Tag Archives: distributed lethality

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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Call for Articles – July’s Distributed Lethality Week

Week Dates: July 6-10
Articles Due: June 30
Article Length: 500-1500 words
Submit Articles to: nextwar (at) cimsec.org

Since the leaders of the Surface Navy unveiled the concept of
Distributed Lethality in January 2015, the idea has been met with
enthusiastic support.  The basic premise behind Distributed Lethality is that the Surface Navy can increase its combat power by distributing it across more platforms.  By threatening the adversary with more, capable platforms, the Distributed Lethality concept forces the adversary to spread his intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets thin and complicates his targeting problem against U.S. Navy assets.  As Rear Admiral Peter Fanta, Director, Surface Warfare, put it, “if it floats, it fights.”

Distributed Lethality implies a radical shift in the way we train our Sailors, deploy our forces, and equip our ships.  Distributed Lethality will require a fundamental change in the way the U.S. Navy thinks about projecting firepower.  For decades, the centerpiece of U.S. Naval operations has been the Carrier Strike Group.  Some may see Distributed Lethality as the answer to China’s and other’s Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD) strategy, which is apparently designed to keep U.S. Navy aircraft carriers out of the East and South China Seas.  Along the same lines, there are those outside the Surface Navy that suspect Distributed Lethality may be in part a way to wrest control from an often dominant aviation community. Whatever the case is – Distributed Lethality is here and moving forward.

During the first full week of July, CIMSEC will host a series focused on the implementation, opportunities, and challenges of Distributed
Lethality.  Contributions may address programs already in place,
existing technology that could be reoriented toward Distributed
Lethality, new tactics or technologies that might enhance the concept, or some other facet of Distributed Lethality. How can Distributed Lethality defeat the A2AD strategy? What will Distributed Lethality Command and Control look like? How will logistics work? Should Distributed Lethality be employed only by the Surface Navy? Or should it be a Navy-wide concept of operations?

Publication reviews will also be accepted.

James Drennan is a Surface Warfare Officer and a Distinguished Graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Systems Engineering Analysis program. 


Distributed Lethality: An Update

Ed. note: VADM Thomas S. Rowden, USN, provided this update from San Diego after his original article received the most votes in the run up to CIMSEC’s Forum for Authors and Readers (CFAR) of those pieces our readers wanted to see discussed in person.

Congratulations to everyone involved in CIMSEC, and thank you for all you have done to advance understanding and debate about Seapower, especially American Seapower. I am grateful to your readers for their interest in the piece I submitted earlier this year, “Surface Warfare: Taking the Offensive”, and I only wish my schedule had allowed me to join you for the “Forum for Authors and Readers” on February 26th [Ed note: videos online now]. Hopefully, this update will keep me in good standing among CIMSEC boosters.

We in the Surface Force are embarking upon a serious intellectual deep dive into the very nature of what we do and what we CAN do, an inquiry that seeks to capitalize upon the two of the most important attributes surface forces possess—mobility and persistence. Part of this inquiry is concerned with a concept we are developing known as “Distributed Lethality”, an idea that we were still forming when I wrote the piece above and referred to it as “dispersed” lethality. You can learn more about Distributed Lethality by reading about it in the January issue of Proceedings, or by watching the second half of my Surface Navy Association 2015 speech beginning at the 25:45 mark. Properly understood, Distributed Lethality combines an opportunistic and steady increase in unit lethality over time with innovative methods of operating those units together, the goal of which is to create a new range of operational problems for potential adversaries and hold numerous and diverse targets he values at risk. As I have written, increasing unit lethality without new and innovative operating patterns sub-optimizes the investment, while new and innovative operating patterns without enhanced unit lethality assumes unacceptable risk. Both activities are required for Distributed Lethality to have impact.

Working across the Surface Force—the Fleet, OPNAV, the Systems Commands, the training organizations, and ONR—we are looking at ways of getting more combat punch out of the platforms and payloads we already field by asking simple questions and then aggressively seeking answers. We are applying elements of the thinking of talented navalists like Captain Wayne Hughes and Captain Jeff Klein at the Naval Postgraduate School, CDR Phil Pournelle at OSD, and Dr. Jerry Hendrix at the Center for a New American Security to the real problems of resource constraints and evolving threats.

