Distributed maritime operations has not been properly explained at the tactical level. Nature offers a practical example.

There is robust and ongoing debate on expeditionary advanced basing operations and how the concept will affect future Marine Corps operations. There is far less debate regarding the Navy’s proposed warfighting concept of distributed maritime operations (DMO). To date, the service has not distributed its vision for DMO throughout the fleet. If commanding officers are expected to execute this concept in great power conflict, the technical, tactical, and cognitive challenges inherent to DMO must be identified, debated, and mitigated.

Distributed Maritime Operations

The Navy first presented DMO for broad consideration in Chief of Naval Operations John M. Richardson’s A Design for Maintaining Maritime Security (Version 2.0) in 2018, though the concept is informed by earlier warfighting frameworks such as netcentric warfare and distributed lethality.1 Subsequent documents provided visual models at the fleet level and offered little information to individual tactical commanders. These depictions focus on the high degree of connectivity required for the concept to function, if only through the static lines of connection among sensors, platforms, and command and control elements.2

Focusing on how a new model of fleet employment “looks” at the operational level of war and on its technical requirements is rational and understandable. DMO requires command-and-control and data sharing across disparate platforms and sensors to build a common operational picture.3 Developing the technical architecture to execute these concepts will not be upwardly scalable from individual tactical platforms. Establishing platform-agnostic communications, command-and-control, and fire-control networks requires a high level of purpose-built, forcewide connectivity and interoperability.

Modern Challenges

Though daunting, DMO’s technical challenges pale in comparison with those faced by commanders in understanding, much less applying, the information they receive.4 Throughout history, commanders have faced the challenge of making decisions with inadequate information. Modern conflict may present commanders with the opposite challenge: making decisions with too much information.

Information overload is not a modern phenomenon, with most historians identifying Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press as its first modern manifestation.5 The resulting explosion of available books overwhelmed 15th-century scholars.6 Similarly, an avalanche of platform, sensor, and weapon data will overwhelm the 21st-century commander.

Somewhat counterintuitively, a different emerging technology may help. The Department of Defense is pursuing artificial intelligence (AI) to improve military decision-making.7 However, the Navy struggles with incorporating AI into its acquisition processes and cyber infrastructure and fielding a force ready to develop and employ AI.8 Further, the Navy must address a more immediate technical challenge: Information needs to reliably reach operational decision-makers.

The United States should expect China to fight across the entire electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). Although the EMS is often considered distinct from the physical domains (land, sea, and air), basic tenets of theater geometry apply; forces (or signals) operating farther from their own base of operations (or source of transmission) operate at a disadvantage.9 Longer lines of communication increase the risk of interference from enemy action, generate an increased requirement in resources devoted for protection, and decrease the forces and time available for offensive action. The vast expanses of the Pacific make protecting and restoring U.S. access to required portions of the EMS an enormous challenge. Access will never be ensured or uncontested.10


The USS Barry (DDG-52) approaches the USNS Rappahannock (T-AO 204) during an underway replenishment. Challenges with visualizing dynamic concepts such as Distributed Maritime Operations make it difficult to implement. Thankfully, nature provides examples to draw from. U.S. Navy (Greg Johnson)

The technical vulnerabilities within DMO are easily identifiable. DMO creates a more insidious cognitive vulnerability for tactical commanders. Both the U.S. Navy and its Royal Navy forebear historically have pursued improved communication technologies to make command and control more effective. Both navies displayed decreased initiative and increased decision paralysis in the wake of their introduction, whether at Jutland in 1916 or First Battle of Savo Island in 1942.11 Tactical commanders in both actions failed to exercise initiative when faced with limited information because they believed, in part, that their seniors possessed superior information. There is little history to suggest that today’s DMO concept would provide a significantly different result.

Focusing the underlying concepts of DMO (disaggregation of forces and distribution of sensor/weapon data) at the tactical level of war mitigates technical and decision-making vulnerabilities at the operational level.12 It shortens EMS lines of communication and focuses technical efforts toward distribution of sensor/weapon data among platforms at tactically relevant distances. It reduces reliance on the space-based communications and the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) that likely will be heavily targeted by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (just as they are currently being targeted by the Russians in the Ukraine conflict).13 It accepts that significant information gaps persist. Most important, it prepares afloat commanders to execute in the absence of further guidance from senior leaders. Admiral Ernest J. King emphasized human initiative and radio silence in War Instructions United States Navy 1944.14 Both are equally valid today.

