Category Archives: Tactical Concepts

What are the evolving ideals of tactics in maritime and naval affairs.

After Distributed Lethality – Unmanned Netted Lethality

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Javier Gonzalez

Distributed lethality was introduced to the fleet in January 2015 as a response to the development of very capable anti-access area-denial (A2/AD) weapons and sensors specifically designed to deny access to a contested area. The main goal is to complicate the environment for our adversaries by increasing surface-force lethality—particularly with our offensive weapons—and transform the concept of operations for surface action groups (SAGs), thus shifting the enemy’s focus from capital ships to every ship in the fleet. Rear Admiral Fanta said it best: “If it floats, it fights.” The real challenge is to accomplish this with no major funding increase, no increase in the number of ships, and no major technology introductions. The Navy has successfully implemented this concept by repurposing existing technology and actively pursuing long-range anti-ship weapons for every platform. An illustrative example of the results of these efforts is the current initiative to once again repurpose Tomahawk missiles, currently used for land strikes, as anti-ship missiles. The next step in the evolution of distributed lethality will be to deploy similar force packages and introduce new technology. The introduction of  Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) technology is the kind of technological advancement that enhances distributed lethality. NIFC-CA combines multiple kill chains into a single kill web agnostic of sensors or platforms. In the near future, hunter-killer SAGs will deploy with these very capable networks and bring powerful and credible capability into the A2/AD environment

The first hunter-killer SAG deployed earlier this year. It was comprised of three destroyers and a command element. This recent SAG mirrors the World War II “wolf pack” concept—not just a disaggregated group of destroyers in theater under a different fleet commander, but a group of ships sailing together with an embarked command element. The embarked command element is key because, coupled with the concept of “mission command,” it allows the hunter-killer SAG the autonomy required to fully realize effects in a command and control denied environment.

While there is no argument that distributed lethality is a sound short-term strategy, the enemy has a vote and will adjust. The real challenge for the Navy then is to continue finding ways to innovate and rapidly incorporate new technologies such as unmanned systems to ensure that distributed lethality does not yield to distributed attrition. The best way to prevent distributed attrition is to fully integrate unmanned technologies into the fleet to ultimately transform distributed lethality into a new concept, hereby referred to as Unmanned Netted Lethality. 

Evolving Distributed Lethality

In the near future, a hunter-killer SAG will bring a more powerful and lethal force package into the fight with the partial integration of unmanned systems. A near-future force package could include a NIFC-CA capable DDG with an MH-60R detachment, littoral combat ships with scan eagle unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and an anti-submarine warfare continuous trail unmanned vessel (ACTUV)- DARPA’s latest unmanned vessel built with a sensor package optimized to track submarines. These new capabilities bring  unprecedented flexibility to  warfighters, and commanders in theater will have additional options to tailor adaptive force packages based on the perceived threat or mission.

The next step in the evolution of distributed lethality will be to add more advanced weapons to every ship—from energy weapons to the rail gun—and fully incorporate unmanned systems into  future force packages. The ultimate vision is hunter-killer SAGs comprised of unmanned underwater vehicles, unmanned surface vehicles, and UAVs under the command of a single manned ship. These unmanned platforms will create a massive constellation of sensors and weapons that will transform every ship in the Navy into a lethal, flexible, and fully distributed force to reckon with—the Unmanned Netted Lethality concept.

It is evident that the Unmanned Netted Lethality concept relies on the aggressive development and integration of unmanned, and eventually fully autonomous, systems into the fleet..  Controlled autonomy is fundamental for the Unmanned Netted Lethality concept to be effective.  While autonomy brings many benefits, there are concerns as well—unintended loss of control, compromise by adversaries, accountability, liability, and trust, to name a few. The solution to mitigate these concerns is to manage the level of autonomy with a manned ship as an extension of the commanding officer’s combat system. Employing various levels of autonomy control, from completely manual to completely autonomous, gives the power to the decision makers to set the level of autonomy based on the prevailing circumstance and allows unmanned system utilization in any environment.   

