A Navy strike group is doing 'Top Gun'-like training on the East Coast for the first time — a sign the US is thinking about fighting someone who can fight back

US Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist Seaman Nikki CusterGuided-missile destroyer USS Nitze conducts a Mk 45 5-inch gun shoot as part of Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercise, November 4, 2018.
  • Ships from the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group sailed into the Atlantic earlier this month for advanced exercises.
  • The drills are part of the Navy’s SWATT program, meant to spread high-end warfare and tactics knowledge among the service’s officers.
  • The program is just three years old, and it has gotten underway as the US military shifts its focus to prepare to fight a sophisticated opponent.

Ships from the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and other cruiser-destroyer units based at Naval Station Norfolk sailed into the Atlantic earlier this month for the East Coast’s first Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training, or SWATT, exercise with a carrier group.

SWATT is a relatively new addition to the Navy’s training repertoire, and it comes a years-long period in which the force was focused on anti-piracy and other high-sea policing operations rather than on a high-end fight against a sophisticated adversary.

SWATT exercises are led by warfare-tactics instructors from the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center, or SMWDC, which was set up in 2015 to help the Navy develop experts in surface warfare operations.

The exercises are meant to take place in between ship exercises where a crew trains and qualifies for its missions and advanced exercises where an entire amphibious ready group or carrier strike group gathers to train.

US Navy guided missile destroyer NitzeUS Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist Seaman Nikki CusterCulinary Specialist First Class Marcus Madison stands watch on the bridge of the guided-missile destroyer USS Nitze, November 3, 2018.

The idea is deploy instructors, both senior and junior surface warfare officers with specific training, to train with other sailors in the group, imparting advanced knowledge of weapons and tactics – similar to the Navy’s “Top Gun” training for aviators.

“Warfare Tactics Instructors (WTI’s) improve ships’ proficiency in carrying out missions in the surface, anti-submarine, integrated air and missile defence, and information-warfare domains,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nick Van Wagoner, a WTI and lead planner for the exercise.

SWATT exercises also provide training for amphibious warfare and mine warfare.

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Instructors aim to inculcate a process of planning, briefing, executing, and debriefing among a ship’s crew. “This model utilises a crawl-walk-run approach,” Van Wagoner said, “allowing teams to build and develop skills as they move from basic to more advanced events.”

Crew teams receive “over-the-shoulder mentoring” through SWATT drills, the Navy said.

Setting up SMWDC three years ago was “the beginning of an important cultural shift in the surface fleet to rapidly increase surface force tactical proficiency, readiness, and combat capability,” Rear Adm. Dave Welch, the SMWDC commander, said in a Navy release.

USS Kearsarge US Navy SWATTUS Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist 2nd Class Ryre ArciagaAn MH-60S Seahawk helicopter crewman watches simulated fast-attack craft approach the USS Kearsarge during a Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercise, June 24, 2018.

Carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups based on the West Coast have already gone through SWATT exercises. This summer, the amphibious ready group based around the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge carried out the first SWATT exercise for an ARG based on the East Coast.

The Lincoln carrier strike group’s SWATT exercise helps fulfil the Navy’s training vision, Welch said.

“This first East Coast CSG SWATT represents our commitment to the entirety of the surface force,” he said in the release. “SWATT provides a critical path for warfare and strike group commanders to develop the combat capability needed by our numbered fleet commanders to compete effectively in an era of great-power competition.”

Those numbered fleets include established commands like 7th Fleet, which oversees the Pacific, and 6th Fleet, which oversees Europe and the eastern half of the Atlantic Ocean. A recent addition is 2nd Fleet, which was reactivated in May to oversee the East Coast and the northern and western Atlantic Ocean.

As with SWATT, the reactivation of 2nd Fleet was part of preparations to fight an opponent who can fight back.

US Navy aircraft carrier Truman E-2D Hawkeye take offUS Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist 2nd Class Thomas GooleyAn E-2D Hawkeye prepares to launch from the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the North Sea, September 30, 2018.

“Our National Defence Strategy makes clear that we’re back in an era of great-power competition as the security environment continues to grow more challenging and complex,” Adm. John Richardson, the chief of US naval operations, said at the reactivation ceremony.

The Navy has made a number of changes in response to that competition, including shuffling carrier deployments to inject some unpredictability into their operations – part of the “dynamic force employment” concept touted by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis.

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In July, the USS Harry S. Truman and its strike group returned to Norfolk after just three months at sea rather than the typical six-month deployment.

In October, the Truman sailed north of the Arctic Circle, the first carrier to do so since the early 1990s, where it joined forces from every other NATO member for exercise Trident Juncture, which NATO officials have said is alliance’s largest exercise since the Cold War.

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