How Foreign Military Capabilities Are Outpacing the U.S. Navy – Forward Observer Shop

How Foreign Military Capabilities Are Outpacing the U.S. Navy

As Chinese and Russian military strategies focus on cutting the technological edge of the U.S. military through asymmetric attacks, Defense Department officials are concerned about the devastating impacts that electronic and cyber warfare could create for the U.S. Navy.  The ability to manipulate communications, propulsion or weapons systems of a ship through a cyber or electronic attack is a low-cost, low-risk alternative to fighting it conventionally, and it’s this vulnerability that potential adversaries seek to exploit.  Through a few strokes of the keyboard, a foreign adversary might be able to cripple an entire naval fleet.

In 2013, the Navy published Justification and Approval Document Number 1312, requesting that a no-compete contract be awarded for an urgent electronic warfare (EW) need.  According to the document, the EW upgrade was a “Chief of Naval Operations priority effect due to a newly discovered threat and the need to provide a protective capability to naval ships and their crews in a critically short timeframe.”

“Maritime cyber-attacks are no longer the stuff of science fiction. They are happening now, and the threats are growing,” according to Professor Fred Roberts, head of the Command, Control and Interoperability Center for Advanced Data Analysis, a research arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

“We’ve got to pay a whole lot of attention to this,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in May.  “Cyber is in everything now. It’s not just weapons systems. It’s in every system because we are so networked.

One way the the U.S. Navy is trying to prepare for a possible attack on its guidance or navigation systems is by recently instating a short course in celestial navigation — navigating by stars — for its academy cadets. The Navy dropped the course 15 years ago with the rise of computer and GPS satellite driven navigation.  As foreign government nations launch state-sponsored attacks against U.S. defense assets and rogue non-state actors gain the ability to launch attacks against advanced U.S. technologies, officials are understanding that they need to counter or prepare for the inevitable day a foreign adversary might take out their critical infrastructure.

Reverting back to sextants and stars to navigate may be a step back in technology, but the sextant doesn’t have a operating system that can be penetrated.  While GPS does provide more accurate location information on the high seas, it’s so vulnerable that if the GPS satellite network stopped functioning or a missile destroyed these satellites, then the majority of current naval navigators would have no idea how to steer a ship using celestial navigation.  The tried and true methods used by sailors and explores for thousands of years has been lost with the current generation of naval personnel in 21st century technology.

However, with countries like China and Russia having the capability to use ballistic missiles to attack satellites, or conduct cyber attacks against defense infrastructure, officials are preparing for contingency plans should a ship’s system go down.  China demonstrated its anti-satellite capability in 2007, and again conducted a anti-satellite test in July 2015.  In both instances the tests proved the Chinese have the ability to knock out communications or GPS satellites leaving the U.S. military without command and control 0f most of its equipment.

[blockquote style=”3″]In both instances the tests proved the Chinese have the ability to knock out communications or GPS satellites, leaving the U.S. military without command and control 0f most of its equipment.[/blockquote]

China has many offensive military capabilities in its arsenal like ground-based lasers and jamming of satellite signals.  Chinese military doctrine includes the use these methods to counter the U.S. military’s use of it’s 4th dimension of space.  Currently the U.S. military dominates the space dimension to control the skies and the atmosphere with its satellites and vast Command , Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) assets.

Analyst Comment:  While it’s good that the Navy is teaching its next officers a back-up method to navigate, the celestial navigation course is only a three hour block of instruction out of a four year cadet-to-officer program.  Students are also taking cyber classes to learn ship’s vulnerabilities to electronic attacks and what to do should a cyber attack occur.   The Navy still needs to train its next generation of captains in additional methods of navigation that does not rely solely on GPS or computer technology.  Having skills to navigate and operate ships or other military equipment  without an over-dependence on electronics will be a valuable asset at any individual’s disposal.

Russia’s Navy is minuscule compared to the U.S. Navy, with mostly relics of the Cold War in its fleet, and the Chinese are trying to play catch up as a world power with their naval assets.  But both foreign militaries are aware of U.S. vulnerabilities of its communications, propulsion and weapons systems.  A recent Congressional Report focused on the Chinese naval build up, and raises serious questions whether the “U.S. Navy in coming years will be large enough and capable enough to adequately counter improved Chinese maritime forces while also adequately performing other missions around the world.”  It also questioned whether “the Navy can effectively counter Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) and submarines.

The United States is no longer the unipolar power in the world, but must contend with foreign militaries or governments willing to spend large sums of money and conduct state-sponsored industrial espionage to outpace the partisan politics that filter through Defense Department budgets. The easiest way for any enemy to decimate U.S. forces is through electronic or cyber warfare and asymmetric attacks. These are cost effective methods and could produce devastating results even in a nuclear powered vessel.  The U.S. Navy must remain on a trajectory that keeps it from scrambling to counter possible maritime cyber-attacks, and prevent them all together.

China People's Liberation Army (PLA(N)) and Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE) 2015 Recognition and Identification Guide
China People’s Liberation Army (PLA(N)) and Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE) 2015 Recognition and Identification Guide


United States Navy Combat Logistic Force and Special Mission Ships
United States Navy Combat Logistic Force and Special Mission Ships


Alex is is a former Army and Intelligence analyst with a tour in Iraq and has been in the intelligence community for over a decade focusing on Open Source Intelligence, Counterintelligence and Russian intelligence. He has nearly two decades experience in writing and assessing national security and international affairs. He spends his time in the mountain west.

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