December 16, 2013  

Who supports whom in the maritime domain?

Joint and service doctrine remain dangerously unclear

When a joint force goes to war at sea, sound command and control requires that the force’s commander clearly state the support relationship between the maritime component commander and the air component commander — that is, who supports whom? Yet the question remains unsettled in U.S. joint doctrine. It is also one of the key issues to be resolved as the Air-Sea Battle concept develops.

Attempts to resolve this question — as well as to develop sound joint doctrine in general — are complicated by disagreements on the definitions of key terms. For example, although the Navy and the Air Force use several terms pertaining to “operations” (e.g. sea control operations, countersea, counterair, counterland, etc.) neither service uses the joint definition of a “major operation” as the principal method of combat forces’ employment to accomplish an operational objective. Instead, their focus is largely on destroying or neutralizing targets.

More fundamentally, the Air Force contends that “maritime domain” does not include the airspace above the water. A transparent attempt to reinforce its claims on the principal role in the struggle for air superiority over both land and water, this contention is not only illogical, but undermines the Navy’s ability to obtain, maintain or deny sea control in the littorals.

Struggle for sea control in a war with a strong opponent would encompass highly intensive and closely related actions of maritime forces and forces of other services for control of the surface, subsurface, and the associated airspace. Hence, the optimal solution is to give the joint force maritime component commander (JFMCC) full responsibility for planning and execution of all combat actions in maritime domain.

Confusion Over Terms

A U.S. joint force commander (JFC), who has the main authority and responsibility for employing U.S. combat forces, may delegate his or her authority to functional component commanders to “integrate planning, reduce the span of control, and significantly improve combat efficiency, information flow, unity of effort, weapons systems management, component interaction or control over the scheme of maneuver,” according to Joint Publication 3-32, “Command and Control for Joint Maritime Operations.” These subordinate commanders normally have operational control of forces assigned and tactical control of forces made available for tasking.

Once designated, says JP 3-32, the JFMCC becomes the focal point for planning and executing the maritime portion of the JFC’s campaign plan. The JFMCC may prepare a supporting operation plan that provides the intent, concept of operations, and supporting details; advise the JFC on “the apportionment of the joint maritime effort;” and designate target priority, effects, and times of fires.

So far, so good. But there are several errors in joint and Navy doctrine documents that confuse, rather than clarify, just what the JFMCC is supposed to do.

Take JP 3-32, which confuses two similar-sounding yet very different terms. It says that the JFMCC normally develops an “operational concept” for sea control, maritime power projections and projection of defense from sea to land, deterrence, strategic sealift, forward maritime presence, and sea basing operations. This is wrong. What JP 3-32 ought to say is “concept of operations” (CONOPS). A CONOPS is an elaboration of a specific course of action developed for a given time and situation and adopted as one of the most important parts of the commander’s decision. It is the key element for the subsequent development of an operation plan or operation order. Once the mission is accomplished, a new CONOPS is developed.

Properly developed, a maritime operational concept should explain in very broad terms the employment of several naval combat arms and combat arms of other services to accomplish an operational (or partial strategic) objective, such as sea control or seizing the lodgment on the enemy’s shore. A sound service or joint doctrine revolves around a single or several operational concepts. And doctrine, in turn, affects the quality of combat training and planning. Normally developed and tested in peacetime, an operational concept should not be related to any particular mission, specific enemy or area. A good example is the Air-Sea Battle concept, currently under development primarily by the Navy and Air Force.

In short, the Navy develops operational concepts; a JFMCC develops concepts of operations. The lack of understanding of the true meanings and purpose of operational concepts and CONOPS cannot but hurt their application in practice.

Major Operation

Similar confusion exists regarding the term “major operation.” Army and joint doctrine recognize a major operation as one of the methods of combat employment of U.S. forces; Navy and Air Force doctrine do not. Moreover, the joint and Army documents say a major operation is intended to accomplish strategic or operational objectives in an operational area. This is simply wrong.

