How to Hide a Task Force

By Andy Pico
Updated 02 June 1999

An earlier discussion raised the question of how a carrier task force could hide in the open ocean and questioned whether such an operation could be successful near land.

The following discussion will be split into several parts and will remain at a somewhat top level. The reasons should be obvious. Specific references will be made to a particular operation, NORPAC 82, but details on tactics and modern systems will not be disclosed. These tactics are essentially the same as during WWII. The historical accounts of the German surface raiders, USN submarine actions, IJN surface and CV operations, and of course the USN surface and CV operations during that conflict include many examples of the following basic tactics.
 

The main question is: How do you hide a task force at sea? The answer in very general terms is; by not telling the other guy where you are.

This is not as dumb as it sounds.

To illustrate take the following generic situation and think of the naval environment. One actually could extend this to other environments as well.

Put two football teams in a stadium at night each on their defended goal line. Each team will provide the backfield players with rifles and the linemen all have a pistol. Each weapon is equipped with a flashlight fastened to the barrel. The quarterback is equipped with a flashing signal light.

Now turn out all the lights so it is absolutely dark.

Who wants to turn on their light first?

Now to more accurately replicate the naval environment we put half the fans in the stands more or less evenly distributed on the field. We also put two blimps overhead, one for each team, equipped with flashing light and binoculars.

Obviously the light will replicate both communications and radar systems. Everybody's eyes replicate ESM, ELINT, COMINT, and radar receivers.

Obviously if you want to hide the best way is run silent and blend into the general traffic.

There are several conditions of hiding a task force. First is undetected. In this condition the presence of the force is not known. For this to really work it should be coupled with a deception plan so that the opposition not only does not know the force is present, but does not know they don't know and for some reason believes the force to be elsewhere. I will say no more about deception. The second condition is that you have been detected, but not located. This can include the presence of the force is known, but no system has detected the force, or the force has been detected but not identified. And finally, the force has been detected and located which implies identification of the targets.

One's tactics will change based on the above.

If the force has not been detected one can run in to a launch point and hit the target with the first wave while operating completely silent until initial weapon impact. Once the survivors pick themselves out of the rubble they will deduce the presence of the carrier force from the initial wave.

With a force underway the opposition for some reason believes it knows that the ships are elsewhere and has no information to the contrary. Such operations are most effective when coupled with a deception plan that keys the opposition to know for a certainty that you are somewhere else and is therefore not looking. This goes far beyond local efforts of the group.

Every man in the entire task force is kept informed of the tactical situation and what is going on. Full awareness, training, and discipline by all hands is essential.

The force transits to its objective area in complete electronic silence. Deceptive formations are used dispersed over a broad area to ensure any detection system does not see the classic "bullseye" formation made famous in countless Public Affairs shots and never used in operations. Broad surveillance systems are known so any detection method is countered either by denying sensor information, misleading, or providing expected results consistent with something else. For example, ESM systems rely on active emissions from radars or communication systems. So nothing is radiated. Overhead systems are in known orbits, are predictable, and their sensing capabilities known. So the track is varied, weather is sought out to hide in when vulnerable, blending into sea lanes (while staying out of visual detection range of ships) and such techniques. Deceptive lighting is used at night so that the obvious "blacked out warship" is instead thought to be a merchant or cruise liner. Surface search radar identical to commercial ones are used. Turn count masking is used by the ships. Aircraft maintenance on the CV and other helo equipped ships is limited to prevent transmissions.

In NORPAC 82 using these and other tactics the CV force operated close enough to support each other, but far enough and randomly dispersed to avoid identification by anyone. One night in bad weather a man went overboard when the ship was within 200nm of a Soviet airfield in the Kuril Island chain. Despite launch of helicopters and active search methods by several ships in the successful SAR, including clear voice UHF transmissions, the force is not detected because no Soviet asset was above the radar horizon. No overhead system was cued. The force continued on.

At the initial objective point the ships have managed to penetrate without the opposition having any clue that the force was within 2,000 miles. Limited air operations have been conducted to this point with no aircraft transmitting radio, radar, or any other detectable phenom. The aircraft launch "ziplip" and fly a mission without any transmission. Aircraft stay below the radar horizon of defense sites which are less than 200nm away. The E2 flies a passive mission in readiness, but silent unless called to go active.

