The Navy and Marine Corps are refining their conceptual and tactical approach to an interesting strategy referred to as “Sea Control,” a kind of maritime warfare approach looking at multi-domain techniques of establishing land-sea-air presence, controlling choke points and strategic water ways, looking at newer kinds of approaches to amphibious warfare and “denying” a potential enemy from operating in certain high-value areas.
It is an approach that is gaining traction with cutting-edge war planners with the services and industry weapons developers made more possible with the advent of new multi-domain networking technologies, drones and long-range weapons.
As for the Navy’s emphasis upon “Sea Control,” one needs to look no further than the recently released Tri-Service strategic paper called ““Advantage at Sea: Prevailing With Integrated All Domain Naval Power,” an interesting and recently published document with a dedicated section on Sea Control and Power Projection. The strategy, which integrates Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy thinking, is intended to “maintain persistent forward presence, conduct sea control and sea denial, and enable power projection, Naval Service investment priorities include: Surface Warfare and Air Warfare. We will increase investments in advanced, precise, long-range, and lethal fires to destroy enemy forces, with the objective of maintaining a sufficient inventory to sustain a protracted conflict,” the strategy writes.
The thinking expands into the integration and application of certain kinds of new weapons platforms, such as arming the LCS with an over-the-horizon Naval Strike Missile, architecting a new fleet of surface and undersea drones and massively prioritizing multi-domain “Integrated” Naval power.
“We will invest in a variety of weapons delivery platforms including Marine long-range anti-ship missiles, manned and unmanned surface vessels, submarines, and aircraft. We will increase investments in maritime domain awareness technologies to find, fix, track, and target adversary forces,” the strategy writes.
The Tri-Service strategies’ emphasis upon “Sea Control” aligns with an interestingFall 2020 essay by Marine Corps Universities’ “Journal of Advanced Military Studies.” The essay takes up the question of advanced enemy anti-access/area-denial strategies employed to restrict maritime maneuvers intended to prevent or deny the “sea-control” necessary to operate successfully. Not surprisingly, the essay refers to long-range enemy weapons.
“Access denial strategies are not a new defensive strategy; what makes access denial challenging on the modern battlefield is the dramatic improvement and proliferation of weapons capable of denying access to or freedom of action within an operational area,” the essay writes. (Lt. Col. Michael Manning)
“Quite significantly, the essay, called SEA CONTROL, “Feasible Acceptable, Suitable or Simply
Imperative,” appears to recommend strategies which support the current Marine Corps adaptation of the NSM to a land-firing contingency. Operating within the conceptual position that “Sea Control” is entirely necessary, the essay suggests “investing in low cost technology that extends the ranges of A2/AD capabilities.”
As for the application of this kind of strategy, the Navy and Marine Corps are already making considerable progress through an evolving, multi-domain centric amphibious warfare enabling “island hopping” and land-sea weapons integration. For example, the Marine Corps is advancing a program known as Ground Based Anti-Ship Missile which involves adapting the ship-fired Naval Strike Missile for transport and land-attack application, so amphibious force could for example set up on an island and stand up anti-ship attack operations. Sure enough, the strategy specifically cites newer kinds of “anti-ship missiles,” which may even be a reference to this program.
Sea Control is likely also intended to be further developed with the upcoming deployment of the Marine Corps’ now evolving Light Amphibious Warship.
“Where adversaries must cross open water, sea denial robs them of the initiative, impedes a fait accompli, and prevents them from achieving their objectives. We control or deny the seas by destroying an adversary’s fleet, containing it in areas that prevent meaningful operations, prohibiting it from leaving port, or by controlling sea lines of communication,” the strategy writes.
“Sea Control to Stop Russia & China”
The U.S. Navy is preparing to defend against and prevent what it identifies as possible Russian or Chinese attempts to accomplish a “fait accompli,” by essentially annexing, invading or taking over a particular area faster than the U.S. and its allies can respond.
Through careful consideration of the strategies and tactics likely to be employed by Russia or China in this kind of scenario, a recently published new Navy strategy document explains that one of these countries would likely seek to use surprise and rapid assault to seize territory and then quickly reinforce it with long-range fires to deter any potential response. The strategy, called “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing With Integrated All Domain Naval Power,” says any Russian or Chinese “fait accompli” strategy would seek to quickly make any military response to their invasion “disproportionally costly” by deploying heavy firepower to defend the seized territory.
This kind of possible scenario with China is precisely why the U.S. Navy continues to maintain a large, steady “presence” of forces in the Pacific, in part so it can respond quickly and appropriately in the event that China were to try to take over Taiwan or key areas of the South China Sea.
While the risks entertained by the strategy seem quite realistic and grounded in logistical and technological criteria, it may not be entirely clear that any kind of Chinese offensive would happen too quickly for the U.S. Navy to respond. Perhaps taking over some small islands in the South China Sea could happen quickly, but any kind of an invasion or offensive attack beyond the smallest scale would most likely be detected and therefore anticipated well in advance of any actual combat action. This is why the Navy places such value upon forward presence, and regularly operates drones, submarines and even Carrier Strike Groups in areas within reach of any potential invasion site. This would of course include the South China Sea, Taiwan, Japan and parts of Australia or other regional areas China could potentially target.
A Chinese amphibious assault coming across the Taiwan strait would likely be detected by satellite or drone surveillance well in advance of there being any possibility of landing ashore. However, should the U.S. Navy or allied forces armed with air power, submarines, carriers or heavy combat warships not be within any reachable proximity, there may be few options available to Commanders in terms of trying to stop, thwart, block or derail any kind of offensive.
The Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps strategy highlights some broad strokes or war plan “parameters” within which a response might operate, of course without offering much detail.
“Within the most contested battle spaces, we will destroy adversary forces by projecting power from attack submarines, fifth-generation aircraft, naval expeditionary forces, unmanned vehicles, and maritime raids,” the strategy writes. As part of what could be called a general “war plan” roadmap of sorts, the Navy document adds the possibility of non-kinetic tactics as well, to include jamming, The concept is to remain capable of a rapid response by having powerful combat assets regularly operate in contested areas and, as the strategy states, operate “maneuverable strike forces—composed of multiple carrier strike groups, surface action groups, and expeditionary strike groups, and augmented by unmanned platforms— will launch overpowering air and missile attacks from unexpected directions.”
The concept is to counter the enemy with “multiple axes of attack” such that air assets on alert in the region including long-range fires from coastal areas, bomber patrols on alert, undersea attack submarines and even warships operating in coordination with air, surface and undersea drones to enable U.S. Navy forces to prevail … even if outnumbered.
“Our seaborne forces will deliver devastating offensive strikes, surviving adversary counterattacks using coordinated jamming, maneuver, and defensive systems. Low-footprint and low-signature Marine Corps elements operating from the sea to the shore will use maneuver, cover, and concealment to employ lethal long-range precision fires. Combined volleys of networked munitions, coming from multiple axes of attack,” the strategy writes.
Yet another interesting tactic of possible use in preventing or thwarting a Chinese or Russian “fait accompli” is to pursue something the strategy refers to as “sea control” and “sea denial.”
“Where adversaries must cross open water, sea denial robs them of the initiative, impedes a fait accompli, and prevents them from achieving their objectives. We control or deny the seas by destroying an adversary’s fleet, containing it in areas that prevent meaningful operations, prohibiting it from leaving port, or by controlling sea lines of communication,” the strategy states.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.