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Thursday Warriors: Is it time to re-think Royal Navy training?

In a slight departure from the normal format of Wavell Room articles, here we present four separate short thought pieces that all have a common thread: is the way the Royal Navy trains – be it tactics, doctrine, or the practicalities of hunting C21st submarines – still fit for purpose? In an age where those of us in the Royal Navy and our sister Services are being encouraged to engage in ‘courageous challenge’ of our processes, doctrine and even occasionally our superiors, the following articles are intended to spark and stimulate debate on that most crucial attribute: how to fight and win.

  • Royal Navy Surface Warfare Training Is Too Defensive
  • We Don’t Talk (Tactics) Any More
  • Is Royal Navy Anti Submarine Warfare Training Out Of Date?
  • Our Doctrine Needs To Be Shorter

1. Royal Navy surface warfare training is too defensive

We train our ships to fight defensively, which is good for sub-team training, but sets us up to lose the next war by inculcating defensive tactical instincts. 

BrahMos missile firing, CC BY 2.5,
If the enemy fires first, the Task Group will not look ‘PHOTEX-perfect’ for long…

We’ve all seen it: whether doing a Weekly War South of Plymouth or practising in the simulators of Maritime Composite Training System the Royal Navy’s ships are sat in the middle of a bowl with the enemy launching attacks against them from all directions.  This has many advantages in delivering useful sub-team training.  If the exercise planners know where the ships are due to be it is much easier to plan the attacks they must face and so efficiently exercise standard operating procedures and tease out first-day-of-the-war Rules of Engagement issues.  Our training in this is excellent.

Routine FOST training revolves around protection of the High Value Unit: where is the offensive spirit?

The problem is that this training comes at the expense of teaching us the wrong tactical lessons, for how we practice in peacetime helps to determine what we do under stress in war and in naval warfare acting defensively is to invite defeat.  Warships and aircraft are eggshells armed with hammers.  Some of the enemy attacks will get through, and modern weapons are destructive enough that a single hit can disable a ship, aircraft or submarine.  In naval combat today the side which fires effectively first will win.1 To achieve this we need to think and act aggressively, appearing unexpectedly and striking when the enemy is unprepared.  Sitting in the middle waiting to be attacked guarantees defeat.

The solution is not easy to find, for the sub-team training best enabled by defensive exercises is necessary for getting the fundamentals right, and we have little enough time to train anyway.  Leaving aggressive tactics to Joint Warrior exercises is insufficient, for most of the serials there are equally scripted, and anyway ships go there for only a few weeks each year, if at all.  Perhaps we should use the weekly war format when it will best support sub team training, such as when we are at Operational Sea Training in the Channel, and formats encouraging more aggression when the whole team is not present, for example  when in the simulators or on Principal Warfare Officer course.  Readers will have better ideas. 

But whatever the precise solution is we must understand that after decades of inculcating a defensive mindset we have some ground to make up.  Following lost opportunities in the First World War the RN spent the next twenty years inculcating aggression in its commanders such as by rewarding those who showed boldness in tactical games, even if it involved major risk-taking.  This paid handsome dividends in the Second World War.  Do we need to repeat this effort?

2. We don’t talk (tactics) any more

It is strange how little we talk about tactics today given that they enable the use of force to win battles, supposedly the Royal Navy’s prime aim, either directly or through the influence that such an ability enables.

Photo A 13855, used under the IWM Non Commercial Licence.

Officers examining models of enemy ships on the plotting table of the attack teacher, World War Two.

This isn’t to say that we never talk tactics, Clausewitz’ ‘use of armed forces in a battle’.  There are some who do, far more cogently than I can.  But the frequency of discussion in the wardrooms of the fleet, the pages of the Naval Review and elsewhere is much less than in the past.  There are several reasons.  First, to know tactics one must know technology,2 but modern weapon and sensor details are highly classified.  Next the modern battlefield with long weapon and sensor ranges, interlocked with events on land and the electromagnetic spectrum is hard to comprehend or scribble down on a single piece of paper, as our predecessors could when discussing tactics.  Thirdly our routine exercises off Plymouth are closely scripted so that the threat presentations for sub-team training can be made to work, at the cost of preventing people from trying out new ideas.  This is not to criticise the Weekly Wars, which are necessary and generally well delivered.  It’s just that they are not on their own sufficient.  Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, we have (or think we have) many other things to do, from the minutiae of a peacetime navy to operations which focus more on constabulary operations, defence engagement or counter insurgency than high end naval combat. 

