Tag Archives: topic week

Distributed Leathernecks

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By LCDR Chris O’Connor 

This year, the Navy plans to send out a surface action group (SAG) comprised of three DDGs in order to test distributed lethality CONOPS. This is an important first step, but the next SAG deployed should include a completely different unit. A San Antonio-class LPD. One LPD-17 class ship in the mix will considerably change the capabilities of a SAG across the warfare spectrum, making it a true Adaptive Force Package (AFP) that is more lethal in a number of different ways.

Donate to CIMSEC!

Why an LPD? It is a large littoral combat ship. The LCS classes were designed to have mission bay space so that capabilities could be swapped out as the mission required. LPD-17 class ships, if loaded with a specialized set of MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) equipment, have room for equipment that no DDG or CG could dream of carrying, at a greater volume than an LCS. While serving on the USS BUNKER HILL (CG-52), the author recognized that the guided missile cruisers in the US Navy have been built for specific weapon systems, sensors, and engineering equipment. A modification to add more systems that are significant departures from the original design will be at the expense of the baked-in warfare capabilities. More unmanned systems or connectors can be put on a surface combatant, but they will be limited to the constraints of the torpedo magazine, hangar, or boat deck space, and will take away from the important uses those shipboard locations currently have.

LPD 22 Sea Trials
LPD 22 Sea Trials, Huntington Ingalls photo. 

On top of the “open concept” interior (so in vogue these days), the LPD also has a flight deck that dwarfs that of any surface combatant; it can launch or recover two V-22s simultaneously. It has massive potential to carry more aviation systems due to the aircraft storage space in the large hangars and deck tie-downs. Not to mention that if a DDG wants to put something in the water, it has to lower it with the boat davits or other limited means. A LPD has a well deck that can splash LCACs, LCUs, and unmanned systems that use the sea interface.

During a recent distributed lethality wargame (of which the author was part of), game participants were given objectives and a choice of AFPs to use towards those aims. The choices included a mix of DDGs, LCSs, America-class LHAs, and “Hughesian” (the author is taking liberties with that word) small missile combatants a la “streetfighter.” We then employed these mixed forces against a red force that was trying to reach an objective, break a blockade, or put troops ashore on an island. The decision-making process was constrained to a surface picture, speed/capability/weapons employment solution set. This was the explicit purpose of this game, being early in the distributed lethality wargame process.

Early in the game a different way of meeting the same goals came to the author, and they involved using Marines with surface or aviation connectors. For example, we can deter an island invasion with the proper positioning of surface ships, but what if that island already had US forces on it? If a red force landing craft was able to get through, it would have to contend with defenders on the island. It is much less politically tenable for red forces to land on an occupied island than to occupy an island that is not populated (or at least has no security or military forces on it) with the guise that it is helping or providing unasked-for security assistance. Blue landing forces would enhance the maritime security exclusion zone around an island or completely obviate it. V-22s can get to the objective a lot faster than surface ships. In the recent DL wargame, if the blue forces chose to use America-class LHAs as part of their a la carte AFPs, V-22s were not an option, they and landing forces from the LCSs were adjudicated from the game for aforementioned reasons.

Flight deck loaded with V-22 Ospreys, defenselink.mil photo.
Active flight deck , defenselink.mil photo.

An LPD can be part of a disaggregated ARG and be used as part of a DL task force. An LPD loaded with MEU equipment that can be quickly employed and join up with an LHA and LSD would be especially useful if needed to create a larger landing force. A red force that wants to land troops to provide “security assistance” or “fight terrorists” would have to contend with LCAC delivered and V-22 delivered vehicles with TOWs, Marines with Javelins and Stingers, and in a longer time period, LAVs, AAVs, and MPCs that have swum ashore from the LPD’s well deck. At the least, the LPD will be a sea base lily pad for long-range V-22 missions, such as non-combatant evacuations or special operations strikes. All three ARG ships do not have to be present for this capability to be delivered.

The future brings even more options. A DL MAGTAF assigned to a LPD could be specifically modified to perform specialized deterrent landings at short notice, or bring ashore capabilities we do not currently use. TOW and Javelin missiles would make landing craft think twice, but there are truck mounted Naval Strike Missiles and other antiship and surface-to-surface missiles. A lot of those systems, including HIMARs, are too large to be delivered by an LCAC as they are currently fielded. These weapons, or other systems such as Hellfire or JAGM, could be modified and put on smaller vehicles that are purpose built to provide anti-access/area denial capabilities. On top of this, the flight deck of the LPD can launch and recover even larger UAVs than the surface combatants can employ. The hangars can support USMC aircraft such as the AH-1Z and UH-1Y that can carry out different mission sets than the H-60 variants that deploy on current surface combatants. New capabilities could use up some of this non-skid real estate, such as strike missile box launchers, additional communications and EW equipment. Not to be forgotten, the well deck could be used to put UUVs and USVs in the water, creating defensive swarms around contested geographic points or high-value units. Being a Supply Corps officer, the author is obliged to point out the additional logistics capability that an LPD brings to the fight; more storage for supplies, mothership capability for smaller units, and space for new capabilities that can be bolted on such as additive manufacturing.

Norweigan Strike Missile (NSM) launched from a truck, Kongsberg photo.
Norweigan Strike Missile (NSM) launched from a truck, Kongsberg photo.

