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Wanted: An Agile, Low-Cost, Irregular-Warfare Surface Combatant

Lieutenant John Goff, U.S. Navy

Abstract.  The destroyer originated as a torpedo boat destroyer, which stemmed from the need to defend large heavy warships from motor torpedo boats. They were small (400 tons), fast, and maneuverable.  Today  the primary warship of the Fleet is the destroyer, and a significant threat comes from small boats. The need for a small boat destroyer is real, relevant, and can be accomplished through small, fast, and well-armed missile boats.

The U.S. Navy’s current Fleet consists of “blue water” multi-mission platforms capable of conducting strike, air, antisubmarine, and surface warfare.  The Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyer, for example, is a valuable asset prepared for an open-ocean fight against a large conventional force, such as the former Soviet Navy. However, in recent years, there has been a shift in emphasis toward the Asia-Pacific region.  The fight is no longer in the open; it is in littoral, shallow sea, anti-area access denial (A2/AD) environments where the Navy’s main power-projection capability, the aircraft carrier, can be threatened and the means to conduct anti-surface warfare through aircraft rendered impotent.  Because of this, the Navy must develop a small, agile, and well-armed combatant that uses irregular-warfare tactics to project U.S. interests throughout the world.  [...]

Abilities.  Another major step would be empowering boat or boat-group commanders to operate independently from a higher command. In the era of communication inundation, naval leadership must continuously deny itself the tendency to drive the ships for the commanding officers, and instead issue parameters and lateral limits as opposed to specific commands. These boats would operate in an emission-controlled environment to improve the likelihood of remaining undetected. Again, this would require trust and dependency on sound decision-making by ship captains and squadron commanders.

The missile boats, operating in groups, would use network-optional warfare to communicate between one another to coordinate attacks. The reduction in the “conventional” communication capability would mean a reduction in communication equipment. This in turn would reduce the size and profile of the missile boat as well as the crew size. Some examples would be as simple as semaphore (flags, hand signals, lights), low-power voice communication, bullhorns, etc. Future ship-to-ship communication possibilities could include advanced techniques such as QR codes and laser communications. Ships would receive all Fleet Commander Guidance via a passive communications path and only burst communications would be transmitted from the missile boat. What must be fully realized is a required paradigm shift away from how ships and shipboard operations are currently conducted in order to ensure successful missile boat employment in the future.

The future of the U.S. Navy (and the military in general) may lie in large measure in its ability to fight—and win—small asymmetrical sea battles in the littorals. These conflicts may be against large state adversaries such as Iran, China, or North Korea. However, other antagonists could include non-state actors with groups such as al Qaeda, pirates, Hamas, or Hezbollah. The U.S. Navy has been accused of preparing to fight the last war by creating and maintaining a large conventional blue-water force, which was initially constructed to defeat the Soviet threat. To have success in the future, the military must enter the hybrid realm.


Goff, John, "Wanted: An Agile, Low-Cost, Irregular-Warfare Surface Combatant," Operations Research Department, Naval Postgraduate School, 8 September 2014.  Accepted for publication under Professional Notes, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 140 no. 10, October 2014.

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