Despite these problems, tactics remain vital.  We cannot use our forces well unless we understand the fundamentals as well as just apply standard operating procedures.  We will not experience the kingfisher moment, that spark of inspiration, or correctly use our intuition (which is largely just unconscious pattern recognition) unless we have trained our brains to recognise patterns and create and exploit opportunities above the sub-tactical level.

So how do we encourage the consideration of tactics today?  As a start we could explicitly reward originality in the plans we deliver as part of Operational Sea Training signal writing rather than just making the process one of avoiding mistakes.  Perhaps we could grade the signals such that only an idea the Operational Sea Training staff haven’t seen before can get above a SATISFACTORY?  Furthermore in some simulator based serials we could have the Principal Warfare Officer students or ships’ companies fight each other.  That way people would have the competitive reward of fighting a live enemy, who can’t see everything, rather than a control function manned by people with perfect knowledge.  Board and tactical floor wargames are also widely used by other navies.  The ones we do are detailed but rare; perhaps adding regular simple ones as part of the regular operational sea training battle-rhythm or hosted by flotillas would aid wider involvement.

We can also train people in how to talk about tactics.  Naval warfare comprises two or more systems fighting against each other, with each system comprising a combination of equipment and procedures.  Too wide a discussion can wander inconclusively.  Thus instead of discussing Anti-submarine warfare as a whole, in the first instance it is probably worth discussing a more restricted scenario such as how to best use three airborne helicopters and a single towed array frigate to defend a carrier operating box.  Once this is discussed one could check how the proximate conclusions would be affected by wider events or the fog of war, but the key is to start simple and outline the bounds.

These aren’t complete solutions for a moment.  But as an organisation preparing for war rather than just managing the problems of peace we need to think about winning battles, and that means more focus on tactics than we achieve today.  Perhaps the first step is to persuade people that tactics are the purview of all, not just the excellent individuals at the Maritime Warfare Centre.

3. Is Royal Navy surface anti-submarine warfare training is out of date?

HMS ASTUTE about to embark on an ASW training exercise package.

Some of the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) training done by the Royal Navy’s surface flotilla is out of date.  This is strange, for the Royal Navy as a whole has a profound understanding of ASW based on considerable expertise and much of our training is world class.  So why does a part of it lag behind? 

The problem is that some of the training surface warships receive implies that close action against submarines is a viable tactic.  It used be.  Developed off Portland in the 1920s, close ASW came of age in the Second World War when Royal Navy frigates sank enemy submarines by detecting them on hull mounted sonars at close range and then dropping depth charges.  In the 1950s and 1960s the advent of faster submarines with effective passive sonars and wake homing torpedoes made this approach increasingly ineffective.  Training in close surface skills was still necessary however, because fixed wing aircraft or helicopters could not always be present and we still had plenty of surface escorts. 

In 1982 the Royal Navy then got the 2031 passive towed array, enabling long range detection of Soviet submarines until the gradual reduction in their radiated noise made our procedures obsolescent again in the early part of this century.  In the last ten years however stand-off ASW has become achievable again, based on active towed arrays that can detect submarines tens of miles away, far more capable anti-submarine helicopters, multistatics and the RAF’s return to a fixed wing patrol capability.  The flip side of this is that submarines have got even better close in, within about 15 miles, where they massively outrange surface ships in weapon range and, against ships with just a hull mounted sonar, detection range also.  We have got comparatively much better at long range ASW, while more than ever short range ASW is a recipe for defeat.

It seems obvious that the technological shifts of the past decades mean that we should aim to achieve stand-off ASW, and that our training should be designed to support this end.  Some of our training does just that.  Yet we persist in taking up much of our precious ASW training time for surface ships and their operators, at Operational Sea Training and on Principal Warfare Officer course, in practising close in ASW.  There are two common defences for this, both of which can be demolished.  The first is that close ASW is a necessary stepping stone to more advanced serials.  This is wrong because stand-off ASW is not inherently more difficult than close ASW.  It would be just as easy to start by training stand-off ASW and build up to doing close ASW.  That CASEX (Combined Anti-Submarine) serials are numbered with close in ship only ASW in the lower ordinals is a reflection of the technological situation in the 1930s, when they were invented, not today. 