The new E-series ships such as the EPF, ESB, and ESD can all do parts of these missions, but would not survive as well in a contested environment as an LPD-17. That class has EW, communications, self-defense, and logistics endurance capabilities that the newly minted expeditionary classes do not have. This is not discounting them, but they just cannot play in the same environment as the other members of the DL SAGs can; there is a place for them in other parts of the littoral arena.

This is not an original idea. If you have heard this all before, it is because many people saw the potential from the very beginning of the LPD-17 class. James H. Cobb wrote a series four novels from 1997-2002 that were the closest thing for the Navy to Dale Brown was for the Air Force. In his books, then-experimental technology was used to fight battles in new ways. The third novel Seafighter (2002) exhibited the gonzo awesome idea of armored LCACs armed with chain guns, hellfire missiles and even SLAM missiles (as a “streetfighter” concept). The linchpin of the Navy task force that employed these systems was an amphibious warship used to the fullest extent of its capabilities- supporting the battle hovercraft, launching helicopter strikes, and the like. When the author was a member of the CNO Strategic Studies Group, one of the areas of investigation was new uses for current classes of ships, and there were already think pieces out on the LPD-17. These ideas should be used in the distributed lethality concept to bring Marines to that fight.

The Navy-Marine Corps team is at its most lethal when each naval service uses its unique capabilities to the utmost. And the best way to cohesively bring them together for the good of distributed lethality is with an LPD in the fight, part of a Surface Action Group. This will certainly make our potential adversaries sit up and pay attention.

LCDR Chris O’Connor is a supply corps officer in the United States Navy and a member of the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.

Donate to CIMSEC!

Enabling Distributed Lethality: The Role of Naval Cryptology

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By LCDR Chuck Hall and LCDR David T. Spalding

The U.S. Navy’s Surface Force is undergoing a cultural shift.  Known as “Distributed Lethality,” this strategy calls for our naval combatants to seize the initiative, operate in dispersed formations known as “hunter-killer” surface action groups (SAG), and employ naval combat power in a more offensive manner. After years of enjoying maritime dominance and focusing on power projection ashore, the U.S. Navy is now planning to face a peer competitor in an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) environment. Long overdue, Distributed Lethality shifts the focus to one priority – warfighting.  Far from a surface warfare problem alone, achieving victory against a peer enemy in an A2AD environment will require leveraging all aspects of naval warfare, including naval cryptology.

Donate to CIMSEC!

Naval Cryptology has a long, proud history of supporting and enabling the Fleet. From the Battle of Midway in 1942, to leading the Navy’s current efforts in cyberspace, the community’s expertise in SIGINT, Cyber Operations, and Electronic Warfare is increasingly relevant in an A2AD environment. Led by Commander, U.S. Fleet Cyber Command/U.S. TENTH Fleet, the community is comprised of officers and enlisted personnel serving afloat and ashore and who are well integrated with the Fleet, intelligence community, and U.S. Cyber Command. Given its past history and current mission sets, naval cryptology is poised to enable distributed lethality by providing battlespace awareness, targeting support, and effects, in and through the electromagnetic spectrum and cyberspace.   

Battlespace Awareness

Battlespace Awareness, as defined in the Information Dominance Roadmap, 2013-2028, is “the ability to understand the disposition and intentions of potential adversaries as well as the characteristics and conditions of the operational environment.”  It also includes the “capacity, capability, and status” of friendly and neutral forces and is most typically displayed as a Common Operating Picture (COP).  To be effective, however, battlespace awareness must seek to provide much more than just a COP. It must also include a penetrating knowledge and understanding of the enemy and environment — the end-user of which is the operational commander. The operational commander must be able to rely on predictive analysis of enemy action in the operational domain to successfully employ naval combat power in an A2AD environment.  

Naval Cryptology has historically provided battlespace awareness through the execution of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) operations.  During World War II, Station HYPO, located in Pearl Harbor and headed by Commander Joseph Rochefort, collected and decrypted the Japanese naval code, known as JN-25. Station HYPO’s exploitation of Japanese naval communications was sufficient to provide daily intelligence reports and assessments of Japanese force dispositions and intentions. These reports were provided to naval operational commanders, to include Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas. On May 13, 1942, navy operators intercepted a Japanese message directing a logistics ship to load cargo and join an operation headed to “Affirm Fox” or “AF.”  Linguists from Station HYPO had equated “AF” to Midway in March after the Japanese seaplane attack on Hawaii (Carlson, 308) and was thus able to confirm Midway as the objective of the upcoming Japanese naval operation.  Station HYPO was also able to give Nimitz the time and location of the Japanese attack point: 315 degrees, 50 nm from Midway, commencing at 7:00AM (Carlson, 352). This allowed Nimitz to position his forces at the right place, designated Point Luck, northeast of Midway, placing the U.S. fleet on the flank of the Japanese (Carlson, 354). Had Station HYPO’s efforts failed to provide this battlespace awareness, Admiral Nimitz would not have had enough time to thwart what might have been a surprise Japanese attack.  

Photo shows work being done on the Japanese Naval code J-25 by Station HYPO in Hawaii. The Japanese order to prepare for war was sent in J-25 prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, but decoders had been ordered to suspend work on the Naval code and focus efforts on the diplomatic code. Later, enough of J-25 was broken to be used as an advanced warning to the Japanese attack on Midway. NSA photo.
Photo shows work being done on the Japanese Naval code J-25 by Station HYPO in Hawaii. The Japanese order to prepare for war was sent in J-25 prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, but decoders had been ordered to suspend work on the Naval code and focus efforts on the diplomatic code. Later, enough of J-25 was broken to be used as an advanced warning to the Japanese attack on Midway. NSA photo.