SOUTH CHINA SEA (Feb. 19, 2015) – Sailors assigned to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 35, Detachment 2, prepare an MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned autonomous helicopter for flight operations aboard the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Conor Minto) 

The mission will drive the level of autonomy. For instance, 20 years from now, during the first Unmanned Netted Lethality hunter-killer SAG deployment and while transiting in safe waters, the command ship will control the operations of an unmanned vessel until it is in restricted waters. Then, the commanding officer will change the level of autonomy into a cooperative mode in which the unmanned systems quickly create a constellation of passive and active sensors to increase overall maritime awareness. Once a crisis transitions into combat operations, the commanding officer will place the unmanned systems into a fully autonomous status with two primary missions: sense and destroy  enemy forces while protecting the manned ship by creating a lethal cluster around it. This layered approach to autonomy increases overall trust in unmanned systems in a responsible and palatable way for decision makers who are unquestionably accountable for the performance of these unmanned systems.

Cooperative independence is also an important feature, in which unmanned systems will perform complex tasks, both individually and in groups under the supervision of a commanding officer. Not one unmanned system should rely on another; if a system is destroyed or is taken off-line, each system should be able to continue with the mission independently but cooperatively with remaining systems.

Without a doubt and due in great part to the proliferation of unmanned systems, interoperability remains the hardest challenge to overcome. The bottom line is that these systems need to be developed with common and open software architecture to minimize interoperability challenges and maximize employment opportunities. The need to convey these requirements early in the acquisition process is fundamental so that new unmanned systems are designed with three primary characteristics: controlled autonomy, cooperative but independent functionality, and complete interoperability.

A Roadmap to Guide Change

Distributed lethality’s initial charter was to increase performance with no technology leaps, significant funding increase, or number of ship increases while having immediate to near-future effects. In the short term, this goal is achievable. However, in the near to long-term future, the Navy should continue to follow former General Electric’s CEO Jack Welch’s advice “Change before you have to.” The Unmanned Netted Lethality concept provides the Navy with a vision and a roadmap to guide the evolution of distributed lethality into the future. Incorporating unmanned systems into an Unmanned Netted Lethality concept will transform every manned ship in the Navy into a force package with a credible conflict changing capability.

Commander Javier Gonzalez is a Navy Federal Executive Fellow at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and a career Surface Warfare Officer. These are his personal views and do not reflect those of John Hopkins University or the Department of the Navy.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Feb. 6, 2012) Scan Eagle, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), sits on the flight deck after a successful test aboard the Whidbey Island-class amphibious dock-landing ship USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) during a certification exercise (CERTEX).  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Lauren G. Randall/ Released)

Which Player Are You? Warfare Specialization in Distributed Lethality

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Jon Hill

The cruisers and destroyers that comprise our Surface Action Groups (SAG) are like the tight end of the figurative maritime football team. The tight end is a great position. The tight end is a jack of all trades. Sadly, this also relegates him to being a master of none. The tight end will inherently never have the speed to outrun a corner nor the size to take on a double team. He will be decent at those things but never great. His job is to be the flexible organic mass compensating for the all-star positions making big plays. Although direly necessary in its limited function, a team cannot be comprised of generic compensating mass alone. Like a tight end’s well-rounded skill set, the generalized load-outs of our CRUDES ships provide a comforting buffer and mission flexibility but dampen our potential lethality. In the immortal words of John Paul Jones, “He who will not risk cannot win.”

We need greater specialization in our Surface Action Groups. We don’t need more tight ends. We need wide receivers who can block and tackles who can catch a pass. These specialists with overlapping mission capabilities will create a more potent offensive force whilst maintaining an appropriate defense. The primary unit tasked with maintaining air superiority will not have to waste precious magazine space beyond minimal anti-surface capabilities because the ship entrusted with that mission area will have the equal and opposite armament to compliment his counterpart. The SAG must be modular and scalable to support the mission objectives laid before them. As easily as a coach can substitute a player, the Navy, too must be ready and flexible. With each ship’s warfare focus clearly defined, commanders will have the ability to add or subtract specific vessels in support of various mission sets and theaters of operation. Assets can be scaled up or down and allocated according to the tactical needs the mission warrants.

