To group or not to group?*

*Moderator’s Note: Portions of this article appeared originally as “The History and Theory of Naval Effects-Based Operations” in Effects-Based Approaches to Operations: Canadian Perspectives, Alan English and Howard Coombs, eds., Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre, 2008, pp. 95-102.

Placing warships into groups for the accomplishment of tasks is indeed a very old process.  For centuries, ships have fought in tight concentrations for both offensive and defensive purposes, sometime as an organized force and other times simply as a gaggle.  Symmetrical engagements predominated and the side with the numerical advantage tended to gradually ‘erode’ the combat power of the opponent.  The relatively slow process of gunfire engagements gave opportunities for inferior forces to disengage from a potential calamity, which they often did after ‘honour had been served’. Neither the invention of the internal combustion engine nor aircraft for manned flight changed this.  The doctrinal concept at issue was one of concentration, which enabled the materially driven calculus of naval warfare the best chance to play out according to design.

Wayne Hughes shows that nothing counts in naval combat processes as much as numbers.  Drawing on Frederick Lanchester’s Square Law of Effectiveness, Hughes examines cases from history to show, among other things, that “a commander is better off with twice as many units of force than with units with twice the rate of effective firepower,” and “the potential to effect concentration is greater at sea than on land.” (Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, 2nd ed., Naval Institute Press, 2000, pp. 40-44.)  The natural inclination of competent naval commanders with a numerically superior force has always been, as Hughes’ dictum puts it, “to strike effectively first.” While it is possible for an inferior force to defeat a superior one if they are able to locate their adversary first, communicate and manoeuvre efficiently to bring their combat potential to bear, and strike swiftly before the enemy can react to their presence, this happened only rarely.  So a ‘deadly dance’ resulted, with both sides stalking, simultaneously attempting to confuse, obstruct and deceive their enemy while preparing to attack.  Hughes sums it up: “Nothing about naval combat is understood if its two-sided nature is not understood.”

Despite the compelling evidence that concentration is advantageous for offence and defence, keeping the fleet together is not a panacea.  In fact, the doctrinal concept of ‘sea control’ demands that the assigned area be under the surveillance of a capable naval force, which has the inevitable effect of forcing the fleet to spread out.  A dichotomy resulted: while intensive concentration was effective for the fleet locally, enemy naval forces (or pirates) could operate with impunity just outside their ability to surveille.  The larger area was, therefore, not actually under control.  On the other hand, dispersion, the opposite doctrinal concept to concentration, allowed commanders to surveille their assigned areas effectively, but presented possibilities for defeat in detail of their forces, sometimes with an attendant loss of the all-important numerical advantage and the inability to achieve tasks due to disaggregating.  This happened with alarming frequency.  The duality, between the need to disperse for awareness and to concentrate for effectiveness, has been the greatest challenge for operational- and tactical-level naval commanders.  Admiral Nelson was especially mindful of this weakness and was forever lamenting the shortage of scouts for his battlefleet.

The Information Technology Revolution and the advent of ‘pulsed’ forms of firepower from such weapons as torpedoes, aerial bombs, and eventually missiles, finally altered the standard naval organizational construct, at least partially.  A combination of information gathering, processing and display, and dissemination capabilities made it possible to simultaneously extend the information network for the sake of area control, and allowed dispersed units to engage in an offensive fashion without the need to first concentrate to be effective.  In this context, the question of massing for defence becomes a very complicated series of calculations that weigh the relative strength of the attacker versus that of the defender.  To put it simply, when massing is expected to be effective for defence, the fleet should be concentrated, which implies a loss of effectiveness for scouting.  If the aggregate defensive capabilities of the fleet are inferior to the attacking capabilities of the enemy, the fleet should be dispersed immediately to prevent annihilation, which will surely occur if the enemy can penetrate the defender’s anti-scouting and counterforce measures.  This was the first and only true revolution in naval warfare. The doctrinal implications are profound but are not well understood.

The new threat environment makes blindly adhering to a ‘group concept’ about as dangerous an approach to naval organization as can possibly be imagined.  As Hughes said, “Nothing about naval combat is understood if its two-sided nature is not understood.”  The future does not hold much cause for optimism for the concentration of anything but the most powerful groups.  The signpost of only the second-ever revolution in naval affairs will be whether or not the dawning ‘age of robotics’ will affect the traditional requirement of warships to concentrate for defensive effectiveness.  Will the anti-scouting and counterforce capabilities of traditionally disposed fleet forces be strong enough to defeat a swarming attack by unmanned vehicles that are both unflinchingly ‘courageous’ and absolutely expendable?  Or, will networked forces develop the ability to engage collaboratively while still dispersed?  The ‘jury’ is still ‘out’ on this one.

Certainly, a suicidal willingness to press an attack to point-blank range is nothing new in naval warfare.  Swarming tactics have been employed in a number of ways in the distant and recent past and knowledgeable people who understand their potential are developing them further.  Countermeasures, as usual, are lagging behind the dangerous ideas of the innovators.  The result will probably be that future naval commanders will have only the briefest moment to decide whether to ‘fight it out’ or to take the prudent course of action and ‘live to fight another day’.  Such revolutionary developments must ultimately affect the naval training of tactical practitioners and the educational formation of operational leaders.  To dogmatically hold to old concepts that are inherently dangerous could prove to be the naval equivalent of First World War infantry charges against barbed wire and dug-in machine guns.