Victory at Midway was founded on the operational commander’s knowledge of the enemy’s force construct and disposition. Currently the product of both active and passive, organic and non-organic sensors, achieving battlespace awareness in an A2AD environment will require more emphasis on passive and non-organic sensors, and increased national-tactical integration in order to prevent detection and maintain the initiative.  The “hunter-killer” SAGs will be entirely dependent upon an accurate and timely COP – not just of enemy forces, but of dispersed friendly forces as well.  Just as battlespace awareness enabled triumph against the Imperial Japanese Navy, so too will it be the very foundation upon which the success of distributed lethality rests. Without it, the operational commander cannot effectively, and lethally, disperse his forces over time and space.    

Targeting Support

Another key enabler of the Surface Navy’s shift to the offensive will be accurate and timely targeting support.  Though support to targeting can come in many forms, as used here it refers to the triangulation and precision geolocation of adversary targets via communications intelligence and radio direction finding (RDF).  In an environment in which options to “fix” the enemy via radar or other active means introduces more risk than gain, RDF presents itself as a more viable option.  Indeed, the passive nature of direction finding/precision geolocation makes it particularly well suited for stealthy, offensive operations in an A2AD environment.  Leveraging both organic and non-organic sensors in a fully integrated manner — RDF will provide “hunter-killer” SAG commanders with passive, real-time, targeting data.     

Perhaps one of the best historical examples of Naval Cryptology’s support to targeting can be seen in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Third Reich had threatened the very lifeline of the war in Europe as Admiral Donitz’ U-boats were wreaking havoc on Allied merchant vessels throughout the war. Though America had begun intercepting and mapping German naval communications and networks as early as 1938, it was not as critical then as it was upon entry into the war. By the time America entered the war, the U.S. Navy’s SIGINT and cryptanalysis group, OP-20-G, boasted near 100 percent coverage of German naval circuits. Many of these circuits were used for high frequency (HF), long range shore-ship, ship-shore, and ship-ship communications. The ability to both intercept these communications and to locate their source would be necessary to counter the Axis’ attack. That ability was realized in an ever growing high frequency direction finding (HFDF) network.

The HFDF network originally consisted of only a handful of shore stations along the Atlantic periphery. Throughout the course of the war it grew to a rather robust network comprised of U.S., British, and Canadian shore-based and shipborne systems. The first station to intercept a German naval transmission would alert all other stations simultaneously via an established “tip-off” system.  Each station would then generate a line of bearing, the aggregate of which formed an ellipse around the location of the target.  This rudimentary geolocation of German U-boats helped to vector offensive patrols and enable attack by Allied forces — thus taking the offensive in what had previously been a strictly defensive game.  The hunter had become the hunted.        

German U-boats threatened the very lifeline of the war in Europe by wreaking havoc on Allied merchant vessels throughout the war.
German U-boats threatened the very lifeline of the war in Europe by wreaking havoc on Allied merchant vessels throughout the war.

Enabling the effectiveness of increased offensive firepower will require more than battlespace awareness and indications and warning.  Going forward, Naval cryptologists must be agile in the support they provide — quickly shifting from exploiting and analyzing the enemy, at the operational level, to finding and fixing the enemy at the tactical level. Completing the “find” and “fix” steps in the targeting process will enable the “hunter-killer” SAGs to accomplish the “finish.”

Cyber Effects

Finally, cyber.  Receiving just a single mention, the original distributed lethality article in Proceedings Magazine refers to the cyber realm as, “the newest and, in many ways most dynamic and daunting, levels of the battlespace—one that the Surface Navy, not to mention the U.S. military at large—must get out in front of, as our potential adversaries are most certainly trying to do.” Indeed, the incredible connectivity that ships at sea enjoy today introduces a potentially lucrative vulnerability, for both friendly forces and the adversary. Similar to battlespace awareness and targeting, Naval Cryptology has history, albeit limited, in cyberspace. Cryptologic Technicians have long been involved in Computer Network Exploitation (CNE) and the Navy was the first service to designate an enlisted specialty (CTN) in the cyber field. According to the FCC/C10F strategy, not only do they, “operate and defend the Navy’s networks,” but they also, “plan and direct operations for a subset of USCYBERCOM’s Cyber Mission Forces.”  The combination of history and experience in cyberspace, coupled with the FCC/C10F designation as the Navy’s lead cyber element, clearly places the onus on naval cryptology. As the Navy seeks to protect its own cyber vulnerabilities, and exploit those of the adversary, the execution of effective cyber operations by the cryptologic community will be critical in enabling distributed lethality.

Going Forward

Today, through a wide array of networked, passive, non-organic sensors, and integration with national intelligence agencies and U.S. Cyber Command, naval cryptology is well-positioned to enable distributed lethality by providing battlespace awareness, targeting support, and effects, in and through the electromagnetic spectrum and cyberspace. Yet, similar to the surface force, a cultural shift in the cryptologic community will be required. First, we must optimize national-tactical integration and better leverage and integrate off-board sensors. The uniqueness of the A2AD environment demands the integration and optimization of passive, organic and non-organic sensors in order to prevent counter-targeting. Second, we must prioritize the employment of direction finding and geolocation systems, ensuring they are accurate and sufficiently integrated to provide timely targeting data for weapons systems. This will require a shift in mindset as well, from simple exploitation to a focus on “find, fix.” Third, we must continue to lead in cyberspace, ensuring cyber defense in depth to our ships at sea while developing effects that effectively exploit adversary cyber vulnerabilities. Finally, naval cryptology’s role in distributed lethality cannot occur in a vacuum — increased integration with the Fleet will be an absolute necessity.