We are taking the long view on Distributed Lethality, aiming at a horizon of 2030 for our planning purposes but with steady progress from year to year and POM to POM. I spoke at SNA of this being a “generational” effort, and I meant it. There will not be a lot of splashy, overnight successes along the way; rather, there will a series of opportunistic capability upgrades where they make the most sense at the right times. But first, we must lay the intellectual groundwork for moving in this direction, and that is what will comprise much of the work we do in 2015.

A team of surface warriors across the enterprise is working hard to put meat on the bones of the articles and speeches made thus far, fleshing out the concepts and supporting concepts of Distributed Lethality, not to mention identifying the overarching concepts into which it must fold. Eventually, a small team will begin traveling to the numbered fleets and COCOMS to engage in a two-way dialogue designed to expose planners to what our thinking is, and to vest our concept development team with an updated appreciation of the operational factors most at play in the various areas of responsibility (AOR).

Additionally, we are working with the Naval War College to frame appropriate war-games and analytical venues to allow us to identify near-term, high-impact lethality upgrades and to ensure that our thinking is not in violent conflict with established methods of doing business. I frame the previous sentence the way I do because I am not ignorant to the possibility that what we are suggesting with Distributed Lethality could be potentially disruptive to current thinking about large scale maritime campaigns and war-at-sea. I honestly don’t think we would be doing our jobs very well if we weren’t constantly evaluating the status quo in search of more effective and efficient methods of delivering Seapower from the Surface Force. I hope CIMSEC readers would agree.

In the meantime, little victories are accumulating, and the logic behind Distributed Lethality becomes clearer. Earlier this month, Naval Air Systems Command and Raytheon conducted a test demonstration of a Tomahawk Block IV missile that received off-board guidance to intercept a moving surface target. Getting back into the over-the-horizon ASuW game is a central thrust of Distributed Lethality, and this interesting re-purposing of the Tomahawk is exactly the kind of opportunistic, straightforward capability upgrade that we seek. Think about the utility and flexibility of a Tomahawk sitting in a VLS cell that can strike fixed land-targets, moving land targets, or moving maritime targets. One missile, three very different targets. Apply that thinking across other munitions and projectiles, and we really begin to provide gritty operational problems to adversaries grown used to our defense crouch.

Before I close, let me once again reinforce the centrality of high value unit defense and Strike Group operations to Surface Warfare. Nothing we do in Distributed Lethality should be seen as taking away from our historic and necessary role in enabling naval power projection by helping to protect CVN’s and ARG’s. We start from the proposition that HVU operations and defense is our main mission, and then work to create operational problems with more lethal and distributed surface forces from there.  Our proposition is that the Surface Force can do more, and we’re going to take the time necessary to study and analyze that proposition in order to get it right.

Thanks again for the opportunity to provide this update, and keep up the great work. CIMSEC is establishing itself as an intellectual powerhouse in maritime matters, and I am proud to play a small part.

Vice Admiral Thomas S. Rowden is Commander, Naval Surface Forces. A native of Washington, D.C., and a 1982 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, VADM Rowden has served in a diverse range of sea and shore assignments.

Re-Post: Surface Warfare: Taking the Offensive

Guest article by VADM Thomas S. Rowden, USN from June, 2014. Re-Posted during the SNA National Symposium this week.

I am indebted to the leadership of CIMSEC for providing a platform for me and senior members of my team at OPNAV N96 to lay out for readers key parts of our vision for the future direction of Surface Warfare. Captain Jim Kilby started it off with “Surface Warfare: Lynchpin of Naval Integrated Air/Missile Defense”, and Captain Charlie Williams followed up with “Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) – The Heart of Surface Warfare” and “Increasing Lethality in Anti-Surface Warfare (ASUW)”.   Both of these officers were recently selected for flag rank, and the Surface Force could not be more fortunate. Their years of fleet experience in these mission areas uniquely qualify them to lead our force in the future. Together with our continuing mastery of land attack and maritime security operations, the three operational thrusts they describe a Surface Force that is moving from a primarily defensive posture to one on the offense. This is an exciting development, and I want to spend a few paragraphs reinforcing their messages.

