Tag Archives: Corbett

Distributed Lethality: A Cultural Shift

The following is a submission from guest author James Davenport for CIMSEC’s Distributed Lethality week.

Despite the recent article on Distributed Lethality1 and the paper on Offensive Sea Control2, there is a sense of hesitancy in the surface force in embracing these ideas. The hesitation is understandable. Distributed Lethality and Offensive Sea Control (henceforth referred to as Distributed Lethality for brevity) run counter to recent experience, and they appear to challenge the most successful surface program in history, Aegis, by suggesting that offensive warfare is equal to or greater in importance than the defensive operations the surface force is so well-equipped and trained to perform.

Distributed Lethality cannot succeed without a change in the surface force’s culture. To enable that change in culture the surface force must understand where its bias towards the defensive originates. The surface force must understand why Distributed Lethality is sound military theory. The surface force needs to be reminded that it has embraced Distributed Lethality before to great effect. The surface force must rethink how it views survivability in an anti-access/ area denial (A2/AD) environment. Finally, the surface force must change its culture through training and repeated exposure to the concept of Distributed Lethality.

Institutional Perception of the Surface Force

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the USN’s superiority was unchallenged for more than a decade. The USN became a victim of its own success. Assured of its superiority, the Navy started reducing its offensive flexibility. The USN built thirty-four guided-missile destroyers with no over the horizon anti-ship capability at all and retired the long-range anti-ship version of the Tomahawk missile. There was no challenger to use it, or practice using it, on. The surface force’s focus was squarely on visit, board, search, and seizure and air and missile defense operations.

The focus on air and missile defense operations is reinforced by the superb training on the Aegis Weapon System most Surface Warfare Officers receive at some point in their careers. Aegis Training and Readiness Center in Dahlgren, VA is rightly regarded as a center of 1975028_1481959128698444_800990737_nexcellence for training. Surface Warfare Officers can receive training there three or four times through their career inculcating Surface Warfare Officers in the Aegis culture of excellence. The success of Aegis and its adaptation to the ballistic missile defense mission is a tribute to the partnership between the Navy, the Missile Defense Agency, and our industry partners. No one system has dominated the thinking of the surface force in the way Aegis has.

The result of these influences is a defensive-minded surface force. Many in the surface force perceive their mission as providing defense against small surface vessels, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and submarines. In return, the air wing goes on the offensive against ships and aircraft, while the submarine force goes on the offense against threat submarines and ships. This mindset says in order to survive the force has to operate as a whole, while concentrating the majority of the offensive firepower in a small number of submarines and an even smaller number of aircraft carriers and their air wings. This concentration of offensive firepower limits flexibility, reducing the Navy’s ability to operate against anti-access /area denial threats.

The Theory Behind Offensive Sea Control

Recognizing wholesale command of the seas is impractical in the face of A2/AD threats, admirals Rowden, Gumataotao, and Fanta argue for the use of distributed lethality to take control of the seas in key areas in order to project power.1 This is certainly one significant advantage of distributed lethality and offensive sea control. It is not the only advantage, however.

Corbett also recognized it would be impractical to dominate the seas completely, at all times. Corbett does identify a solution; prevent the enemy from securing or controlling the seas by “active defensive operations.”3 In Corbett’s view, sea control is not sitting web_101210-N-2885V-025off the coast of a hostile nation, asserting air, sea, and electromagnetic dominance, while launching strikes ashore. Corbett’s opinion, in more modern terminology, is that sea denial is sufficient.

No matter what it is called, sea denial or sea control, the concept has value. Equipping our surface ships with more offensive capability complicates our adversaries’ planning. A distributed, lethal force must be accounted for, either by devoting resources, to defend against it, to negate it, or by amassing a robust enough force to absorb more losses and still perform their mission. Enough offensive capability may even deter our adversaries from adventurism in the first place.

Distributed Operations

Not only does distributed lethality have value in disrupting and deterring potential adversaries, but it can also play a significant part in defeating them. The bulk of the USN is generally located far from potential hot spots. Only a fraction of the fleet is forward deployed. Furthermore, that fraction is spread across the globe in support of the nation’s interests. The nation’s adversaries have the advantage of being able to operate near their own shores as well as to determining when and where they will strike; in effect, negating the advantages in capability and mass the USN possesses. Thus, at the onset of hostilities the USN will be likely the inferior force, which is not necessarily the disadvantage it may seem, as long as that forward-deployed force is lethal.