Distributed lethality is the future of Naval Surface Warfare — a future in which the cryptologic community has a significant role. In order to ensure the Surface Force can seize the initiative, operate in dispersed formations known as “hunter-killer” SAGs, and employ naval combat power in a more offensive manner in an A2AD environment, Naval Cryptology must stand ready to provide battlespace awareness, targeting support, and effects, in and through the electromagnetic spectrum and cyberspace.

LCDR Chuck Hall is an active duty 1810 with more than 27 years of enlisted and commissioned service.  The opinions expressed here are his own.

LCDR David T. Spalding is a  former Cryptologic Technician Interpretive.  He was commissioned in 2004 as a Special Duty Officer Cryptology (Information Warfare/1810).  The opinions expressed here are his own.

Donate to CIMSEC!

Works cited:

Ballard, Robert. Return to Midway. Washington, D.C: National Geographic, 1999.

Parshall, Jonathan. Shattered Sword : The Japanese Story of the Battle of Midway. Dulles, Va. Poole: Potomac Chris Lloyd distributor, 2007.

Carlson, Elliot. Joe Rochefort’s War: the Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 2011. Print.

Distributed Lethality: Old Opportunities for New Operations

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Matthew Hipple

The BISMARCK, a single ship capable of striking fear into the heart of an entire nation.
The BISMARCK, a single ship whose threat was sufficient to muster an entire fleet for the hunt.

The essence of naval warfare has always been opportunism – from the vague area of gravity generated by an in-port “fleet in being,” to the fleet-rallying threat generated by even a BISMARK or RANGER alone. The opportunity is generated by forces more mobile and self-contained than any army, more persistent than an air force, and empowered to act with no connection to higher authority in a domain that leaves no trace.  It is that ability for a small number of independent ships, or even a single vessel, to provide opportunity and create, “battlespace complexity,” that is distributed lethality’s core. Distributed lethality is not naval warfighting by new principles; it is a return to principles.

Donate to CIMSEC!

The best defense is not an overwhelming obsession with defense.
The best defense is not an overwhelming obsession with defense.

Unfortunately, the virtuous autonomy of the past was, in part, only protected by the limited technology of the day. As technology allowed, decentralized execution was replaced by the luxury and false confidence of constant connection to higher authority through an electronic umbilical. It is the kind of devolution that turned into Secretary Gates’ nightmare, “I was touring a [Joint Special Operations Command] in Kabul and discovered a direct line to somebody on the NSC, and I had them tear it out while I was standing there.” In parallel, America began the ahistorical project of investing all offensive opportunity not even in a single class of ship, but a single ship surrounded by a fleet obsessed with its defense.  As early as 1993, President Clinton stated that when a crisis broke out, his first question would be, “where is the nearest carrier.” Sorry, other ships! For the Navy to sensibly rebalance, distributed lethality must succeed. For distributed lethality to succeed, we must decentralize and de-tether mission command, weapons release authority, and weapons support systems.

Decentralized and disconnected methods of command must be embraced, as centralization is only an imagined luxury. Modern centralization is based on the assumption we will have the connectivity appropriate for it. This is no longer tenable in a world of increasingly advanced peers and hyundaized lesser adversaries. Anti-Access, Area-Denial (A2/AD) depends on opponents making themselves visible, of which electronic emission is critical. A2/AD will also inevitably seek to disrupt our C2 connections.

“Permission? We don’t need no stinkin’ permissions.” “The Battle for Fox Green Beach,” watercolor by Dwight Shepler, showing the Gleaves class destroyer USS Emmons(DD 457) foreground and her sister-ship, the USS Doyle, to the right, within a few hundred yards of the landing beach, mixing it up with German shore batteries on D-Day.

The current major-node CWC concept will need to be broken down to a more compact, internal model designed around the Hunter Killer Surface Action Group. Rules of Engagement must be flexible to the point that American commanders need not look over their shoulders to a higher OPCON. Consider, the destroyer CO’s at Normandy didn’t consider waiting for direction or requesting approval before shifting from small boat screening to shore bombardment from the shoals. They recognized the opportunity – the necessity – and executed of their own will.

In contrast, today it might be a regular occurrence to double-and-triple check our actions with American OPCON while operating with NATO in TACON off Somalia. American CO’s could use the freedom to make pragmatic, on-the-spot decisions not only for immediate concerns of mission effectiveness, but as representatives of their higher military command and, potentially, the state. Coalition commanders would have greater trust in the spot decisions of their American counterparts, rather than worry they sit precariously atop a changing several-step staffing process.

Though encouraging equivalent RoE flexibility for coalition partners may be challenging, our autonomy may encourage our partners to interpret their home nation guidance in a flexibility equivalent to their trust in the US commander they fight beside. That lack of hesitancy will be critical during a conflict, and in that sudden moment in the South China Sea or Mediterranean when a small SAG of coalition partners find themselves in the midst of a conflict that has just begun. Imposing the peacetime discipline necessary to trust the CO’s we have trained, prepared, and empowered to do their jobs is the only thing that will jump-start a shift in a mind-set now dominated by subordination. 