The Specialized SAG

Every warship will be commanded by a Weapons Tactics Instructor (WTI). Much like a marine and his rifle, these next generation warriors will be intimately familiar with the weapons they command. The WTI program, although still in its infancy, is guiding the Navy back to its tactical roots. It will create leaders tactically proficient in air, surface, and subsurface warfare areas that will be force multipliers for a SAG. These individuals must be identified and directed towards commands that will capitalize upon their knowledge and skillful utilization of the warship’s capabilities. The Integrated Air and Missile WTI will command ships tasked with air supremacy, the Surface Warfare WTI will command the seas, and so forth with the other WTIs and their respective mission areas. With the increased potency of our offensive capabilities, specialized individuals must be assigned and prioritized to relevant commands to ensure maximum effect with regards to possible kinetic solutions. There must be no wasted Sailors, ships, or munitions in the war to come. We require individuals in our SAGs who can utilize their weapons to the fullest potential.

DAHLGREN, Va. (May 27, 2016) Graduates of the rigorous 19 week Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI) Course pose for a picture with Rear Adm. James W. Kilby, Commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (NSMWDC) (left), and Rear Adm. Ronald A. Boxall, Commander, Carrier Strike Group Three (right) at NSMWDC Detachment Dahlgren. Course graduates serve in a production tour as trainers and instructors at critical training and evaluation commands throughout the Navy and then return to operational Fleet command billets following their normal career progression model. (U.S. Navy photo by Information Management Specialist Laurie Buchanan)
DAHLGREN, Va. (May 27, 2016) Graduates of the rigorous 19 week Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI) Course pose for a picture with Rear Adm. James W. Kilby, Commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (NSMWDC) (left), and Rear Adm. Ronald A. Boxall, Commander, Carrier Strike Group Three (right) at NSMWDC Detachment Dahlgren. (U.S. Navy photo by Information Management Specialist Laurie Buchanan)

The cruiser will be the de facto SAG leader and primary air coordinator. With its combat suite optimized for an additional command detachment and enhanced command and control capability, the cruiser is a natural choice. Its additional Vertical Launch System cells and fourth Fire Control illuminator make it ideal for ensuring air supremacy for the rest of the SAG. No fewer than two destroyers will accompany the cruiser to bolster air superiority, and to ensure surface or subsurface dominance. They will be specifically configured based upon their warfare specialty and the requirements dictated by the mission and surrounding elements. We need appropriate magazines for these warriors to employ. The primary unit tasked with Air supremacy cannot afford to waste VLS cells on land attack missiles just as the primary Surface commander cannot sacrifice their anti-ship missiles for air beyond the minimum needed for self defense. While a Swiss Army knife is useful in its function, one would never build a house with it.  There is a reason the hammer has been invented.  It is the right tool for the right job not just a tool for a job. 

With the continued proliferation of unmanned vehicles, it will be necessary for an amphibious ship be attached to the SAG as both a staging platform and an invaluable battle force multiplier. The amphibious ship can host the unmanned complement to each specialty commander’s tasking. Instead of Marines and their supporting vehicles, the well decks will be filled with unmanned sub and mine hunters, as well as anti-surface vehicles for use by the SAG’s surface and subsurface commanders. The flight deck will be filled with drones controlled by the air commander. In a war of attrition, these assets will enhance survivability of blue units while increasing lethality to red. Lives need not be unnecessarily risked when we have machines to employ in their stead. The SAG will be given dangerous and pivotal missions in which their tactical ability will need to be without question in an environment where they will take casualties both to personnel and equipment. The amphibious ship will carry reserves of both to ensure the SAG can remain on station. The abundance of drones will supplement the numerically small yet heavily-armed ships comprising the SAG.

Contesting the EM Spectrum

In a world defined by the electromagnetic spectrum, it is no longer enough to attack the equipment. A SAG commander must be continually aware of and decide how to tactically manipulate their profile in a communications-denied and emission-controlled environment. We must instead aim for the operator interpreting the equipment’s reports. Technology will reach a limit where we can no longer overcome it with other technology. It will then be a matter of influencing the perception of the individual making decisions based on the information they receive. When the enemy is searching for a small contact they may pay not attention to the large ones. A single destroyer with the radar cross section of a tanker traveling along shipping lanes warrants no second thought compared to the apparent squad of rowboats making a trans-Pacific journey.  The enemy is looking for strike groups spread over hundreds of miles communicating on every frequency at their disposal and radiating each radar to its full capacity. 