Clausewitz argues a force not concentrated at the same place at the same time has an advantage over a force that is concentrated. A concentrated force attacked by a smaller force will suffer disproportionate casualties and suffer disorganization from the attack, as long as the smaller force has reinforcements to press home this advantage.4 Although, the example is tactical in nature, this idea is remarkably similar to the situation the USN finds itself in today and has relevance in a modern operational context. If equipped properly with both offensive capability and mindset, a small number of forward deployed units could inflict disproportionate casualties, while being able to call upon a much larger force assembled from across the globe to administer a coup de grace against the aggressor.

What Was Old is New Again

The value of distributing lethality is not an unknown or a new idea. In the 1970s, the Soviet Navy was growing and the USN carrier force was dwindling. From the commissioning of the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy in 1968 to the commissioning of the U.S.S. Carl Vinson in 1982, four aircraft carriers were commissioned, while 17 aircraft carriers were decommissioned.5

Faced with this new reality, the USN embraced Corbett’s view of sea control and implemented it in two ways. First, lethality of surface combatants was increased by fielding Harpoon missiles and Tomahawk missiles in both land attack and anti-ship variants. Second, this increased lethality was distributed by retrofitting older classes of ships and equipping future classes of ships with one or both of these weapons. One of the desired effects of this first iteration of Distributed Lethality, was to complicate our adversary’s scouting picture, by making them devote resources to finding, not only our carriers, but our newly lethal surface ships as well.6

Distribution Contributes to Force Survivability

Captain Wayne P. Hughes echoes the issue of complicating an adversary’s scouting picture in the first points on survivability applicable to Distributed Lethality in his book Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice. “The great constant of scouting seems to be there is never enough of it.”7 This is the effect of “spreading the playing field” admirals Rowden, Gumataotao, and Fanta want to achieve with Distributed Lethality.1

Captain Hughes’ makes and additional point that applies to survivability. That is offensive firepower has the advantage early in a conflict. At Jutland, in the Pacific Theater of Operations, and more recently in the Falklands, offensive weapons were more effective than their defensive counterparts, until defenses had the necessary time to adapt to the realities of those conflicts.8 The USN’s offense will be more effective than our adversary’s defense just at the time when the USN’s surface ships are most likely to encounter the enemy without the support of the larger fleet and its accompanying defensive umbrella. In light of historical examples, how the surface force currently perceives survivability must be challenged.

The Way Forward

The key enabler to Distributed Lethality is developing a training infrastructure rivaling that of Aegis while complementing, not challenging, Aegis . The new training must emphasize the advantages and how to mitigate perceived disadvantages of Distributed Lethality. In order to accomplish this, the training must address exploiting gaps in and deceiving an adversary’s scouting capability, over the horizon targeting, coordinating dispersed offensive capability in an A2/AD environment, and, of course, the proper employment of offensive weapons. Finally, Distributed Lethality training must be delivered at multiple points throughout a Surface Warfare Officer’s career to keep the officer current in the latest tactics, techniques, and procedures, and to build on the officer’s understanding of Distributed Lethality.

The surface force needs to embrace the advantages of a distributed lethal force. The foremost step is equipping our force to be lethal and offensive in posture. However, weapons and sensors are not enough. The surface force must change its mindset. Only through a change of mindset, enabled by time and training, will the surface force be able to fully exploit the strengths of Distributed Lethality.

LCDR James Davenport is a Surface Warfare Officer currently stations at Surface Forces Atlantic.

1 VADM Thomas Rowden, RADM Peter Gumataotao, and RADM Peter Fanta. “Distributed Lethality.” U.S. Naval Institute. January 2015. Accessed February 13, 2015. http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2015-01/distributed-lethality.

2 Clark, Bryan. “Commanding the Seas: A Plan to Reinvigorate U.S. Navy Surface Warfare.” Commanding the Seas: A Plan to Reinvigorate U.S. Navy Surface Warfare. November 17, 2014. Accessed March 23, 2015. http://csbaonline.org/publications/2014/11/commanding-the-seas-a-plan-to-reinvigorate-u-s-navy-surface-warfare/.

3 Corbett, Julian S. “Some Principles of Maritime Warfare.” Internet Archive. February 16, 2005. Accessed February 13, 2015. https://ia700506.us.archive.org/20/items/someprinciplesof15076gut/15076-h/15076-h.htm.

4 von Clausewitz, Carl. “On War.” Chapter XII Assembly in Time. Accessed February 13, 2015. http://www.clausewitz.com/readings/OnWar1873/BK3ch12.html.

5 “Navy.mil Home Page.” The US Navy Aircraft Carriers. Accessed March 23, 2015. http://www.navy.mil/navydata/ships/carriers/cv-list.asp.

6 MUIR, Malcolm. “The Zumwalt Years and Aftermath.” In Black Shoes and Blue Water, 220. Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of the Pacific, 1996.