In the execution of more flexible orders, ships must be re-invested with control of their own weapon systems. CO’s oversee non-nuclear weapon systems that they do not control – that are solely the purview of off-ship authorities. In particular, as weapon systems like Tomahawk become deployable for ASuW, off-ship authority’s iron grip on their control must break.  This decentralization also matters outside the stand-up fight at sea. The organic ability to program and deploy Tomahawk missiles for land strike allows surface ships to execute attacks of opportunity on land infrastructure, or execute and support opportunistic maritime raids as groups of marines harass adversaries, or turn isolated islands into temporary logistics or aviation operations bases. For winning the sudden-and-deadly fight in the littoral environment but integrating with opportunistic amphibious operations, the surface fleet could find some inspiration from the USS BARB, the only submarine in WWII to “sink” a train with its crew-come-amateur-commandos. From Somalia to the South China Sea, naval commanders should be told what to do, not how – and be allowed to do it. The less reliant the force is on these ephemeral links and the less these links are unnecessarily exercised in peacetime, the greater a force’s instinct to operate independently and with confidence in an imposed or needed silence. 

CAPT Ramius, relieved to discover he is not dealing with "some buckaroo."
CAPT Ramius, relieved to discover he is not dealing with “some buckaroo.”

There may be a level of discomfort with decentralization and disconnection. If leaders fear the impact of a “strategic corporal,” surely a “buckaroo,” as  CAPT Ramius would call him, that would be truly horrifying. That fear would be a reflection of a failure of the system to produce leaders, not the importance and operational effectiveness of independence. There is a reason the US once considered the Department of the Navy to be separate and peer to the Department of War – noting the institution and its individual commanders as unique peace and wartime tools for strategic security and diplomacy. Compare today’s autonomy and trust with that invested in Commodore Perry during his mission to Japan or Commodore Preble’s mission to seek partnership with Naples during the First Barbary Pirates War. Reliance on call-backs and outside authority will gut a naval force’s ability to operate in a distributed manner when those connections disappear. Encouraging it by default will ensure the muscle memory is there when needed.

Finally, Distributed Lethality requires the hardware to allow surface combatants to operate as effective offensive surface units in small groups. The kinetic end of the spectrum, upgraded legacy weapons and an introduction of new weapon systems has been extensively discussed since the 2015 Surface Navy Association National Symposium when VADM Rowden and RADM Fanta rolled out Distributed Lethality in force. However, weapon systems are only as good as the available detection systems. Current naval operations rely heavily on shore-based assets, assets from the carrier, and joint assets for reconnaissance. In the previous Distributed Lethality topic week, LT Glynn argued for a suite of surveillance assets, some organic to individual ships, but most deploying from the shore or from carriers.  Presuming a denied environment, and commanders empowered to seek and exploit opportunities within their space, the best argument would be for greater emphasis on ship-organic assets. They may not provide the best capabilities, but capabilities are worthless if assets cannot find, reach, or communicate with a Hunter-Killer SAG operating in silence imposed by self or the enemy. They also prevent an HKSAG from being completely at the mercy or limitations of a Navy or joint asset coordinator – while simultaneously relieving those theater assets for higher-level operations and opportunity exploitation.

Ultimately – distributed lethality is the historical default mode of independent naval operations given a new name due to the strength of the current carrier-based operational construct. Admiral Halsey ordered CAPT Arleigh Burke to intercept a Japanese convoy at Bougainville, “GET ATHWART THE BUKA-RABAUL EVACUATION LINE ABOUT 35 MILES WEST OF… IF ENEMY CONTACTED YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO.” The surface fleet must embrace a culture assuming our commanders “KNOW WHAT TO DO.” We must build an operational construct in which acting on that instinct is practiced and exercised in peacetime, for wartime. The operational and diplomatic autonomy, as well as the OLD IRONSIDES style firepower of single surface combatants, is necessary to rebalance a force gutted of its many natural operational advantages. Distributed lethality must return the surface force to its cultural and operational roots of distributed autonomy, returning to the ideas that will maximize opportunity to threaten, undermine, engage with, and destroy the adversary.

Matthew Hipple is the President of CIMSEC and an active duty surface warfare officer. He also leads our Sea Control and Real Time Strategy podcasts, available on iTunes.

Donate to CIMSEC!

A Tactical Doctrine for Distributed Lethality

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Jeffrey E. Kline, CAPT, USN (ret)

“…strike effectively first…”

–Wayne P. Hughes, Captain, United States Navy (ret)[i]


In January of 2015 the U.S. Navy’s surface leadership publicly described the concept of distributed lethality.[ii] In broad terms, distributed lethality proposes creating small offensive adaptive force packages comprised of surface action groups (SAG) with a variety of support elements that operate  across a wide region and under an adversary’s anti-access sea denial umbrella. Its purpose is to confound adversary locating and targeting while introducing a threat to their sea control ambitions. It is an offensive concept for the U.S. surface forces. After decades of investment in defensive technology, systems, and training to counter cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and submarines, distributed lethality represents a course change for surface warfare, or at least a return to accepting a major role in sea strike that had been ceded to the carrier air wings. With several world powers developing challenging sea denial capabilities, establishing sea control in contested areas is again a concern of naval planners. A return to the offensive capability of surface action groups (SAG) is necessary to add resilience to a naval force structure operating in these contested areas. It also leverages the tactical offense, which in naval warfare is advantageous to overemphasizing defensive capabilities.

Donate to CIMSEC!

This paper describes a tactical doctrine to mature the concept of distributed lethality. By tactical doctrine we mean fundamental principles by which surface forces operate in the function-specific case of naval surface-to-surface engagements in a challenging electronic emission condition where adversaries may have an advantage in long-range detection of contacts.[iii] Its purpose is to guide efforts in providing surface forces with capabilities to conduct independent offensive actions and to develop specific combat tactics to employ organic surveillance assets, ships, and weapon systems to find, fix, and finish enemy surface ships in wartime.