We must use this knowledge to our advantage. In this regard, an Information Warfare commander will take on  greater responsibility for not only individual warships but the SAG as a whole. In concert with Air, Surface, and Subsurface commanders, the IW commander will coordinate the electromagnetic activities of the SAG while monitoring the perception of enemy operators. This warfare area is important for attacking left of the kill chain as the WTI are for attacking right of it. Because of this importance a greater weight must be placed upon IW and experts should be at the forefront in training  other warfare commanders on how to fight effectively in the dark.

While doing this, we must continue to operate as our opposition expects as long as peace allows while training for the eventuality of never being afforded this luxury again. The enemy has been lulled into a safe pattern of recognition due to our over-dependency on our once superior technology. While propagating this impression, it is essential that we develop our ships into perceptual landmines. A single mine found can guard an entire field or waterway and is the quintessential Occam’s Razor of Anti-Access/Area Denial. A warship, completely invisible to the electromagnetic spectrum, capable of unleashing devastation before disappearing once more, will shut down entire sectors of the ocean and control the seas through even the rumors of its presence. There will come a point where modern technology will fail us in our mission. The SAG that trains for this and draws upon antiquated techniques of navigation and war fighting will dominate the seas. 


It is important now to project our power and run up the score to ensure this team cannot hang with us until the fourth quarter. There is nothing wrong with the traditional SAG or the tight end, but he needs a specialized, supporting cast to win decisively. The Navy requires a wide receiver who can catch the long ball when the defense stacks the box and a fullback who can drive it down their throats when the defense shifts to compensate. While the tight end is a key player, rarely has a defense needed to plan their game around one. We too must divest ourselves from this safe yet unimaginative playstyle while not abolishing it completely. We require specialty players who can keep the enemy off balance and force them to adjust their defense. No longer can there be a generic force presented for the opposition to send generic units in response. That’s too easy and too safe. We project the exact power we want them to counter and dictate the pace of play accordingly. Our high impact players will keep the opposition reliant upon us for operational cues until we have ripened the battle space for the traditional tight end to deliver the killing blow. Their continued failure will promote uncertainty and further reinforce our sea power dominance moving forward.

LT Jon Hill is the Fire Control Officer onboard USS Bunker Hill (CG 52). The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of his ship, the Navy, or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Will Gaskill

Roles for Up-gunned LCACs in Adaptive Force Packages

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Megan McCulloch

Today’s global security situation is increasingly complex with challenges in multiple areas of operation. Many of today’s challenges take place in the littorals yet much of the surface Navy remains uncomfortable operating within this environment. Over the last three decades, the Navy focused primarily on power projection from uncontested deep water. Our focus on power projection, specifically from aircraft carriers (CVN), has highlighted the CVN as our center of gravity – both militarily and politically. These CVNs are not suited for contested littoral operations. Unfortunately, the increasing proliferation of land based anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) makes operating within sight of land progressively risky for any grey-hulled ship. Instead, high speed, easily maneuverable vessels with relatively shallow drafts should conduct shallow water and littoral operations in contested environments.

In the event of a conflict within the littorals, operating a group of distributed small crafts may be a better option than sending an Aegis ship or CVN into the fray. One option for adaptive force packages (AFP) might be to employ “up-gunned” LCACs, possibly pairing them with a San Antonio-class LPD or a pair of Platform Supply Vessels (PSV), and an LCS. The below scenario shows how this unconventional adaptive force package can provide greater flexibility in the event of a slide from Phase 1 to Phase 2 operations as well as enabling sea control over sea lines of communication.


Increasingly hostile political rhetoric in the region has led leaders to question the availability of a major SLOC to U.S. forces or international shipping. Balancing fears of escalation with the impact of the SLOC closing, U.S. forces reinforce a partner nation’s Navy to prevent the forced closure of the SLOC. Due to a multi-axis threat environment in the littorals, leadership has decided to send an AFP composed of two PSVs, each carrying 2-3 LCACs, an LCS, and a DDG to patrol an adjacent area in the event of kinetic engagement. The AFP is initially deployed in a de-escalatory posture meant to reassure partners without further provoking tension. A single DDG is to remain in the area, but not enter the SLOC or its immediate vicinity unless tensions increase. To allow for strong back-up against the opening salvo of a kinetic environment against higher end surface threats, the DDG is loaded with several new SM-6 missiles1 and is equipped to conduct a remote launch based on information from any of the other ships – including the LCACs. Each LCAC is armed with a machine gun, a re-fitted 2.75-inch advanced precision kill weapons system2, and a small drone for laser guided targeting. The PSV has a RAM launcher with four ESSM for limited self-defense capability and can make speeds of 15-17 knots (and possibly up to 28 knots with upgrades) when fully loaded. Once in the patrol area, the PSV launches the LCACs in a rotational cycle and serves as a small tender carrying spare parts, a 3-D printer, a spare drone, and berthing for the off-cycle LCAC crews.

