U.S. Navy 7th Fleet Serves as Transformation Bow Wave

December 2002
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Pacific-based fleet offers a microcosm of U.S. Navy technology and capability issues.

The U.S. Navy 7th Fleet is incorporating new technologies for joint and combined exercises and operations that lie at the very heart of the Navy’s transformation efforts. The Japan-based fleet often finds itself serving as a floating testbed for new network-centric warfare concepts as it carries out its daily missions in the Pacific and Indian oceans while simultaneously supporting the war on terrorism.

Vice Adm. Robert F. Willard, USN, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, offers that the 7th Fleet is central to the transformation that is sweeping the U.S. military. This is because the command features assigned forward-deployed naval forces permanently stationed in the area, including a carrier battle group and an amphibious ready group. Along with a laydown of joint forces forward, the 7th Fleet is positioned to support transformational efforts, Adm. Willard states.

“We think we are uniquely suited to support transformation. There is a great deal of focus and excitement out here that we are helping to change the way the Navy is going to fight in the future, and the way joint forces are going to fight in the future—and, I hope the way our coalition forces are going to fight in the future,” he adds.

“So we in the 7th Fleet are in the midst of it all.”

The fleet’s area of responsibility extends from the international date line to along the boundaries of the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, down to and including Africa and ending at Antarctica. In addition to managing operations throughout the fleet’s area of responsibility, the 7th Fleet commander also may function as a joint task force commander or a maritime component commander for a joint task force, as assigned by the Pacific Command commander. This may include the role of naval component commander in any Korean contingency.

The fleet does not conduct operations in its area that are not joint and combined, Adm. Willard emphasizes. Virtually all fleet activities involve other U.S. services and coalition partners throughout the western Pacific region. “As a testbed for transformation, the 7th Fleet activities in the form of our exercises and day-to-day operations are uniquely suited to these transformational efforts,” he says.

Next year, the fleet is participating in the tandem thrust exercise. Adm. Willard offers that this event regularly certifies him as a joint task force commander. Next year’s exercise will serve as a vehicle for the next major Navy fleet battle experiment, Kilo, and several major transformational concepts will be tested in tandem thrust, he adds.

The admiral explains that the Navy’s transformation concept features four major increments: Sea Basing, Sea Shield, Sea Strike and a Sea Trial process. Supporting each of these increments is a layering of technologies suited to each concept.

The 7th Fleet’s command ship, the USS Blue Ridge, has received several new technologies that support the Navy’s transformation. For the Sea Shield concept, the Blue Ridge has received the Area Air Defense Commander system. Describing it as “a very powerful and unique planning and execution module set,” the admiral explains that it provides an air defense and theater missile defense capability on the flagship.

For Sea Strike, the Blue Ridge has received Naval Fires Network technology. In addition to Navy command ships, this technology also is being installed on aircraft carriers and large amphibious assault ships. This system provides a capability to compile input from a variety of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors to enable accurate target location and identification. This is especially useful for time-critical targeting, which proved its worth with the use of precision-guided strike munitions in Afghanistan.

The role the Blue Ridge plays in supporting an afloat joint task force addresses Sea Basing, the admiral continues. The ship already includes the necessary technologies for establishing a joint force air component commander element afloat, along with the flexibilities to fully support an afloat joint task force. “When you talk about the unique role the Navy plays in terms of access restrictions in areas where joint warfighting might occur, the capabilities of Blue Ridge provide not only a laydown capability for the joint force command headquarters, but also very powerful communications technologies that allow for reach-back to other command elements,” he emphasizes.

The Navy’s IT-21 program has dramatically affected the 7th Fleet, Adm. Willard states. The ship-to-ship commonality, along with the backbone that provides more information flow among maritime forces, has produced significant change.

Not only does the fleet benefit from IT-21, it continues to expand on it, the admiral says. Communications pipes continue to increase in capacity. With this enhanced capability, the fleet is focusing more on pushing information from the top down rather than from the bottom up. “Right now, we are really focused on ensuring that the smallest ship in the battle group or the aircraft forward—the on-scene commanders in our warfighting operations—are recipients of what the larger command structures in command and control can provide,” he declares. “So, we are focused on a top-down level of effort to ensure that all those ships are well-equipped.

“We have great capacity at the component commander or senior operational command level,” the admiral continues. “When we step down to the smallest unit within the battlegroup, the question you would ask is, ‘Is he the recipient of the same relevant information that those upper level echelons of command and control are?’ The answer is no. Generally, their bandwidth is smaller, their command centers tend to be less capable both in breadth and depth. … In the context of network-centric warfare and future concepts of warfare that constitute our current transformation efforts, getting all of the relevant information that commander needs into his command center is what we are after.”

Adm. Willard relates that IT-21 has helped achieve that goal—to an extent. The future, however, will involve increasing the small-unit commander’s network capability and capacity to ensure speed, breadth and accuracy of information delivered to that on-scene commander.

While the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) does not yet reach into the 7th Fleet’s area of responsibility, the fleet will be a secondary beneficiary. The availability of the tools that come with NMCI, coupled with its high level of assurance, will enhance the efficiency of the fleet’s information flow, the admiral offers. NMCI will allow the Navy to shed many legacy applications that “have seen their day,” he adds, and this will force the service to adapt to a change-management mindset. This will entail focusing on more advanced techniques of information exchange and force management.