Distributed Lethality empowers the surface navy to reclaim a role in sea strike. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63) fires a Harpoon missile during a sinking exercise as part of Valiant Shield 2014. (U.S. Navy photo).

The tactical doctrine’s essence is that continuous emissions will be fatal and allow the enemy to strike first. It is not meant to preclude use of additional capabilities provided by cross-domain contributions, but it does focus first on the ship as the basic unit to build a distributed lethality system. This is a key philosophy for surface ship survival in a modern missile surface duel and somewhat of a sea change: we must use networked systems when they are available, but not rely on them.  To do otherwise invites creating our own vulnerability for the enemy to exploit. 

This tactical doctrine is based on three principal objectives:

  • Out think the enemy
  • Out scout the enemy
  • Out shoot the enemy

Out Think the Enemy: Delegated C2 and Independent SAG Tactical Operations

Ensuring a Captain’s technical ability to exercise his ship’s entire kill chain, as well as the authority to employ his weapons under the general guidance of commander’s intent, relieves an external command and control burden, provides the fleet a faster search-to-kill decision cycle, and increases fleet resiliency to operate in the most demanding electromagnetic environments.[iv] Many individual SAG operations, each within their own operating areas controlling their own search assets, tasked with obtaining sea control in a restricted emissions control status, strive to achieve an overall cumulative sea control effect.[v] When a central authority can provide broad area targeting information, a blind broadcast across the operating area may be made. This concept mimics submarine independent operations to establish undersea dominance with each submarine having its own water space. It is not efficient in a network-centric sense, but it does complicate the enemy’s surveillance, search, command and control efforts and therefore enhances our fleet wide survivability.

Delegated command authority is not a new concept to the U.S. Navy. It empowers American initiative at the lowest level of command. We, however, must be careful that our desire for efficiencies in technological investments does not inhibit an individual Captain from exercising all his weapon systems and thereby restrict command initiative. For example, a communal surveillance resource like a maritime Global Hawk controlled from ashore provides cost-efficient sensor coverage usable by all in an operating area. But, if we rely on it, and it is lost due to enemy fire or intrusion, we blind all our SAGs. Instead, we should leverage its coverage when available, but rely on a SAG’s organic sensors to provide over the horizon targeting within its own operating area. Empowering American initiative at the lowest level of command is the most effective counter to a tactical surprise by an enemy.[vi]

This distributed lethality tactical doctrine implies each ship’s crew is trained to find, target, and kill without off-ship support, under a full range of emission control conditions. As ships are added to a surface action group, and other platforms added to the adaptive force package, the group must also be capable of fighting as a team, in any emission control condition. Specific techniques will be addressed in the scouting section.

Out Scout the Enemy: Fighting in the “Electronic Night”

Just as the U.S. land forces’ motto is “we own the night,” U.S. surface forces must be capable and proficient in fighting in the electronic night, or without the benefit of our powerful sensors and communications networks. Each additional electronic emission we rely on to find an enemy’s surface group increases the risk of counter-detection, and therefore being detected, localized and targeted by the enemy. The surface force’s objective must be to achieve this search-to-kill cycle faster than any adversary.

Passive electro-optic communications will need to be developed again between ships operating under the most restrictive emissions control (US Navy photo).

In Fleet Tactics, Wayne Hughes addresses both scouting and anti-scouting as methods to achieve a faster targeting cycle than the enemy.[vii] The U.S. surface navy’s current Distributed Lethality Task Force recognizes this and is exploring a concept of “deceive-target-destroy” to use both anti-scouting and scouting methods to gain the advantage.[viii] This paper will refer to these two broad categories while making tactical suggestions influenced by emission control conditions (or loss level of the EM spectrum) and number of platforms in an adaptive force package.

Single Ship Operation: Alone and Unafraid

Although adaptive force packages are envisioned as teams of several ship types with other support elements, the ability for each ship to operate independently in the most challenging emission control environment is a desired quality for force flexibility and resilience. In a truly contested environment friendly attrition may demand it. Technologies such as Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) radar operations, burst communications and bi-statistic active-passive operations using remote active sensors may allow for active emissions while limiting counter-detection. Nevertheless, we first address single ship operations in a completely passive condition with no organic air support or external targeting support. This is the most demanding scouting environment and is an effective anti-scouting technique particularly when combined with active decoys.

Completely passive scouting techniques for a single ship include visual, electronic surveillance, and acoustic surveillance. These techniques rely on the older concept of firing solutions being a function of the target’s relative position to the shooter, instead of requiring global positioning. Visual targeting is, of course, the least desirable as it exposes both forces to simultaneous targeting, but with many historical examples of combating forces “stumbling” upon each other, and as both surface forces may be conducting passive search, U.S. surface forces need to train for “quick response” firing. Technologies such laser target designators, long range guided gun munitions, wire-guided heavyweight torpedoes for surface ships, and visually fired missile systems may need to be developed to enhance U.S. combatants in the race to shoot first.

Passive and active search tactics with organic assets will need to be developed for each ship and helicopter pair (US Navy Photo).
Passive and active search tactics with organic assets will need to be developed for each ship and helicopter pair (US Navy Photo).

