO as a “conflict phase” concept of operations, it will likely undersupply the key enablers of its conventional deterrence force it needs to effectively compete in the competition phase. What the Navy does in the day-to-day competition is of great value to how it will and can operate in the crisis and conflict phases. Set the conditions you desire in the competition phase, do not wait until crisis and conflict to constrain the adversary’s behavior and options. 

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a national security consultancy specializing in seapower, maritime concepts of operation, and fleet architecture. The views expressed here are his, and do not represent any client input, including the U.S. Navy.