At the objective "mirror image strikes" are flown. These are full strike missions by the airwing flown on a bearing 180 degrees out from the actual objective. Again, no active transmissions. The entire launch, strike, and recovery are flown without a key being touched. In NORPAC 82 these mirror image strikes within range of Petroplavask and the SSBN bastion in the Sea of O are conducted for 4 days without being detected by the opposition. All day, every day, the E2 orbits on a passive profile. All of the ships operate in passive mode simply listening. In a real war our presence would have been deduced on the first strike as the survivors picked themselves out the rubble of their airfields. But for this operation we continued to train in silence.

One should not miss the implications of this feat. A strategic strike capable force operated with complete impunity for 4 days within range of strategic assets without being detected.

Today, the capability to operate in a passive mode while receiving the complete tactical picture from off-ship has been expanded and refined to an extraordinary degree. All of the vulnerabilities to detection of the force are also its strengths in tracking everyone else. The complete range of overhead and other sensors are downlinked to every ship and many aircraft. If one system in the USN or Space detects a contact, everyone receives it. One could, with training and discipline, sail a complete 6 month deployment and merely listen to all of the other sensors, and strike without warning if need be.

But enough is enough. After dodging Soviet Naval Aviation strike regiments going out to "raid" the Enterprise group the time came to tip our hand and enter the next phase. So out of the blue a Badger group going out against Enterprise and expecting F14s was intercepted some 500nm from Enterprise by F4s with "Midway" painted on the side. And all hell then broke lose!!

Every Soviet asset that could fly, sail, submerge, or orbit was focused on the area in an attempt to locate the group.

The force has now successfully transited to the operation area and conducted the first flight operations which reveal its presence. In wartime this would result in the survivors picking themselves out of the (possibly radioactive) rubble of their airfields and other key military facilities.

So the game is up. But is it? The key as before is to deny targeting information to the opposition, leave them confused about your precise location, and continue to operate.

The task force has as its advantage the element of long-range striking power which allows it to operate at considerable range, thus giving the opposition a very large area to visually search. Check a chart and draw a 600nm circle, cut it in half to represent the sea/land interface, and see how many square miles have to be searched. If operating F18s cut the range in half (Side note. A recent USN article on F18E testing quoted a strike range of only 600nm which equates to a strike radius of 300nm. This loss in capability will cost future striking Admirals key sea space which will bear on this problem).

As before, much of the process of targeting is determining which of the many contacts detected is the one you are looking for. Most techniques rely on exploiting the Achilles Heal of Radar and Communication. To work, you have to transmit, and by transmitting you tell the opposition who and where you are. Don't transmit, and he has to find you the hard way, by visual identification searching the vast ocean area 10sqnm at a time.

Recall the original parallel. The Football field with both teams equipped with flashlights and handguns, with half the fans also on the field and the lights turned out. Who wants to turn their flashlight on first?

The USN has the additional advantage of a networked surveillance system where if anyone in the USN (including shore based facilities such as Naval Space Command) has the contact, everyone has it. So one can stay silent, and receive all the data from the other participants. This allows tactical deception, missile traps, decoys, etc.

Also, if the opposition is going to search with active sensors such as Radar, he is also telling you where he is and who he is. So our fighters can run out the ESM line of bearing and bag the recon Bear or strike pathfinder.

A word about the opposition. The SNA strike regiments were (are) structured and armed very well to go kill naval formations. The AS4/6 on a Badger or Backfire in regimental strength backed with Bears in the recon role were and are formidable. They roughly had a Regiment per carrier. In a straight-forward engagement, the issue would have been "in doubt" at best. If a strike regiment caught a CV by surprise it would have been curtains. An alerted CV would have a better than even chance of surviving, but probable losses would have been severe. But the Regiment running through fighter opposition to their launch points and then getting back out would have taken crippling losses. They would have not been able to mount a second strike and would have been effectively destroyed if not annihilated. If a missile trap is set so that the regiment is climbing to launch altitude over a missile ship it doesn't know about until the radar comes up and missiles start impacting, the fight will be over before it barely starts. So it was critical for the target to be identified and located prior to the regiment being committed. This takes time and allows the CV time to maneuver, set decoy groups, missile traps, fighter ambushes, etc.

With two hours warning for example, a CV could dispatch a surface CG missile trap 60nm down the threat axis, station the CAP Outer Air Battle Grid, put a CG decoy group stationary, and run another 60nm down range and off axis in a silent mode. Then the regiment locates a likely target at the expected point, runs into a missile trap, fighter grid, and a target that can defend itself without ever threatening the CV.