Beyond visual range, passive electronic and acoustic surveillance may be conducted with onboard electronic surveillance receivers and passive hull mounted and towed array hydrophones. Their information can be converted to a targeting technique through the use of Ekelund ranging and target motion analysis as used by the U.S. submarine force. [ix] Depending on atmospheric ducting and ocean convergent zone conditions, these passive techniques may allow detection as far as 50 nautical miles, with area of uncertainty for targeting dependent on line of bearing error and suspected target range. The decision to shoot passively either on a line of bearing or with a bearing-range solution rests on the factors of missile seeker capability, size of area of uncertainty, the risk of counter-detection,  and the level of concern for clobber.[x]

Relaxing the tactical condition slightly by receiving information from off-board organic sensors, we add the use of organic tactical air reconnaissance from embarked helicopters or UAVs, and employment of sonobouys as trip-wires. These assets can either enable passive cross fixing for cooperative targets[xi], visual targeting, or in the case of an intelligent passive sonobouy trip wire design, range information. For air assets, use of off-axis, passive low flying and pop up techniques are anti-scouting tactics to mitigate the risk of enemy counter-detection.

As additional emission control relaxations are allowed like the use of LPI radar, dual use radar (military or civilian), or allowing organic air or unmanned surface assets to conduct active search while the host remains passive (bi-static active-passive operations), additional area may be added to the surface ship’s search space and its area of operations. Use of air asset active radar sensors will extend search areas, but expose manned helicopters to the risk of being engaged. Specific active-passive tactics combined with pop maneuvers should be a priority for each ship-helicopter pair to develop. Care to use off-axis operations and random active search with these remote assets to avoid counter detection must be a given. One advantage to remote active operations is the possibility of seducing an adversary operating in passive mode to risk active emissions for a better defense condition, thereby increasing the U.S. ship’s chance to combine active and passive targeting information. This is different than the anti-scouting use of active decoys to entice the enemy to misuse their own targeting and striking assets, which is another appropriate tactic in this contested environment. Both techniques  enhance the “Deceive-Target-Destroy” operating philosophy.

In addition to tactical deception using decoys, other anti-scouting techniques for single surface ship operations include concealment and evasion. Concealment may involve operations close to land to mask radar returns or confound missile seekers and electro-optic sensors; the use of commercial shipping or fishers to mask movement; or a combination of both. High speed evasion is used to increase the enemy’s area of uncertainty if we believe we have been localized by opening what is their datum on us.

As information is received from non-organic methods (national intelligence, higher command, or orbiting maritime aircraft) it may be silently fused with these other information to provide or enhance strike operations. Since these sources approach today’s normal methods of targeting they need not be expanded upon here.

The most challenging command decision for a Captain in this environment is when to switch from a passive offensive mode to an active defense condition in the face of a potential threat. If this is done too early based on only a few indicators we become susceptible to the enemy’s decoy seduction for us to provide targeting information to him. If too late, we mitigate our advantage in defensive hard kill systems. The Captain must weigh the timing and compounding of evidence and consider employing defensive soft kill systems first since these have been historically more effective than hard kill, and reveal less to the enemy’s scouting efforts. Activation of short range hard kill systems should follow and long range radar and hard kill systems employed last, all to give as little information to enemy scouts as possible. Of course, an active missile homing signal with a rapid increasing frequency shift is a red flag for all active defense systems. After an actual attack and successful defense when any electronic emissions are employed, passive high speed evasion should immediately follow.

Multiple Ship Operations: Better as a Team

Most capabilities for tactical employment of scouting  and anti-scouting in various levels of emission control for a single ship apply to a multiple ship surface action group or an adaptive force package. Additional ships require formation configuration to best capitalize on passive cross bearing fixes allowing for environmental and acoustic conditions. For example, a two ship SAG may steam in a staggered line of bearing perpendicular to a threat axis with a distance between ships that gives a good cross fix area of uncertainty[xii] while allowing for mutual defense and electro-optic communications.  Another example is a three-ship SAG steaming in roughly a triangular formation when no threat axis is available to cover a 360 degree passive surveillance area. Frequent individual course changes should be made along base course to put passive towed array beams in the best position to acquire acoustic information.

Exchanging information across a surface hunter-killer group in a strict emission control environment requires local C4I networks relaying on electro-optic communications such as laser, visual, or IR transmitters and receivers. Use of atmospheric layers by bending and reflecting signals may be explored to extend beyond line of sight, but intra-SAG communication that has no or little electromagnetic emissions will enhance SAG anti-scouting efforts.[xiii]

As emission control conditions are relaxed to employ organic off board sensors, helicopters, UAVs, or USVs may be positioned to either “complete triangles” in a two ship SAG, or be positioned forward to offset the threat axis and provide right angle passive surveillance. UAVs may be used as communication relays with low power emission or electro optic transmitters and receivers.

Options for dispersed SAG operations exist where one or two ships are sent miles ahead along a known threat axis in completely silent emission control. The ships in the rear are active on radar and control forward unmanned sensors, transmitting their information to ships in the van to create an opportunity for covert and surprise attack. This increases the intermittent risk to the active ships, but use of anti-scouting techniques of remote active decoys, LPI radar, and random active operations may be used mitigate the danger.

Multiple levels of active defense become an option with multi-ship SAG operations. Depending on indications and warnings of an attack, a SAG commander may decide the most capable air defense ship go active with hard kill systems while others employ soft kill only, or all go active, or some passively evade while others go active with hard kill. Again, these decisions are weighed against inadvertently providing targeting information to an enemy SAG too early in a defense cycle. The advantage of combat tactical doctrine is to permit training and rapid advances in tactical readiness through practice.

