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Tackling Hybrid War With Today's Navy

For a moment, at this week’s Surface Navy Association conference, I thought I was sitting in some Army symposium, circa 2007. From the podium in a dimly-lit hotel basement came familiar calls from flag officers for a force capable of “full spectrum dominance,” for leaders who are “flexible and adaptable” so they best asymmetric opponents and repeated references to the future enemy archetype Hezbollah.

The Navy has discovered “hybrid war,” what Adm. John Harvey, commander of Fleet Forces Command, called a “convergence in time and space” of multiple forms of warfare, running from low-end irregular to high-end conventional. Borrowing from hybrid war’s intellectual guru, Frank Hoffman, who as it so happens now works for the Navy department, Harvey said hybrid wars blend weapon lethality previously available only to nation states with the fanaticism and protracted fervor of irregular war.

How does the Navy plan to fight in this hybrid war era? With adaptability and creative thinking, Harvey said. His message was you go to hybrid war with the Navy you have. In the hybrid era, warfare will demand creative and innovative thinkers who can take existing fighting ships and use them in novel ways.

“Far more important than what we build is how we think,” he said, “we have to figure out how to best use what we have now… instead of worrying about whether an Arleigh Burke destroyer is a conventional, irregular or hybrid warfare platform... [It’s] what I have now and it’s what I’m going to have for a very long time.” The same destroyer that can shoot down a ballistic missile, can, with a little help from a deployed SEAL team, take down a group of Somali pirates, he said.

As the director of the Navy’s surface warfare division, RADM Frank Pandolfe, put it, much of the future fleet is in the water today, so the service must modernize and adapt what’s already afloat to deal with new maritime threats. He was quick to point out that hybrid war does not only encompass conflict at the low end of the conflict spectrum; rather, it occurs anywhere along the spectrum.

Pandolfe then launched into a discussion of the surface fleet’s various platforms best suited for dealing with what the QDR team has labeled the HEAT (High-End Asymmetric Threats) challenge: ballistic and cruise missiles, super stealthy diesel electric submarines and the like.

The Navy is building new missiles, a beefed up SM-3 and the new SM-6, to shoot down incoming ballistic and cruise missiles at greater distances; both are due to enter AEGIS equipped warship arsenals around 2012. To seek out stealthy submarines in the littorals, the Navy is outfitting its surface ships with next-gen sonar and putting a better sonar dippers on its MH-60 naval helicopters.

The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is the right tool to deal with threats at the low end, in the irregular warfare realm, said Pandolfe. Also, the Joint High Speed Vessel, which he called a “truck,” purchased for intra-theater supply, will prove useful for port visits and engagement with maritime nations.

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