Visual Mental Model

Tactical DMO still requires a visual mental model, and three separate issues make building one difficult. The first may come down to which definition of “distributed” comes more immediately to mind: shared or spread out? Multiple tactical platforms operating at great distances (the spread-out component) precludes useful representation or even cognition. Cognitive psychologist George A. Miller believed that most humans are limited to processing roughly seven chunks of interacting pieces of information at one time.15 Recoding that information increases the number of discrete pieces of information available for processing; decision-makers recode four destroyers, two cruisers, and an aircraft carrier as a carrier strike group. This process is harder with nonaggregated platforms that lack clear points of connection.

The second obstacle to visualization is that static representations of a dynamic concept are ineffective. Finally, absent a specified objective, the relationship between platforms and sensors is meaningless. How, then, should the Navy provide tactical leaders with a visual model of DMO?

Nature provides a potentially useful model. A “murmuration” of starlings, unlike the relatively static “v formations” of migrating geese, is exceptionally dynamic and simultaneously coherent.16 A murmuration concentrates for brief moments before reorienting, extending itself along new axes, collapsing and extending again.

In 2013, Princeton mechanical engineer Naomi Leonard studied hundreds of hours of starling footage and mechanical modeling to determine how murmuration worked.17 Leonard’s research concluded that the apparently mass formation of starlings is actually an aggregate of multiple smaller, local formations.18 Subsequent research has determined that each local formation is concerned only with three variables:

1. An attraction zone: In this area, starlings will fly closer to a member of their formation.

2. A repulsion zone: In this area, closer proximity will interfere with safe flight.

3. Angular relationship: Starlings approximate the flight path of the nearest member of the formation.19

Further, each starling’s seven closest neighbors define each local formation (Miller’s limit of seven chunks of processible information apparently may not be limited to humanity).20 Finally, formation membership shifts continually throughout the flight; proximity is the sole determining criteria. The ideas of fluid, local formations and Leonard’s three parameters provide guidelines for picturing DMO execution at the tactical level. In a tactical engagement, distributed forces establish ad hoc, protean formations based on their relative proximity to the target or objective. They determine repulsion zones based on their vulnerability to detection. They determine attraction zones based on shared sensor coverage or weapon employment considerations.

In Figure1, frame 1, naval forces are at their widest distribution. They create opportunistic networks based on proximity, conduct organic scouting, and avoid detection. In frame 2, these forces receive tasking via mission-type orders during an opportunistic communication window or initiate the attack after organic detection of an enemy force. Forces flow toward the target or objective using the three variables discussed above. In frame 3, the closest proximate force establishes the general attack axis and time on target. Trailing and distant elements focus on covering and protecting the attacking element with weapons and sensors in the event of detection. After executing their attack, these forces return to wide distribution in frame 4 and report weapon effects and weapon expenditures during the next opportunistic communication window. In each frame, forces focus on the relative relationships between their own platforms and the closest relative platforms.

Executing DMO

Executing DMO at the tactical level will be complex. Any employment model established in peacetime requires significant adaptation during combat. Establishing ad hoc combat formations will require a remarkable amount of trust and cross-platform understanding. It is significantly more mentally taxing; there is no fixed criteria for being “in-position” within the formation. Commanders must assess proximity among forces and their individual and collective relationship to enemy threats without full access to the EMS. Further, platforms employed against a tactical target of opportunity may detract from a larger operational objective. Operational commanders may want centralized command and control of these platforms and capabilities, but without guaranteed access to the EMS, centralizing DMO guarantees its failure.

The advanced ISR capabilities both China and Russia’s field make disaggregation and cooperative engagements among platforms necessary. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, working with targeting data from advanced ISR systems, will fire medium-range ballistic missiles in numbers that will overwhelm U.S. Navy organic shipboard defensive capabilities.21 In response to this missile threat, U.S. and allied naval forces must disaggregate to prevent detection and destruction. These disaggregated forces still need to aggregate combat power and must be able to do so in a contested EMS. The Navy should pursue technical capabilities to make DMO lethal in execution. It also must pursue and establish a fleetwide understanding of what DMO means to tactical-level leaders.

Admiral King’s War Instructions

Admiral Ernest J. King published War Instructions United States Navy 1944 on 1 November 1944, after nearly three years of bitter fighting during World War II. It covers topics ranging from darkening individual ships to daytime engagements against enemy forces. It would be easy to dismiss King’s instructions as self-evident lessons learned through the expenditure of blood and treasure, but to do so would miss his emphasis on the human element and the particular importance of initiative in war.

