The following article originally appeared by The National Interest and is republished with the author’s permission. It may be read in its original formhere.
By James Holmes
A new article from Wayne Hughes is a treat for anyone in naval geekdom. Captain Hughes literally wrote the book on U.S. Navy fleet tactics and coastal combat; I still schlep around my dog-eared copy of Fleet Tactics from my midshipman days in the 1980s. It keeps good company with tracts from Clausewitz, Corbett and the boys.
But last month over at USNI Blog, Hughes and a brace of Naval Postgraduate School colleagues proposed the concept of “mesh networks.” It refers to a dispersed yet networked ships, planes, weapons, and sensors that are able to seize the initiative from regional adversaries, maneuver in both physical and cyberspace, and prevail in near-shore combat. The whole thingis worth a read.
It’s a compelling read in many respects. Hughes and his coauthors accentuate how complex and menacing offshore waters and skies can be. For instance, we tend to evaluate weapons in large part by their firing range. Outrange a foe and you acquire a significant tactical edge. Similar to boxing, in sea fights, the pugilist with greatest range can wallop his opponent before he has the chance to strike back. The perpetrator inflicts damage without absorbing any himself.
But range is mainly an asset for open-ocean battle. The open sea resembles a vast, featureless plain; weapons can reach their full potential there. Ships and planes can pound away from their maximum firing ranges. Littoral combat, by contrast, compacts the distances at which battle takes place. You have to get close to shore to strike inland, land troops, or blockade enemy harbors.
To continue the boxing analogy, it is similar to forcing boxers to fight in the clinch rather than dancing around the ring. The fight transpires within weapons range of an enemy who’s fighting on his own ground, with all of his manpower and armaments close to hand. Compressing the theater, then, attenuates any range advantage U.S. forces may enjoy, or nullifies it altogether.
And if that’s not bad enough, inshore combat constricts the time available to defend against incoming rounds. Dexterity is essential when forced to cope with myriad challenges. Scattering and moving sensors and “shooters” around the theater constitutes one way to confound foes—provided U.S. forces can still mass firepower at the decisive place on the map at the decisive time. Hence the concept of nimble, “networked” forces. Despite the concept’s virtues, it feels incomplete and abstract, possibly even otherworldly.
That’s because it slights the human dimension of sea combat—a hazardous thing to do when contemplating how to wage war, an intensely human enterprise. My advice is to look not to a U.S. Navy admiral but to a U.S. Air Force colonel for insight into how to prosecute littoral combat. Let’s keep the human in human competition—enriching mesh-network tactics.
The coauthors make the late Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski’s model of decision-making their own, using it to explore the potential of offshore networks. Cebrowski describes tactics as a three-phase cycle. Sensing represents the first phase. Combatants gather and exchange data about their surroundings. They next decide what arms and tactics to deploy within those surroundings. And then they act on the decision, with the aim of getting off the first effective shot. Sense, decide, act. It makes sense on the surface, but the trouble is that this approach is too mechanical. It makes little allowance for the messiness that is human interaction in a competitive environment.
Cebrowski implies that in combat you can plug data into an algorithm, churn out an answer, and do what the algorithm says. Colonel John Boyd, a fighter pilot and self-made strategist, interjects a fourth element into the decision cycle. The tactical surroundings, says Boyd, are constantly in flux. It’s not enough to collect information about the setting. It’s about orienting oneself to the setting before making a decision and acting.
For Boyd, then, the cycle goes observe, orient, decide, act—OODA. Fail to orient to the surroundings and you are disoriented, estranged from the reality around you. Losing touch with reality represents a dangerous situation at the best of times—but especially in combat. The victor, oftentimes, is the combatant best in tune with the situation. So orienting is important.
How do you do it? It’s a process of assimilating and analyzing new information that comes in from sensors and other sources. Sounds like Cebrowski’s decide function. But Boyd also maintains that past experience shapes how combatants adapt to their surroundings. So do cultural traditions. So does “genetic heritage.” Boyd even factors in the biological basis of human cognition.
The fighter pilot thus incorporates not-strictly-rational components of human decision-making into his paradigm for tactics and strategy, adding texture to the model. Thinkers from Machiavelli to Taleb warn that people are hardwired to think in linear terms, projecting the past into the future in a straight line. Past trends constitute the best guide to future events.
Yet straight-line thinking impedes efforts to cope with the opponent—a living, determined contestant with every incentive to deflect competition onto nonlinear, unpredictable pathways. Culture likewise channels efforts to process new data in certain directions. Bewilderment greets unfamiliar information all too often—further slowing down adaptation.
Nor is orientation some incidental or throwaway element of the decision cycle. Boyd portrays it as the one element to rule them all: “The second O, orientation—as the repository of our genetic heritage, cultural tradition, and previous experiences—is the most important part of the O-O-D-A loop since it shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act.”