7 Hughes, Wayne P. “The Great Constants.” In Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, 183. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1986.

8 Hughes, Wayne P. “The Great Constants.” In Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, 180-181. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1986.

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Cruisers, What Are They Now, and Why?

WWI-HMSAmphionLooking back at Corbett’s writings, he talks a great deal about the need for cruisers, but technology and terminology have moved on and the cruisers of Corbett’s days are not what we think of as cruisers today. Corbett’s “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy” was published in 1911. There were some truly large cruisers built in the years leading up to World War I, but Corbett decried these in that their cost was in conflict with the cruiser’s “essential attribute of numbers.”

A typical cruiser that came out of the thinking of the day was the Active Class (1912). 3,440 tons, 26 knots, and ten 4″ guns. Many of the cruisers of the day were even smaller, many under 3,000 tons.

Corbett often referred back to the Nelsonian period. His idea of a cruiser was the smallest warship that could undertake prolonged independent operations, frigates, sloops of war, and brigs, even schooners. Their missions were:

  • Protection of our own maritime commerce
  • Denial of the enemy’s commerce, including blockade and commerce raiding
  • Scouting (ISR in the current vocabulary)
  • Screening the battlefleet (both anti-scouting to deny the enemy knowledge of own battlefleet and protection for the swarm of flotilla craft with torpedoes.)
  • Communications

Of these he seemed to consider scouting for and screening the battlefleet, unfortunate, if necessary distractions from their primary duty of exercising control over maritime communications and commerce.

In the hundred plus years since Corbett’s writing, the number and types of naval platforms have proliferated and the roles once the exclusive domain of these relatively small surface ships have been assumed by other systems.

Radio replaced the dispatch carrying function of Nelson’s cruisers and improvements continually reduced the importance of the role for 20th century cruisers.

The torpedo boat destroyers first grew from what we would now call FACs into cruiser roles and cruiser size and now emerged as major strategic assets in their own right.

Submarines, which were little understood in Corbett’s time, quickly emerged as the premier commerce raider. Later they took on the role of countering their own kind, just as cruisers once did. They have scouted for and screened surface ships. They also grew into additional roles that make them in some respects inheritor of the battleship mantle as well as that of the cruiser.

Airplanes, also a recent innovation when Corbett wrote his classic, quickly became effective and essential scouts. They began to screen the fleet against the opposing “flotillas” including the enemies own planes. Flying from escort carriers or in the form of long-range maritime patrol aircraft that took on the cruisers role of protecting commerce. During WWII they replaced the battleships’ guns.

More recently satellites also assume roles in scouting and communications.

Small surface ships can still do the missions Corbett identified, but it seems other systems may be able to do them as well or better. Are their still roles for the smallest warships that can undertake prolonged independent operations?

There are still some things only surface ships can do. What is enemy commerce is not always obvious. In many cases only a visit and search can determine if a vessel is innocent.

While aircraft and even submarines may protect our own commerce, when ships are attacked far from shore, only surface ships (and their embarked aircraft), can save the crews or bring damage control assistance.

These are certainly not jobs for Burke class destroyers, which are now, with BMD and land attack roles, essentially Capital Ships. We need some minimum number of ships to do these tasks which are essential to the exercise of sea control. Once we establish how many we need, we can consider if the marginal cost of adding MCM, ASW, ASuW, and/or AAW capability is worthwhile. Frigates once filled this role, in addition to others, LCS are the only ships the Navy is currently building that might do these jobs. Some Coast Guard Cutters may also be appropriate. Somehow, I doubt we have enough, and I have doubts that they are adequately armed to deal with even medium sized merchant vessels without assistance.

Essentially we have a fleet of battleships of several types, CVNs, SSBNs, SSNS, DDGs, Amphibs. Simple and numerous “cruisers,” the smallest ships that can undertake prolonged independent operations, are almost non-existent.

“In no case can we exercise control by battleships alone. Their specialization has rendered them unfit for the work, and has made them too costly ever to be numerous enough. Even, therefore, if our enemy had no battle-fleet we could not make control effective with battleships alone. We should still require cruisers specialized for the work and in sufficient numbers to cover the necessary ground.”

Ref: “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy,” by Julian Stafford Corbett: http://eremita.di.uminho.pt/gutenberg/1/5/0/7/15076/15076-h/15076-h.htm

Chuck Hill is a retired Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard. He writes at Chuck Hill’s CG Blog, with the objective of looking, over the longer term, at the budgets, policies, tactics, roles, missions, and their physical expression – the platforms – that allow the Coast Guard to do its job.