Only a campaign, not a major operation, is intended to accomplish a single strategic objective in a theater. And that t objective is accomplished through several intermediate or operational objectives, each of which requires planning and execution of a major operation (land, air, naval) plus many related tactical actions.

In a maritime context, a major/joint naval operation is normally aimed to accomplish a single operational (or sometimes, a partially strategic) objective. Planned and executed by a single commander, it consists of a series of related tactical actions (attacks, strikes, raids, engagements, battles) conducted on the surface, subsurface, and in the air. It should be planned and executed in accordance to a common idea (scheme), thereby ensuring that all tactical actions relate to each other and are conducted within a given operational framework. Properly constructed, it should allow the commander to obtain and maintain the initiative and greatly restrict the enemy’s freedom of action.

Yet neither Navy nor joint doctrine make clear that the main combat responsibility of the maritime operational commander is to plan and execute major naval/joint operations as a part of the JFC’s campaign plan.

Instead, Navy and joint doctrines use the term “sea control operation,” defined in 2010’s Naval Doctrine Publication 1 (NDP-1) and cited in JP 1-02 as “the employment of naval forces, supported by land, air, and other forces as appropriate, in order to achieve military objectives in a vital sea area.” Such objectives, NDP-1 goes on to say, include the “destruction of enemy naval forces, suppression of enemy sea commerce, protection of vital sea lanes, and establishment of local military superiority in area of naval operations.” This definition is too broad and imprecise, and it does not specify the scale of the ultimate objective to be accomplished. Each of these objectives would normally require planning and execution of a major naval/joint operation.

Maritime AO vs. the Theater

Generally, the larger the military objective, the larger and more diverse the forces that must be employed. And these, in turn, must have sufficient space to allow for deployment, combat employment, and redeployment of one’s forces.

In U.S. doctrine, as laid out in the Maritime Component Commander Guidebook, the JFC will normally designate a maritime area of operations (AO), which may include air, land, and sea areas yet does not necessarily encompass the entire littoral. Yet joint doctrine is not much of help to the planners because it provides only a very broad description of the requirements for determining the size of an AO. For example, JP 3-32 says that the AO should be large enough to allow movement, maneuver and employment of weapons; other force projection and inherent war fighting capabilities; and operational depth for required logistics and force protection. But it can be difficult to properly set the boundaries. On March 8, 2011, a joint operating area was established in preparation for Operation Odyssey Dawn, the U.S./NATO humanitarian intervention. The area, which aimed to satisfy requirements for non-combatant evacuation operations, were focused exclusively on Libya and did not include sea area adjacent to Tunisia and Egypt. In use, the area proved adequate neither for those operations nor for providing humanitarian assistance nor for utilizing aircraft carriers. Subsequently, its boundaries were expanded to include most of the sea area between North Africa and Italy/Greece, plus waters off the coasts of Egypt and Tunisia.

Normally, most or all combat actions in a major naval/joint operation will be conducted within the maritime AO. However, the JFMCC would also plan and execute many naval/joint tactical actions in other parts of a given maritime theater. These actions would fall within a scope of a land campaign in the littorals or, in the case of a global war, a maritime campaign. Obviously, the area of responsibility for the JFMCC should be much larger than a maritime AO, as stipulated in the current doctrinal documents.

Who Owns the Airspace?

One increasingly contentious issue today is whether maritime domain encompasses associated airspace. This should not be a problem because it is widely accepted and understood that in purely physical terms, the maritime domain encompasses surface, subsurface and associated airspace plus a segment of the littoral area. As JP 3-32 and JP 1-02 put it, the maritime domain encompasses “the oceans, seas, bays, estuaries, islands, coastal areas, and airspace above these, including the littorals.” Even the Air Force’s “Countersea Operations” doctrine document accepts this definition.

But some airpower proponents arbitrarily (and illogically) claim that the maritime domain does not encompass airspace. Moreover, the 2005 National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD-4)/Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-13) omits airspace from its definition, using complicated language such as “all areas and things of, on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering on a sea, ocean or other navigable waters, including all maritime-related activities, infrastructure, people, cargo, and vessels and other conveyance.”