The single most important warfighting advantage that the U.S. Navy brings to the joint force is the ability to project significant amounts of combat power from the sea, thousands of miles from our own shores on relatively short notice and with few geo-political restraints. No one else can do this, and for the better part of two decades, our ability to do so was unchallenged. Without this challenge, our mastery of the fundamentals of sea control—searching for and killing submarines, over the horizon engagement of enemy fleets, and long range air and missile defense—diminished, even as the world figured out that the best way to neutralize this power projection advantage was to deny us the very seas in which we operate.

Surface Warfare must “go on the offensive” in order to enable future power projection operations. I call this “offensive sea control” and it takes into consideration that in future conflict, we may have to fight to get forward, fight through our own lines, and then fight to stay forward. Pieces of ocean will come to be seen as strategic, like islands and ports, and we will offensively “seize” these maritime operating areas to enable further offensive operations. Put another way, no one viewed the amphibious landings in the Pacific in WWII as “defensive”; there was broad understanding that their seizure was offensive and tied to further offensive objectives. It is now so with the manner in which we will exercise sea control.

What does this mean to fleet Sailors? It means that we have to hit the books, dust off old TACMEMOS and begin to think deeply again what it means to own the inner screen against submarines, to hunt down and destroy adversary surface vessels over the horizon, and to tightly control the outer air battle. We need to study the threats and devise new tactics designed to counter them. We need to master the technology that is coming to the fleet—Navy Integrated Fire Control (Counter Air), or NIFC-CA; the Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR); the SQQ-89 A(V)15 ASW Combat System; the LCS ASW Mission Module; the introduction of the Griffin missile in the PC class; new classes of Standard Missiles; Rail Gun; Directed Energy. We will need to use these systems and then do what Sailors always do—figure out ways to employ them that the designers never considered.

Going on the offensive is a mind-set, a way of thinking about naval warfare. It means thinking a good bit more about how to destroy that than how to defend this. Don’t get me wrong—we will still need to be able to defend high value units, amphibious forces, convoys, and logistics—but we will increasingly defend them by reaching out and destroying threats before those threats are able to target what we are defending.

We are moving to a concept of dispersed lethality in the Surface Force, one that presents an adversary with a considerably more complex operational problem. It will not be sufficient to simply try to neutralize our power projection forces. While these will be vigorously defended, other elements of the surface force will act as hunter/killer groups taking the fight to the enemy through the networked power of surface forces exercising high levels of Operational Security (OPSEC) and wielding both lethal over-the-horizon weapons to destroy adversary capabilities and sophisticated electronic warfare suites to confound adversary targeting. Especially in the Pacific, vast expanses of ocean will separate the carrier air wing from dispersed surface operations, so the paradigm of the past few decades that suggested the carrier would provide strike assets to supplement the Surface Force is no longer valid. We will leverage air wing capability, but we will not be dependent upon it.

Working in tandem with shore-based maritime patrol aircraft and our organic helicopters, we will seek out and destroy adversary submarines before they threaten high value units or fielded forces. Bringing together the networked power of surface IAMD forces and the mighty E-2D, we will dominate the outer air battle, eliminating threats to the force at range. The Surface Force will seize strategic “maritime terrain” to enable synchronized follow-on operations.

Those who may ask how the current fiscal environment impacts this vision, my answer is that it does so substantially. We will be forced to favor capability over capacity. We will favor forward deployed readiness over surge readiness. We will continue to invest in forward-looking capabilities through a strong science and technology/research and development budget, while ensuring we accelerate those promising technologies closest to fielding and most effective in advancing our offensive agenda.

We will posture more of the force forward, and more of it in the Pacific. While the total size of the fleet will likely decline if current conditions continue, more of it will be where it needs to be, it will be more effectively networked over a larger more dispersed area, and it will be equipped with the weapons and sensors necessary to enable this offensive shift.

I am bullish on Surface Warfare, and you ought to be too. I look forward to continuing this dialogue on the Renaissance in Surface Warfare, and I am proud to be part of the greatest Surface Force in the greatest Navy the world has ever known!


Vice Admiral Thomas S. Rowden’s current assignment is Commander, Naval Surface Forces. A native of Washington, D.C., and a 1982 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, VADM Rowden has served in a diverse range of sea and shore assignments.