PHASE 0 Deter
PHASE 1 Shape
PHASE 2 Seize the Initiative
PHASE 3 Dominate the Enemy
PHASE 4 Stabilize
PHASE 5 Enable Civil Authority

Naval Doctrine Publication 1 – Phases of an Operation or Campaign

In either case, while the DDG and LCS provide an overt presence, the PSV could remain in a covert posture providing backup should the situation escalate. Securing its military-grade radars and operating solely with commercial navigation, a PSV could be camouflaged to remain largely indistinguishable from surrounding shipping. Launching a single LCAC at night, the LCAC could then operate beyond the horizon and serve as a picket, a communications relay, conduct sanctions or legal enforcement  via a qualified board and inspection team, or a simple force multiplier beyond the horizon. The LCAC is a perfect vessel to conduct such duties as it has the ability to operate beyond the horizon, has a reduced radar cross-section for limited early warning, can be configured in multiple ways prior to launch from the PSV, and is capable of maneuvering at high speeds to outpace most other small surface craft.

As tensions in the area increase and overt, continuous exploitation of the EM spectrum intensifies, the force must operate with limited communications. One way of allowing intermittent communications without conceding the tactical advantage of the force’s exact location is using point-to-point communications. Although point-to-point communications require line of sight, the speed and maneuverability of the LCAC and LCS allows for set patrol boxes where ships come into communications range at pre-determined intervals to pass quick bursts of information, updates, and any changes to mission tasking. The largest drawback to communications in this manner is the fueling requirements to maintain a high OPTEMPO of patrols and communications. Here, the PSVs could also double as  refueling platforms. Serving as a tanker may limit their ability to ballast and deballast, but also offers greater flexibility to the AFP and provide greater staying power.3 In the event of increased on station time or greater OPTEMPO a single PSV could also rendezvous with an oiler outside the contested area and then transit back to the AFP.

ULF OF ADEN (Oct. 1, 2012) A landing craft air cushion prepares to enter the well deck of the amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (LPD 21). New York is part of the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group with the embarked 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and is deployed in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. The U.S. Navy is reliable, flexible, and ready to respond worldwide on, above, and below the sea. Join the conversation on social media using #warfighting. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zane Ecklund/Released)
GULF OF ADEN (Oct. 1, 2012) A landing craft air cushion prepares to enter the well deck of the amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (LPD 21). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zane Ecklund/Released)

Increasing tensions would lead to a message sent to the DDG of increased hostilities, changes in the rules of engagement, and a list of reactions to any hostilities. Once the information had been relayed to the proper PSV, a small, prepositioned landing force would then conduct an amphibious landing in order to secure and hold the land surrounding the SLOC. The landing of  forces would be the responsibility of several LCACs while one LCAC and the LCS serve to protect the landing force from any seaborne threats. Once secure, the landing force would be able to set up equipment for localized counter A2/AD. The landing force could also serve as a relay station for information between the smaller ships and senior officers beyond the horizon via point-to-point communications relays. Finally, as  landing forces secure the SLOC from being closed via  land, the LCACs would then transition to serve as escorts for shipping through the SLOC, conduct boarding operations of suspicious vessels as directed, and serve as resupply vessels for the shore based landing forces. The LCS would then continue to serve as an escort or conduct mine hunting as appropriate.

Should missiles be launched from either hostile ships or shores, the AFP would be capable of limited self-defense as well as second-strike retaliation. Specifically, the LCAC provides a very complex target with low radar cross-section as well as an innate defense against IR or millimeter wave seekers which have reduced capability getting a lock on  target due to the spray generated by an LCAC at maximum lift.4 With a drone providing laser guidance, the LCAC would be able to fire at other ships while remaining outside small arms range and possibly provide targets for over-the-horizon launches from the Aegis vessel and quickly relocating before counter-targeting can be successfully achieved.