This is not a trivial matter. The Air Force’s argument to appropriate airspace is based purely on its desire to have an unquestioned role in the conduct of war in the air not only over land but also in the maritime domain as well.

Struggle for Sea Control

One of the most critical requirements for the success in struggle for sea control is sound planning, preparing and executing major naval/joint operations. This is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without having a full unity of command exercised by a JFMCC. Sea control can be described as the ability to use a given part of the sea/ocean and associated airspace for military and nonmilitary purposes in time of open hostilities. Despite the views of many in the Navy, sea control does not exist in peacetime but only in the time of open hostilities. In practice, various degrees of sea control exist. In terms of the factors of space, time, and force, sea control can be general and/or local, absolute or limited, and permanent or temporary. Sea control encompasses control of either only the surface, subsurface, and airspace or any combination these three physical dimensions. Control of each of these is inseparable from each other. For example, one’s carrier- and land-based aircraft are employed not only to obtain control of the air but also surface and to some extent also control of the (e.g. by destroying submarine bases, command posts, and related facilities or installations ashore). Struggle for control of the subsurface includes not only destroying or neutralizing the enemy’s submarines and mines, but also whatever surface combatants and aircraft are protecting the subs. One’s own submarines are used not only to control the subsurface but also the surface (by, say, attacking the enemy’s surface combatants) and to some extent, the air (e.g., SSNs armed with long-range land attack cruise missiles can suppress enemy ground-based air defenses). The degree of overall control of a given ocean/sea area depends on the degree of control of each of the three physical dimensions. Moreover, in the information era, control of the cyberspace has become one of the key prerequisites for the successful struggle for sea control.

The main objective of a weaker side at sea would be to deny control of the sea to a stronger opponent. Sea denial pertains to one’s ability to deny partially or completely the enemy’s use of the sea for military and commercial purposes. Disputed sea control occurs when the opposing sides possess roughly equal strength. It is characterized by an almost continuous struggle for obtaining control of a certain sea/ocean area. As in the case of sea control, various degrees of sea denial also exist. In some cases, the Navy could be forced temporarily to conduct sea denial in one maritime theater or even in one part of the same theater, while trying to obtain sea control in other part of the theater.

Supported vs. Supporting Commander

The joint doctrine differentiates between supported and supporting commanders. The JP 1-0 states that these relationships are established by the common higher commander at all levels of command. The designation of who would be the supported or supporting commander is one of the most important decisions made by the JFC. It conveys to the commanders and their staffs priorities in planning and execution of joint operations.

The current joint doctrine stipulates that normally the joint force air component commander (JFACC) is the component commander with the preponderance of forces and the ability to plan, task, and control joint air operations. The JFACC uses the joint operation planning process for air to develop a joint air operations plan that guides employment of air capabilities and forces. The JFACC provides guidance to the joint air operations center staff and ensures that planning occurs in a collaborative manner with other components.

The AFDD 3-04 “Countersea Operations” (2010) explains that the JFACC is the supported commander in the maritime domain “where airpower is providing the joint force commander’s intended effect or is the primary combat arm. It also clearly implies that the JFACC should not be a supported commander because that “dilutes the disproportionate effects airpower can have for the JFC.” It states that regardless of the support relationship, “Air Force forces are best utilized when employed by a single air component commander exercising control and decentralized execution of joint air operations.” However, the JFC should use different criteria than those stated in current doctrine in making a decision on support relationships between subordinate service or functional component commanders. The ultimate objective, not the size of forces, should the primary criteria in designating supported and supporting service/functional component commanders. The lack of focus on the objective also clearly violates one of the main tenets of operational art.

In determining which commander supports and which is supported, other factors should be considered too, specifically the threat, characteristics of the physical environment in which combat actions are conducted, and dynamics of combat. Like struggle for air superiority over land, struggle for sea control is a highly dynamic process that can undergo drastic changes during the hostilities at sea.