Chapter 1, “The Human Element in Naval Strength,” cautions against placing “inordinate value” on material developments. “Material represents the means, but not the end. . . . It is the human element in warfare which may . . . prove to be the only way of converting an impossibility into a successful reality,” he writes. King highlights the importance of sound judgment and initiative in both leaders and subordinates and expands on that importance in chapter 2.

Indeed, throughout his career, King was remarkably consistent in emphasizing the human element in war, noting in his Atlantic Fleet policies while in command of the same:

Initiative of the subordinate shall be encouraged and employed to the end that it shall become universal in the exercise of command through the echelons of command of this Fleet, so that subordinates become habituated to think, judge, decide and to act for themselves.1

He discusses the same topic in a cautionary tone in CinCLant Serial 053, published on 21 January 1941. King expresses his concern “over the increasing tendency—now grown almost to ‘standard practice’—of flag officers and other group commanders to issue orders and instructions in which their subordinates are told ‘how’ as well as ‘what’ to do to,” to the detriment of disciplined initiative.2

King’s ability to capture both what to do with naval forces and why in War Instructions while avoiding the how is critical to today’s Navy. The service’s success in major combat operations against a peer adversary capable of denying or degrading access to the electromagnetic spectrum may rest heavily on the initiative of individual ships and sailors.

1. ADM Earnest J. King, USN, and Walter M. Whitehill, Fleet Admiral King: A Naval Record (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1952).

2. ADM Earnest J. King, USN, CINCLANT Serial 053 of 21 January 1941, “Exercise of Command—Excess of Detail in Orders and Instructions.”

1. Kevin Eyer and Steve McJessy, “Operating Distributed Maritime Operations,” CIMSEC, 5 March 2019; and ADM John Richardson, USN, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0, 17 December 2018.

2. Dmitry Filipoff, “How the Fleet Forgot to Fight, Pt. 3: Tactics and Doctrine,” CIMSEC, 1 October 2018.

3. John R. Hoehn, Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2), Congressional Research Service, 18 March 2021, crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF11493/13.

4. “Chunking” is the process of grouping individual pieces of information into a meaningful larger unit. See “Chunking” by Mind Tools Content Team.

5. Ann Blair, “Information Overload, the Early Years,” Boston Globe, 28 November 2010.

6. Blair, “Information Overload, the Early Years.”

7. Karla Lant, “China, Russia, and the U.S. Are in an Artificial Intelligence Arms Race,” Futurism, 12 September 2017.

8. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Artificial Intelligence: Status of Developing and Acquiring Capabilities for Weapon Systems,” Report to the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, February 2022.

9. Milan N. Vego, Joint Operational Warfare: Theory and Practice (Newport: RI: U.S. Naval War College, 2007), IV–55.

10. Shaun Waterman, “Probing the Fragility of JADC2,” AFCEA Signal, August 2021.

11. CAPT Tom Clarity, USN, “Hardware, Not Humans: The U.S. Navy’s History of Technology and Micro-Management,” Small Wars Journal, 26 May 2015.

12. Edward Lundquist, “DMO is Navy’s Operational Approach to Winning the High-end Fight at Sea,” Seapower Magazine, 2 February 2021.

13. Benjamin J. Sacks, “Why the BBC World Service’s New Ukraine Shortwave Service Matters,” The RAND Blog, 25 March 2022.

14. ADM Earnest J. King, USN, War Instructions United States Navy 1944, Naval History and Heritage Command, 9 October 2018.

15. Thomas L. Saaty and Müjgan Sagir Ozdemir, “Why the Magic Number Seven Plus or Minus Two,” Mathematical and Computer Modelling 38, issues 3–4 (August 2003): 233–44.

16. Tom Langen, “Why Do Flocks of Birds Swoop and Swirl Together in the Sky? A Biologist Explains Murmurations,” The Conversation, 14 March 2022.

17. George F. Young, Luca Scardovi, Andrea Cavagna, Irene Giardina, and Naomi E. Leonard, “Starling Flock Networks Manage Uncertainty in Consensus at Low Cost,” PLOS Computational Biology, 31 January 2013.

18. John Donovan, “The Secrets and Science Behind Starling Murmurations,” HowStuffWorks.com, updated 30 March 2021.

19. Donovan, “The Secrets and Science Behind Starling Murmurations.”

20. Donovan.

21. “How Are China’s Land-based Conventional Missile Forces Evolving?” China Power, 21 September 2022.

Source: usni.org