Naval Warfare

Operations, innovation and training: A discussion with the commander of CSG-4

Columnist Robbin Laird talks naval training with Rear Adm. Max “Pepper” McCoy, commander of Carrier Strike Group 4.


Rear Adm. Max McCoy, commander, Carrier Strike Group Four (CSG-4) speaks with Rear Adm. Bill Daly, commander, Carrier Strike Group 15, left, and Tactical Training Group Atlantic (TTGL) staff on Aug. 15, 2023 as part of a welcoming tour. CSG-4 mentors, trains and assesses carrier strike groups, amphibious ready groups, and independent deployers for global combat against peer competitors. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Isaac Maxwell)

This is the latest in a series of regular columns by Robbin Laird, where he will tackle current defense issues through the lens of more than 45 years of defense expertise in both the US and abroad. The goal of these columns: to look back at how questions and perspectives of the past should inform decisions being made today.

After 9/11, the US faced only a land war against a single foe — and accordingly, did not spend a lot of time preparing for the multi-domain, multi-polar authoritarian world of today.

How does the US train a naval force to operate in such a world? In a time of need, how do you draw on relevant US joint capabilities, or those of allies and partners? How do you do so while identifying the gaps in capabilities which need to be filled? And how do you integrate the dynamic changes associated with software and technology — as well as a constantly evolving security environment — to ensure forces can operate effectively across the globe?

The two Navy commands assigned to address these questions are Carrier Strike Groups 4 and 15. Located on the East and West Coast, respectively, the two are tasked with training, mentoring and assessing carrier strike groups, amphibious ready groups, and independently deploying units.

To gain perspective on how to meet these challenges, I met with Rear Adm. Max “Pepper” McCoy, commander of CSG-4, at his office in Norfolk on March 5. Before taking command of CSG-4, he was the commander of the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center. He also served previously as a strike fighter tactics instructor, Joint Strike Fighter wing commander, and carrier air wing commander, which means he brings a depth of experience from a career focused on combat innovation in dynamic threat environments to his current role.

CSG-4 oversees shore-based and at-sea composite warfare training on the East Coast, primarily known for their signature exercise, Composite Unit Training Exercise or “COMPTUEX.” COMPTUEX is an exercise whereby the individual components of a naval task force are brought together to learn to fight as an integrated team.

“COMPTUEX is one of the single most complex training events we do in the military — as a single service or as a joint force,” said McCoy. “It is designed for teams to execute and build proficiency for complex TTPs, high-end warfighting, and combined operations with our Allies on day one. It is why we work hard within the Navy team to collectively push familiarization and unit-level training left, so that we are great stewards of the time and resources we have at sea to conduct live training and assess teams.”

Before COMPTUEX, individual platforms and teams complete focused training for the operators to learn their weapons systems, so that during the exercise they can meet the objective of effective operations of a composite naval warfare team that delivers overwhelming capability and force to fleet and combatant commanders.

For example, before COMPTUEX, a destroyer’s watch teams will train together to understand their roles and responsibilities in the performance of the ship and its weapons system. After unit-level training is complete, multiple destroyers come together under the leadership of a Navy Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) Commodore — the Sea Combat Commander within Navy composite warfighting — to practice surface unit integration under the SCC during a Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercise led by Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. Concurrently, similar training is completed in the other warfare communities, particularly aviation and information warfare, before a carrier strike group’s COMPTUEX.

This is a very complex effort, and one made even more so by how quickly technology is evolving. For CSG-4, this means they must simultaneously adapt to updates within the Fleet and evolve exercise and scenario designs that introduce new technologies, capabilities, or operational constructs to challenge the training audience.

It also means CSG-4 uses live, virtual, constructive (LVC) training in its mission, which provides additional capacity to increase the frequency and complexity of training for watch standers and teams to participate in during a deployment training cycle.

“All three aspects of LVC are important for us. Time and resources are limitations any training organization faces, and live, virtual, constructive environments, or any combinations thereof, provide opportunities to address some of those limitations creatively,” said McCoy.