Flexible Multi-Role Platform

While the scenario above focused on the slide from Phase 1 to Phase 2 operations, the listed platforms could also have a significant impact during Phase 0 or Phase 1. In peacetime operations such as security cooperation engagements with regional partners who have smaller navies, a more versatile LCAC provides a greater range of engagement options. A nimbler LCAC could also be used to conduct Foreign Humanitarian Assistance in brown water areas to increase delivery of U.S. humanitarian aid and improve knowledge and operating experience for the LCAC crews and operational planning for CTF Ops and Plans.

The construct of vessels for the above scenario injected one new ship and an existing craft with increased capabilities. The LCAC with a .50 caliber machine gun, some other close in weapon, as well as surface-to-surface missiles is much more capable than the current platforms. These craft would be able to operate more independently and would provide a significant force multiplier. A similar comparison might be the difference between the SH-60B and SH-60R. The 60R with its advanced radars and increased capabilities operates with a much greater range and tactical impact than the 60Bs. Giving greater independence to the LCAC would also increase the ability to operate inshore.


We cannot neglect the littorals as the world grows increasingly complex with challenges in multiple regions. Such waters surround many of our allies, friends, and partner nations. In order to meet our commitments as well as to maintain dominance at sea we must strengthen our ability to operate in the littoral domain. While our skills in power projection and deep-water tactics remain strong, we must re-evaluate our risk calculus as situations vacillate between the various phases of war and employ existing assets creatively. Expanding the uses and armament of LCACs (“If it floats, it fights”) is a simple place to start.

LT Megan McCulloch is a surface warfare officer currently studying at the Surface Warfare Officer School. Megan is thankful for CAPT John Devlin’s (ret) input and expertise in developing this article. John C. Devlin, CAPT (ret), USN, is Director of Navy Programs at ISPA Technology, Inc. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and are presented in a personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.

1. In reference to ongoing efforts to provide SM-6 with anti-surface capability. 

2. “Advanced Precision Kill Weapon (APKWS) System – Laser-Guided Rocket | BAE Systems | United States.” (This missile is simply an example, of the type of rocket or close-in surface-to-surface missile that might be added to the existing frame.)

3. The impact to the ballast/deballasting capabilities of a PSV might also be negligible. The PSV currently has a slip mud tank which can hold 400,000 gals. If reconfigured to hold fuel for the LCACs then 100,000 gals of additional fuel equals about 20 refuels of the current LCAC for 600 nm legs in a light load condition.

4. This statement is currently theoretical, due to lack of testing. The theory is sound and should hold, however is not a definitive and should not be taken as fact yet. For more information, please contact John Devlin, CAPT, USN (ret) at

Featured Image: WHITE BEACH, Japan (Sept. 25, 2013) A landing craft air cushion (LCAC) assigned to Naval Beach Unit (NBU) 7 approaches the well deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) during the offload of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31st MEU). Bonhomme Richard is the flagship of the Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group and, with the embarked 31st MEU, is conducting routine joint-force operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joshua Hammond/Released)

Tactical Information Warfare and Distributed Lethality

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Richard Mosier


The U.S. Navy’s distributed lethality strategy is to deny sea control to adversaries claiming sovereignty over international waters through the use of small offensive Surface Action Groups (SAGs) that operate in areas covered by the adversary’s anti-access, sea denial sensor systems and supported by land based command and control, interior lines of communication, and defensive platforms and weapons. The Navy strategy is for these SAGs to transit to positions to attack enemy ISR, command and control, and defending forces; and deny them sea control. The success of distributed operations ultimately depends on Information Warfare (IW) operations to deny the enemy the data required to target and attack Surface Action Groups.

Anti-access, sea denial capabilities of near-peer nations present a high threat to surface navy operations. The use of multiple offensive SAGs complicates the enemy’s defense but only if these groups avoid detection, tracking, targeting, and attack. If they operate with active sensors, datalinks and voice and network communications transmitting, they reveal their location, track, classification/identification, and group composition. Moreover, these emissions provide a readily available source for targeting the SAG. If attacked, the resulting battle damage and depleted stock of defensive weapons would most likely require the group to withdraw.  