It also will enhance the fleet’s capacity for reach-back. “When we talk about what makes reach-back effective, certainly reliability and information security are main issues,” the admiral explains. “NMCI brings that level of security and operational assurance into the game, so it will undoubtedly assist in reach-back.”

Web-based architectures that provide for collaboration and real-time communication are critically important to the way the fleet will conduct command and control operations, now and in the future, the admiral states. As part of the transformation effort, the fleet will be attempting to adapt these technologies to an unprecedented degree within the construct of a joint force command headquarters in upcoming operations.

“We can talk about how the smaller units in our Navy need more reliable and larger volumes of information available, but in many applications now, bandwidth management is more important than just gross bandwidth applications,” he says. “The type of information exchange that we are evolving to manages bandwidth better and provides information in a more relevant and more collaborative manner. The ability to get the right force commanders together on a particular warfighting subject, and the ability of them to speed the exchange of information, takes us where we want to go in future warfighting in terms of our ability to be more responsive, more adaptive and more effective in the fight.

“Those collaboration tools are really our next step,” he continues. “And, it’s not a next step for which we are awaiting technology. Rather, it involves technologies that we have at hand that we are attempting to adapt to that particular role.”

Not all information technologies enter service seamlessly. One of the 7th Fleet’s areas of focus involves managing the techniques for commanding and controlling forces up and down the chain of command. One snag that the fleet has faced is the acquisition of technologies that are adaptable but were not driven by a specific command and control environment. Ideally, the admiral maintains, the command and control techniques that need to be used would drive the applications that the Navy receives. Instead, the service finds itself adapting available technologies to command and control techniques that are just now being formulated. Some of these techniques are being formulated to the transformational goal.

The challenge involves “aligning command and control with the technologies that are on hand, and both are in evolution in parallel,” Adm. Willard explains. “We are reaching across and grabbing technologies and adapting them to the changing way in which we are doing our business, rather than having the process established and the technology crafted to meet our requirements.

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he continues. “In a way, it is indicative of how fast technology is moving and how fast the military is evolving. We have been successful in adapting the new technologies to our requirements, but it is a challenge,” the admiral warrants.

The key for private industry to serve the fleet’s information technology requirements is an in-depth understanding of how it does business, Adm. Willard offers. Industry tries hard to assimilate this need, but the forward-deployed 7th Fleet is moving aggressively with transformational exercises and ideas. The ability of industry to keep up with the fleet’s insights into where it is going and how it will do business in the future is a tremendous challenge for the private sector, the admiral contends.

“It is not necessarily private industry that is advancing our transformation concepts,” he notes. “We know where we are going, and we are going there really fast, and industry needs to keep up. In order to keep up, we—the Navy and industry—need to be in continuous dialogue so that we know exactly the track we are headed on and can adapt to one another along the way.

“Industry needs to think how it can make its technologies adaptable to a military that wants to be able to redirect its combat power at will—and sometimes in very short order—to leverage the advantage of speed of maneuver and to stay inside the enemy’s timeline. That would be the challenge, because that is one of the major factors that I am wrestling with right now,” Adm. Willard declares.

The 7th Fleet’s joint and coalition activities place interoperability at the top of its list of requisites. The admiral states that the fleet spends more time in exercises alongside a variety of nations, throughout the western Pacific and Indian oceans, than any other fleet. The 7th Fleet conducts bilateral as well as multilateral coalition exercises, and it has established standard operating procedures with its coalition partners. These processes permit a degree of interoperability in tactics, techniques and procedures.

In addition, the fleet incorporates various networks such as Coalition Wide Area Network–Korea, Coalition Wide Area Network–Japan and Coalition Wide Area Network–Australia. These networks permit the fleet to communicate at a classified level and exchange common operating pictures with its coalition partners, the admiral relates.

“If we have a challenge right now, it is our ability to bring those technologies together in multilateral coalitions and strap everyone together, given releasability constraints that exist, country to country,” the admiral says. “It is generally pretty easy for the United States to interoperate with our coalition counterparts. It is much more challenging for the coalition partners to interoperate with one another when in a multilateral operation with the United States,” he observes.

The U.S. Pacific Command is attempting to advance the breadth and depth of interoperability with coalition partners through expansion of the coalition wide area network systems, Adm. Willard continues. Along with increased efficiencies, these systems would be adapted better for multilateral operations. The global war on terrorism has provided some increased impetus for this effort, as several coalitions had to be joined in the 5th Fleet area of operations in the U.S. Central Command. The Navy is installing the new coalition wide area network technology in every battlegroup that deploys from the West Coast of the United States, he adds.

The war on terrorism has been a springboard for establishing a sense of urgency for new technology insertion, the admiral asserts. It also has been a driving force for the Navy to interact with its coalition counterparts by encouraging them to invest in the technologies that they need to become part of the coalition. These partners are doing just that, he adds.

At the onset of operation Enduring Freedom, the 7th Fleet’s USS Kitty Hawk participated in combat operations in Afghanistan as an afloat forward staging base embarking special operations forces. In addition, the carrier’s battle group assets were deployed to Diego Garcia, the Straits of Molucca and Guam to provide air defense and escort capabilities. Many of those same forces remain on a prepare-to-deploy order if needed.

Additionally, a joint task force conducted antiterrorism training and operations for the Republic of the Philippines (SIGNAL, November, page 17). Adm. Willard relates that 7th Fleet elements, mainly air assets, assisted in those operations. Fleet assets provide a degree of surveillance support to continued operations in the Philippines, he adds.