Out Shoot the Enemy: Don’t Take a Knife to a Gun Fight

Hughes writes “..the battle will be decided by scouting effectiveness and weapon range” and “the choice of tactics will also be governed by scouting effectiveness and weapons range.”[xiv] The obvious statement must be made that a SAG may kill no further than its longest missile system. Ship to ship missile systems should be designed for as much range as possible limited only by weight and size considerations for ship employment and possibly the ability to reload at sea. It is dangerous, and a bit arrogant for weapons systems designers to limit a missile range based on assumed future tactical situations.

Payload constraints of organic air assets limit the aggregate firepower needed to attack a capable enemy effectively, although they may be used to augment a shipborne attack, or attack independently with the purpose of making an uncooperative enemy go into active defense to provide better targeting data.

Traditionally, the key to effective surface missile attack is to penetrate enemy defenses by having missiles arrive while they are in a passive search mode (surprise), or to overwhelm his defenses with sufficient missiles arriving simultaneously. Another method is to attack with enough missiles, UAVs, and/or decoys to exhaust enemy weapon magazines and then follow with another attack. U.S. surface forces are susceptible to this tactic by nations with UCAV swarm capabilities.

Long range missile capability will be critical for effective surface action group offensive operations” Photo Information: LMCO artist conception of LRASM.

When U.S. missile systems have the same range, or greater range than an enemy, a simultaneous attack is best conducted when sufficient scouting information is available for a targeting solution. If U.S. systems are out ranged by an enemy, the dispersed SAG tactic of silent shooters along the threat axis with active ships in the rear may be employed to get ships silently within range of their quarry. [xv] In both cases it is preferred to conduct missile launches in an emission control constrained status to make the arrival of the missiles a short notice event for the enemy.


With the guidance that doctrine serves the glue of tactics, [xvi] this paper’s purpose is to provide direction for specific tactic development to employ ships and weapon systems under the distributed lethality concept. This includes specific passive target acquisition techniques informed by electronic and acoustic capabilities and environmental conditions, targeting methods informed by missile seeker capabilities, and passive defense measures informed by enemy missile seeker capabilities. By nature these tactics will be in the classified realm and modified as new technologies are introduced for the SAG or emerge as a threat from our adversaries. However, the general goals of out thinking the enemy by creating situations to allow a faster search to kill cycle and resilient operational employment; out scouting the enemy through the intelligent use of scouting and anti-scouting techniques; and out shooting the enemy through missile range and/or tactics provide a foundation for detailed tactic exploration, at sea experimentation, and refinement.

A retired naval officer with 26 years of service, Jeff is currently a Professor of Practice in the Operations Research department and holds the Chair of Systems Engineering Analysis. He teaches Joint Campaign Analysis, executive risk assessment and coordinates maritime security education programs offered at NPS. Jeff supports applied analytical research in maritime operations and security, theater ballistic missile defense, and future force composition studies. He has served on several Naval Study Board Committees. His NPS faculty awards include the Superior Civilian Service Medal, 2011 Institute for Operations Research and Management Science (INFORMS) Award for Teaching of OR Practice, 2009 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Homeland Security Award, 2007 Hamming Award for interdisciplinary research, 2007 Wayne E. Meyers Award for Excellence in Systems Engineering Research, and the 2005 Northrop Grumman Award for Excellence in Systems Engineering. He is a member of the Military Operations Research Society and the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science.  

Donate to CIMSEC!

[i] Hughes, Wayne.  Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, Second Edition, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, Annapolis Maryland, 2000

[ii] Rowden, Thomas,  Gumataotao, Peter, and Fanta, Peter.  “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2015

[iii] For a discussion on functional specific doctrine see James J. Tritten paper “Naval Perspectives for Military Doctrine Development” at http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/doctrine/research/p198.pdf

[iv] By resiliency I mean the ability for the fleet to absorb attrition yet still complete a campaign’s objective

[v] For a discussion on accelerated cumulative warfare see Kline, Jeffrey E. “Joint Vision 2010 and Accelerated Cumulative Warfare.” Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 1997.

[vi] The caution of technologically constraining individual command initiative is raised in Responding to Capability Surprise: A Strategy for U.S. Naval Forces, National Research Council of the National Academies, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C, 2013

[vii] Hughes, Wayne.  Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, Second Edition, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, Annapolis Maryland, 2000 pp 193,198

[viii] Personal communication with CAPT Joe Cahill, USN, Director U.S. Surface Force Distributed Lethality Task Force February 2016

[ix] While many sources are available describing Elelund ranging and TMA, a good unclassified overview is Coll, Peter F. “Target Motion Analysis from a Diesel Submarine’s Perspective” Master of Operations Research Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, September, 1994

[x] “Clobber” is a term for a sea skimming missile flying without seeker turn on  accidently hitting a ship that is not the target, but along the bearing of the flight path.

[xi] The term cooperative target here means one that is radiating either electronically or acoustically

[xii] “Good” here is defined as an area of uncertainty which a surface missile seeker can cover when it goes active or if passive, the area coverage of its sensor.  Depending on environment conditions, missile seeker size and passive sensor error, a distance between ships of 10 – 15 nautical miles and provide adequate targeting for a cooperative target to 100 nautical miles

[xiii] A team of Naval Postgraduate researchers including Bordetsky, Brutzman, Benson and Hughes are exploring a concept of “Network optional warfare” and proposing technologies to create a “mess network” for the SAG

[xiv] Hughes, p 270

[xv] Hughes, p 272

[xvi] Hughes, p 29