Among other things, sea control or sea denial is much more ambiguous and tenuous than control of some land area. Combat actions in war at sea encompass three physical dimensions, not two as in war on land. In a war with a relatively strong opponent, struggle for sea control (or sea denial) would encompass a large part of a given maritime theater. It would be fought on the surface, subsurface, and in the air. The changes in the tactical and operational situation, especially in the littorals, will be drastic and will occur often. To be successful, the JFMCC has to plan and execute major naval/joint operations and naval/joint tactical actions. This means that the objectives, not effects or targets, must dominate the planning process. The Navy needs to abandon its obsession with a targeteering approach to warfare, in which the targets are selected first and then almost as an afterthought the objectives are determined. Instead, the most effective (and logical) process is to determine the objectives first, followed by determination of the main and component (or partial) tasks, target sets, and finally, individual targets. The accomplishment of the subordinate tasks not effects achieved or targets destroyed/neutralized should be used to measure progress toward achieving the respective ultimate objective. Targeteering approach ignores operational art. It also almost invariably leads to “tacticization” of strategy.

The plan for a major naval/joint operation should be based on a CONOPS that provides for integrated employment of all assigned and attached forces to obtain desired control of the surface, subsurface, and the air. This also means that naval/joint operation cannot be successful if the JFMCC has the priority in planning actions for obtaining control of the surface and subsurface, while the JFACC leads the struggle for the control of the air. A JFACC may be also focused overly on the war over land or may lack necessary knowledge and understanding of naval warfare.

The JFACC should be a supported commander when the enemy’s anti-access/area denial capabilities are predominantly non-naval (e.g. land-based air, tactical ballistic missiles, ground forces). The JFACC should also have the leading role as the airspace control authority/area air defense commander, while the JFMCC could be designated as the regional air defense commander/sector air defense commander. This is especially the case in planning and executing integrated air and missile defense, as explored by Michelle Kemp in her 2010 “Unity of Effort: How Can the JFMCC Best Support the JFACC in Integrated Air and Missile Defense.” Designating the JFACC as supported commander might not matter very much in operations short of war such as NEO, humanitarian interventions or support of counterinsurgency. In such operations naval combat normally does not encompass struggle for the control of all three physical dimensions. For example, in operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector, the main focus was on establishing and maintaining no-fly zone, while maritime forces prepared for NEOs and enforcing an arms embargo.


The words matter. Various operational terms should be properly defined in service/joint doctrine. Their true meaning should be understood by all commanders and their staffs; otherwise, the application of doctrine in combat can result in poor operational planning and execution, confused command relationships, and unhealthy rivalries within a service and among services.

The lack of understanding of the true meanings and purpose of operational concepts and CONOPS cannot but hurt their application in practice. A sound service/joint doctrine revolves around a single or several operational concepts. And doctrine, in turn, affects the quality of combat training and planning.

The Navy needs to finally come on board and recognize, as the Army did, the need to plan and execute major naval/joint operations as the principal method of the employment of its forces to accomplish operational objectives in a war at sea. The Navy should not equate the operational level of command with the operational level of war. They are related but not necessarily the same thing. Consequently the Navy should abandon its focus on “strike warfare” and fully adopt tenets of operational art; otherwise, it might find itself unprepared to win a war at against relatively strong but resourceful enemy.

The joint doctrine should define more precisely a maritime AO. It also needs to provide a much better guidance on how to determine its boundaries. The question of whether maritime domain encompasses airspace should be settled. The Air Force claims should be simply rejected.

In a war between two strong opponents, the tactical and operational situation on the surface, subsurface, and in the air would change rather rapidly. This would require, in turn, making new decisions quickly. Hence, the absolute need to have a single commander with responsibility to employ not only maritime but also supporting forces of other services.

Experience shows that unity of effort through cooperation is often ineffective and can lead to serious setbacks or even defeat in war at sea. Obtaining and maintaining (or denying) sea control requires a single commander to plan and execute major naval/joint operations. And this should be the responsibility of a JFMCC, not a JFACC. That responsibility should not be shared between two commanders.

Milan Vego is a professor of operations in the Joint Military Operations Department at the Naval War College. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Navy or Defense Department.