Ships sitting pier side, as well as aircraft simulators, can log into the Navy Continuous Training Environment (NCTE) to train with live, virtual, or constructive forces. In a practical way, this means individual ships and units have more training time on their consoles (or replications) with realistic threats to increase tactical proficiency well before going to sea for COMPTUEX. In any case, the NCTE enables opportunities for more complex training during ashore and at-sea integrated training events and exercises. Coupled with the rigor of a “plan-brief-execute-debrief” methodology to drive individual and team development at each stage of a training event, continuous learning becomes an indelible part of team culture.

“We can never be stagnant. We must always strive to improve,” said McCoy.

“Each subsequent Carrier Strike Group or Expeditionary Ready Group that goes through our training deploys more capable, competent, and confident than the previous one. Ultimately, we are driving an upward glideslope in warfighting performance, and most importantly, making sure we never send our teams into an environment or fight where they don’t have a significant competitive advantage.”

Achieving this means going beyond the development of and adherence to standards and scenario design, and into a focused effort of mentorship and training for teams to learn how to respond in situ to threat environments.

“Mission planning and CONOP development are imperatives to success. We also know that no matter how well teams plan, one constant of the operational environment is that it is ever changing. Our COMPTUEX training environment provides space for commanders and their teams to develop integrated plans, scrutinize execution, and develop their team’s ability to think and creatively solve problems to achieve mission success,” said McCoy.

“The training environment challenges warfare commanders to consider all capabilities at their disposal —  whether within the Navy team, the joint force, or from our Allies or partners — and to know when to reach out to ask for capabilities or authorities as needed, is crucial. Further, it means that our debrief process must be rigorous, with a focus on transparency and learning to build teams that are stronger and more capable than the sum of their parts.”

In addition to LVC systems, CSG-4 relies on a junior officer-developed Root Cause Analysis Tool (RCAT) that has rapidly improved delivery of actionable, fact-based performance feedback to the Navy’s training and resource enterprise to support decision-makers; outreach to the Navy and joint force to increase the complexity and capability within the exercise presentation; and its Allied Vision training events embedded within COMPTUEX.

McCoy also reinforced that CSG-4 is not alone in this deliberate, rapid learning and warfighting proficiency development effort.

“To accelerate learning and performance, everyone has to stay connected — the TYCOMs, [CSG] 4 and 15, and the [Warfighting Development Centers] WDCs. We are responsive to Fleet Commanders and the experience of currently deployed teams, and we evolve and learn in real-time to apply lessons learned into exercises,” he said.

In addition to the Navy’s type commanders who man, train and equip the Navy’s surface, aviation, undersea, information and expeditionary warfare communities, CSG-4 and 15 also align with the Navy’s five WDCs. The WDCs were set up in 2014-2015 on the legacy of deliberate tactical development and root cause analysis in naval aviation since the establishment of the Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) in 1969.

Today, the WDCs train and develop personnel as expert tacticians and instructors, write and refine warfighting doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures, lead advanced tactical training events, and prioritize tactical-level capability requirements to optimize the overall effectiveness of integrated naval forces.

The most impressive takeaway from the interview with McCoy, however, was not the Navy’s significant efforts to develop creative tools to assess performance while also supporting resourcing decisions, their team-oriented efforts in warfare development, or their focus on joint and combined warfighting. Rather, it is how the junior Sailors and junior officers currently going through training, and those plugged into WDCs and training carrier strike groups, are learning valuable lessons that will allow them to continue to drive the Navy’s development forward.

“When I operated in the Joint Strike Fighter community, I often said, we aren’t going to win a 5th generation war, with 4th generation minds. In naval aviation, the lieutenants are on the cutting edge of tactical development, and I know the other communities are pursuing the same approach through the WDCs,” said McCoy.

“At CSG-4, we are focused on teaching people how to think in a very dynamic environment against advanced threats. Our youngest generation — like the Sailors currently operating within the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group — are the group unleashing the potential within our weapons systems and advanced capabilities. Watching them take ownership and drive toward solutions is the most rewarding part of the job — it’s simply our role to provide resources and rudder when required.”

It’s clear that advancements in technology, weapons systems and tactics, are not slowing down. It is also clear that investment in organizations such as CSG-4 and 15 — and the type commanders and WDCs that man, train and equip the Navy’s warfighting communities that operate from seabed to space — is not just an investment in the Navy, but a direct investment in the US’s ability to meet its security objectives.