So the trick is to prevent identification and localization of the force. Decoys run out and radiate. Aircraft launch on missions running silent, fly out to a deception point at low altitude, then climb and radiate as normal. The searchers locate the pop-up point but don't find the CV. This is particularly effective if the first launch of the day locates a large, neutral merchant or cruise liner and everybody uses that as the reference deception point. Then the searchers actually see a target at the point that the flight patterns indicate. In wartime they commit, they lose their regiment, and the CV then has a free ride.

We would also deliberately provide a false contact reference. If a searching aircraft is intercepted they can draw an operational radius of previously observed intercepts and conclude the CV is in that area. That allows a concentrated search. Now if we had deliberately intercepted him at an extended range and then moved the carrier at high speed in the other direction the search effort is concentrated at the wrong point. I did that one day by tanking an A7, running him out a long range and bringing him into an intercept of two Bears that were visually searching and identifying fishing boats and merchants trying to find us. I brought him in off-axis and took him back out off-axis (in other words not directly to or from the CV). We then cranked up the 32.5 knots the Midway could then do and went in the other direction. A few hours later we observed a "large number" of search aircraft vainly saturating that area of the ocean and giving all the fishing boats a great air show.

They could identify the E2's radar. They could then draw the normal circle around the E2's location and search that area. Trouble with that was that I was particularly adept at running out long range while silent, and then running a distant patrol point and acting as if the CV was close by. I used to routinely obtain contact at extended ranges. So by drawing their datum points based on my patrols they also looked in the wrong places, and at the same time I data-linked the complete tactical picture to all the silent participants.

We would also recover the returning aircraft by marshalling as normal but in the wrong place. Then, under E2 control, the returning aircraft would fly a recovery pattern to a deception point, and then run in at low altitude and silent to the CV.

A sub vectored out to find us has to have some idea of where to look. If the CV has freedom to operate it can avoid contact by "random and dynamic" movement. Only if the CV locks itself to a set operational area and pattern (as in most structured exercises which lends itself to the prevailing myth of submarine superiority) does it become predictable and hence, vulnerable. If the CV moves it forces the sub to move to catch it, thereby making the sub more detectable. Of course, one could run over the sub by accident in which case it falls to CV group number two to take up the fight! Such is war.

We continued to operate in that manner during NORPAC much as a boxer might in the ring, dodging and weaving for four days with everything in Siberia that could fly, sail or submerge looking for us. Our success can be measured by the fact that not once did any unit ever come close enough to identify us, and at no time was any strike group committed against us in a mock attack. During this time several regimental mock raids per day were flown against the Enterprise which operated openly. And we continued to fly mirror-image strikes within strike range of key Soviet facilities several times per day with complete impunity.

At the conclusion of four such very interesting days it was determined that not only had we obtained all the needed training and experience we were looking for, but that we had also probably trained the Soviets more than we probably wanted to. So we then rendezvoused with the Enterprise group during the night. The next morning, as scattered light filtered into the Northern Pacific, the initial Soviet strikes and shadows saw two carriers where there had been but one the day before. And then all Hell really broke lose!! But that is another story and a very conventional one.



Editor's note: Abbreviation Glossary

A7 Daylight Light Attack aircraft.
AS4/6 - Soviet Air-Launched Anti-Ship Missiles.
CAP Combat Air Patrol
COMINT- Communications Intelligence
CV USA designation for an Aircraft Carrier.
E2 Electronic Surveillance and Radar aircraft, also used for Command and Control functions. An apt description that I wish I could claim credit for is that it looks like "an aircraft being terrorized by a flying saucer."
ELINT Electronic Intelligence
ESM Electronic Support Measures
F18E A Fighter/Attack aircraft intended to replace the A-6 attack bomber. As noted in this essay, it is debatable if this aircraft can truly replace one of the most successful Naval Attack Aircraft ever built.
IJN Imperial Japanese Navy
nm Nautical Mile (1.151 statute miles or 1.852 km)
NORPAC 82 North Pacific 1982 Exercise.
SAR Search And Rescue
SNA Soviet Naval Aviation. Includes all of the commands, regiments and squadrons.
sqnm Square Nautical Mile
USN United States Navy
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