The second proffered reason is that despite our best efforts the submarine will sometimes be detected far closer in than we would like and we need to train for the worst case scenario.  This is a classic example of extrapolating badly from a sound base.  It is of course the case that not everything in war will go as we intend and that on occasion an enemy submarine will materialise much closer than we would like.  But preparing for this doesn’t require all the training that we lavish on it.  The close in ASW that was difficult, the management of six or more ships and aircraft around a contact or a datum, allocating attack or search plans, is a thing of the past.  It doesn’t work anymore and even if it did we don’t have the number of assets required to do it.  What we might do today, a single ship charging at a submarine to cover the carrier or indeed, absent a carrier rapidly exiting the scene, is not difficult and needs little training time. 

And there are two positive reasons for focusing our training on stand-off rather than close ASW.  Firstly our stand-off ASW skills badly need more training time.  Secondly it is well established that in the presence of danger people revert to what is familiar.  An officer whose training has started with and then focused on close ASW is more likely to try it in reality even if he or she could easily identify, if given more time and less stress, that it is the wrong way to fight.

This is not to castigate all ASW training.  The Merlin community do excellent theoretical and practical skill development at Culdrose and the RAF and our submariners have great proficiency and underlying knowledge.  For the surface component of the ASW team there are glimpses of really realistic stand-off training based on a deep expertise far beyond mine.  But too much of our surface ASW training is based on close ASW, a tactical concept that ceased to be realistic a generation ago.  Every now and then one has to stand back and see how the technological shifts have affected the fundamentals of one’s art.   The missile defence equivalent of some of our ASW training would be focusing on the use of hand served 30mm cannon rather than Sea Viper.  Let us focus our valuable time on what works and what needs training to accomplish well, which is stand-off ASW.

4. Our doctrine needs to be shorter

Can you really have too many books? Apparently so!

Doctrine is so important that we need less of it. 

Doctrine’s importance is clear: it is the bedrock on which we base our actions.  It enables us to update our paradigms as circumstances change and then when conflict comes facilitates rapid congruent action by disparate elements. 

Unfortunately a Maritime Warfare Centre report and common RN experience both indicate that our doctrine is under-read.  A key reason is that it is too long.  Any executive officer can tell you that long temporary memoranda are even less read than the short ones.  This is not to decry the need for detailed technical books on specific issues, such as Classified Book 191 on Anti-Ship Missile Defence.  But in general if the guidance is not pithy it will not be read.  And our doctrine is getting ever longer.  The new Fighting Instructions add up to hundreds of pages, while the multiplicity of publications relating to Anti-submarine warfare defies the most determined reader.   

Our doctrine’s other great limitation is that too much of it just describes what is commonplace rather than incisively opening up valuable new perspectives.  What does not add value will be ignored. 

Not all our doctrine is poor.  Some of the Fleet Operational Tactical Instructions (FOTIs) are excellent.  But much of our doctrine compares badly with the RN’s 1939 Fighting Instructions which provide brief and clear direction for aggressive action.  There are valuable nuggets in modern doctrine but too often they are covered by a thick layer of verbosity. 

This is a particular problem when we live in an age of rapid technological advance, with artificial intelligence and its implications radically changing the character of naval combat.  Concise well-crafted doctrine can help us all adjust to the new realities in peace, rather than leaving us to learn difficult lessons as we lose the first battles of the next war.  There are other issues restraining our best use of doctrine, but this is an obvious one to tackle.

In 1657 Blaise Pascal finished a message with the words “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”  Our doctrine writers need to keep it short but meaningful.  Pithy works.

John Dorey

"John" is an experienced Royal Navy Warfare officer with over two decades of operational experience behind him. He has a considerable background in maritime operations having served extensively in the Arabian Gulf, Baltic, Caribbean and South Atlantic as well as ashore in Iraq.


  1. Wayne Hughes, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Annapolis: Naval Institute, 2000).
  2. Wayne Hughes, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Annapolis: Naval Institute, 2000).

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