These necessary and constant elements contributing to naval strength—range of action, destructive power, survival power, information gathering, and control—what are their implications today?
—Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer, U.S. Navy
In the 1970s, cutting-edge naval thinkers led by Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer realized that the various elements of a fighting ship’s sensors, decision aids, and armaments no longer could be considered assets independent of one another. Instead, they must be systemically approached as a single platform. In the May 1977 Proceedings, Admiral Meyer defined a combat system as “the totality of [a warship’s] installed equipment—the weapons, weapon systems, and sensors; the communications suite, support systems, and computers; not to mention the programs in the computers that integrate, control and coordinate the entire combat system.” A fighting integer.
Meyer recognized that the performance of the combat system is greater than “the simple sum of the individual elements.” Shipbuilders and engineers deliberately integrated systems, coupling them with strict policies of configuration control in modernization programs that produced a complete combat system: Aegis.
Admiral Meyer reviewed naval history up to the 1970s to illustrate such a system’s value. Surface warfare was once a fleet’s sole concern. Before the introduction of guns, armaments consisted of physical, zero-length rams, and communications comprised line-of-sight visual signals until the late 19th century. The “single important area of application [was] the requirement of a surface fleet to engage enemy surface ships.”
The first half of the 20th century brought radical, unprecedented shifts to tactics and technology. Naval warfare entered two new domains: subsurface and air. New offensive and defensive capabilities evolved, including torpedoes, fire-control systems, air- and surface-search radar, radio communication, and manned aircraft. For the first time, air superiority became a limiting factor in offensive actions. But each new system and technology acted independently, limiting a fleet’s ability to conduct warfare in simultaneous modes, and overall effectiveness varied. Meyer described fleet antiair defense in depth at the beginning of World War II as “the fighter, the 5”/38, the 40mm, the 20mm, and prayer.”
Progress did not slow after the war. Antiair warfare remained central, but guided-missile technology became the centerpiece. It became possible, and even necessary, to target the enemy’s offensive weapons instead of the enemy’s ship. Air-to-surface, surface-to-air, and surface-to-surface missiles collapsed the terminal defense timeline and highlighted the importance of reaction time in modern naval combat. As Admiral Meyer observed, “The clear, if initially unfunded, requirement for quick reaction total systems, capable of the control and coordination necessary to provide the final close-in defense” became undeniable.
In the 1960s and ’70s, digital technology “exploded in [the Navy’s] face.” At first, it merely simplified and streamlined the ability to process data into information, then promulgated that information to warfighters and higher authority as quickly as possible. This reduced the essential measure of modern naval warfare: reaction time. The precursors to the modern tactical datalink infrastructure provided complete, timely, and accurate data to task group commanders, even if they were stationed remotely relative to the data source.
This time of rapid and dizzying transition inspired Admiral Meyer and his peers to return to the basics of naval warfare, considering if and how tactics changed as complexity increased. They postulated that the overall goal of naval warfare—the strategy that guaranteed success regardless of objective—remained control of the sea. He built upon that base in the following ways.
First, he described five elements that technology and tactics must support to achieve effective sea control: Range of action, as affected by base location, underway sustainment, crew endurance and weapons range; destructive power, the ability to defeat the enemy, with the focus in 1977 being a hard kill with own-ship missiles, guns, and torpedoes; survival power, the ability to complete assigned missions or actions; the ability to locate the enemy to concentrate attacks on “his vitals” while avoiding “untimely confrontation with his armaments”; control of one’s own forces, such that the force can locate, select, and destroy a target or disrupt its mission. Control of one’s own forces also allows for the receipt of orders and adaptation of rules of engagement. Operationally, the system had to integrate and maximize—across all warfare modes simultaneously—five “pillars”: reaction time, firepower, electronic countermeasures and environmental immunity, continuous availability, and area coverage.
Writing for The Navalist in September 2017, John Fass Morton noted that Admiral Meyer “bounded the complexity of his Aegis management task with a simple statement of the warfare problem: detect, control, engage.” The unified system accomplished this.
Throughout Meyer’s later career, the issue he had to address was ad hoc installation and update of technologies on warships. Clear and obvious pitfalls arose from adopting technologies piecemeal, as soon as they became available, and in response to each new opportunity and threat. It created risks from poor logistic support, lack of standards, inadequate support systems, and an inability to properly train operators and maintainers.
Admiral Meyer’s historically grounded insights proved instrumental to developing the Aegis Combat System as an integrated system from its inception. Organizational and thought changes he championed led to the creation of PMS-400. As John Pike put it for Global Security, PMS-400 was the first program office in the history of U.S. warship development with “responsibility and authority to simultaneously manage combat system development, acquisition, integration, and life-time support.” Forty years later, Aegis remains the centerpiece of naval systems of systems for the U.S. Navy and many allies.
Combat system engineers of the modern day confront changes as dramatic and rapid as those Admiral Meyer faced from the Soviet Union. Cyber and space are new warfare domains, and his five supported elements of sea control are joined by spectrum control. Without superior electronic attack and support capabilities and the ability to manage and control radio-frequency emissions, the force risks losing the ability to exercise command and control over its forces and thus maintain control of the sea. These will necessitate the ability to reconfigure and update the integrated combat system quickly and in unexpected directions, using alternate data paths and rapidly deliv ered software changes. The digital technology explosion Admiral Meyers described continues at a fast pace today and requires new supporting pillars: data standards, networks, infrastructure (both on the cloud and at edge computing), and the tools, analytics, and battle management aids needed to synthesize that information at the speed of relevance.
Admiral Meyer’s definition of a combat system—“the totality of her installed equipment” and the systems needed to “integrate, control and coordinate the entire combat system” stand for a single warship. His single-warship-as-integer concept is shifting to an integer that encompasses the battle force. But the same concepts Meyer advocated for the Aegis Combat System’s development, testing, and installation in an integrated manner apply equally well to the new system of systems—a fleet.
Admiral Meyer foresaw this next step: “As the threat intensifies, the number and type of ships that predictably must be combined to meet the threat increases. The mortar that holds these ships together and ensures their synergism and survival is coordination.” He was concerned that “through inability to coordinate there may be targets that no one engages,” and without proper command and control at the force level, “our magazines will be empty after the first wave, with timely replenishment unlikely.” He expressed a vision for the next step in combat system integration in this way: “Just as understanding a . . . ship’s capability is understanding her combat system, so is understanding a task group’s capability understanding its coordination system.”
The history of Aegis development is a history of concepts as much as process. Today’s Navy could learn much from those concepts.