130131-N-HN991-919 PACIFIC OCEAN (Jan. 31, 2013) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Stockdale (DDG 106) and USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110) transit the western Pacific Ocean. The Nimitz Strike Group Surface Action Group is operating in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class David Hooper/Released)
PACIFIC OCEAN (Jan. 31, 2013) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Stockdale (DDG 106) and USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110) transit the western Pacific Ocean. The Nimitz Strike Group Surface Action Group is operating in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class David Hooper/Released)

For distributed lethality to succeed, SAGs have to avoid being engaged while in transit to the attack position, attack with the advantage of surprise, avoid attack while repositioning, and if attacked, effectively defend the force. If, as must be anticipated, some or all of the units in the SAG are located and the enemy begins defensive operations, the first objective is to avoid being targeted by possibly denying the attacking force the information required to attack. If these measures fail and a SAG is located and targeted by the enemy, the goal is to transition instantaneously to full active defense in a tactically advantageous manner. Destroying the aircraft, surface ships, submarines, or land based sites is preferable to defending against large numbers of fast moving incoming anti-ship weapons.

While emission control (EMCON) is essential to deny targeting, the ships in a SAG will have to communicate to coordinate movements, exchange information, and execute defensive and offensive activities. These datalinks and battle group communications will have to be carefully selected to minimize the probability of intercept by enemy ISR systems.

Implications for Surface Navy Information Warfare

When in EMCON, the SAG will be reliant on own-force passive sensors, organic airborne surveillance systems, and the full range of information from nonorganic Navy, joint, and national ISR systems. This information will enable the tactical commander to gain and maintain both information superiority and speed of command, defined by VADM Cebrowski as: “knowing more things which are relevant, knowing them faster and being able to convert that knowledge into execution faster than the adversary.”

SAG tactical situation awareness requires the capability to automatically correlate relevant active and passive information from organic and non-organic sensors with intelligence at all classifications and compartments for presentation to the commander. This automation is essential to the commander’s situational awareness and speed of command. Surface ships will have to integrate the capabilities to correlate information from the ship’s combat system with intelligence and information from off board sources. Speed of command is dramatically slowed and tactical advantage lost if the commander has to mentally integrate three separate sets of information with some only available in a separate physical space.

Knowing the relevant facts faster than the adversary drives a requirement that off board intelligence and information systems must meet a Key Performance Parameter for time latency, measured from time of sensing to receipt onboard ship. It also indicates the need for a similar metric for ship combat systems measured from time of information receipt on ship to presentation to the commander. Speed of command is the key to tactical success in distributed operations.

Even when exercising electromagnetic and acoustic EMCON to avoid detection, surface ships can be detected by radars, visually, and by electro-optical sensor systems. Assessing whether the SAG has been detected will depend on factors such as enemy sensor location and altitude, platform type, sensor types on the platform, and a detailed understanding of enemy sensor performance. Sensor performance estimates require not only detailed technical intelligence, but also the assessment of effects of atmospheric and acoustic conditions on enemy sensor performance at any time during the mission. This suggests that combat systems will have to incorporate new automated IW functionality that, among other things, integrates track information with technical intelligence and meteorologic/oceanographic data to assess whether the ship has been detected or not.


The effective planning and command of SAG IW activities requires line officers that are trained, have specialized in IW during their careers, and are ready to perform the IW functions required for success in distributed operations. That is, to achieve superior situation awareness and speed of command, influence enemy decisions, deny the enemy information superiority, disrupt enemy decision making, and protect and defend own force information and information systems from external or internal threats.

As the concept of distributed lethality matures and the Navy gains an appreciation of the necessity for and potential of IW at the tactical level, the Navy will have to adjust to more clearly define IW, describe the missions and functions of IW, establish a career path for Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) IW specialists, and equip surface combatants with the information warfare capabilities required for successful distributed operations.

Richard Mosier is a former naval aviator, intelligence analyst at ONI, OSD/DIA SES 4, and systems engineer specializing in Information Warfare. The views express herein are solely those of the author.

Featured Image:  The Arabian Gulf (Mar. 23, 2003) — The Tactical Operations Officer (TAO), along with Operations Specialists, stand watch in the Combat Direction Center (CDC) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) monitoring all surface and aerial contacts in the operating area.  (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Tiffany A. Aiken)