There’s a corollary to Boyd’s decision-making taxonomy. Pit two antagonists against each other, both of which are struggling to observe, orient, decide, and act effectively. Orienting swiftly and accurately is a defensive endeavor. But if there’s an orient function whereby each antagonist tries to stay abreast of change, there must also be an offensive, disorient function to the OODA cycle.
And indeed, Boyd beseeches savvy contestants to spring “fast transients” on their adversaries, seizing control of the environment. Sudden, swift, radical maneuvers befuddle the adversary. Repeated maneuvers cut him off from the tactical or strategic environment altogether, making him easy pickings. Boyd famously defeated every mock adversary he encountered during air-combat training within forty seconds. He ascribed his unbeaten record to fast—unforeseeable—transients.
All models simplify; that’s true in all fields of inquiry. We assume perfect competition in economics, exaggerating economic actors’ rationality for the sake of simplicity. We assume laminar flow in fluid dynamics, disregarding turbulence within the fluid and between the fluid and the pipe wall. And we assume frictionless machinery to illustrate physics and engineering principles.
And this is all to the good—provided economists and physicists disregard only secondary factors for the sake of explaining fundamental concepts, and provided they take account of these factors when they devise economic policies, piping systems, and engines for real-world use. Disregarding a primary factor could invalidate the model altogether. Cebrowski takes the orient function—the most important function—out of the decision cycle. Doing so abstracts any model founded on his theory from reality.
As a legendary pugilist once said, any scheme for human competition and conflict that neglects interaction has dim prospects for success. I urge the Naval Postgraduate School team to reject Cebrowski’s paradigm, and eliminate that fallacy from their worthwhile project. Wargames premised on Boyd’s more realistic decision cycle will yield more meaningful insight into how coastal combat may unfold, and that will bolster U.S. Navy performance.
Naval warfare is an intensely human enterprise, rife with dark passions, chance, and uncertainty. It’s disorderly and erratic, operating by its own topsy-turvy logic. Not for nothing does John Boyd insist that people, ideas, and hardware—in that order—constitute the crucial determinants of victory and defeat. Prioritizing people represents the starting point for wisdom.
Capitol Hill is integral to the continued success of U.S. naval forces. Yet most people outside the Washington, D.C. area have experienced the intricacies of how that institution goes about resourcing the military.
Join Sea Control: North America for an interview with
Katie Burkhart, a former Navy Surface Warfare Officer who now works in the office of Senator John Thune (R-SD). During the discussion we examine the role of the Hill in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the effect of the legislative process on defense policy, and the contributions of veterans on the Hill in guiding that policy.
For those interested in further resources: you can track the status of legislation, including the NDAA and defense appropriations bills, on www.Congress.gov. To continue learning about the legislative process, start with the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report “Introduction to the Legislative Process in the U.S. Congress” (link: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42843.pdf).
This episode of Sea Control: North America was hosted and produced by Matthew Merighi, Executive Director of Blue Water Metrics and a researcher for the Maritime Studies Program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
The views express on the podcast do not reflect those of the United States Government, the office of Senator John Thune, or those of the United States Navy.
Distributed Lethality is a concept announced by U.S. Navy leadership in January 2015 to explore the warfighting benefits of dispersing surface combatants. CIMSEC launched a topic week in July 2015 to focus analysis on this new concept. This compendium consists of the articles that featured in the topic week.
Authors: James Davenport Chris O’Connor Eric Gomez John Salak Michael Glynn Steven Wills Ryan Kuhns Jimmy Drennan Majorie Greene Thomas Rowden
Editors: Sally DeBoer Jimmy Drennan Dmitry Filipoff Matt Hipple Matthew Merighi
“One must be ready to change his line sharply and suddenly, with no concern for the prejudices and memories of what was yesterday. To rest upon formula is a slumber that, prolonged, means death.”-Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.1
Distributed lethality is a concept that was officially launched a year ago by Navy leadership to explore how dispersing forces would enhance warfighting. Traditionally, dispersion has been a cardinal sin in the highly decisive nature of naval warfare, but new threats and capabilities may have changed this principle that has long guided the employment of warships. This analysis aims to show how distributed lethality can offer versatile means for achieving political and military objectives in an era of lean budgets and evolving threats.
Navy leaders assert that distributed lethality will “add battlespace complexity”3 and “complicate the calculus” of an adversary. How will dispersed surface action groups (SAG) accomplish this compared to traditional carrier strike groups (CSG), and how will dispersion affect operations in the electromagnetic (EM) domain?
Distributed lethality attacks left on the kill chain, meaning it intends to influence the earlier phases of the process by which targets are located, identified, targeted, engaged, and effects are assessed. Aside from increasing search volume, dispersion challenges intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) through modularity. In a CSG centric navy,the detection of a large surface combatant increases the probability of learning the disposition of other warships, including valuable capital ships, and of knowing the operational unit they are arrayed in. The modularity offered by dispersed SAGs exacerbates the ISR challenge by reducing the certainty of what kinds of forces may be acting in concert with a potential contact, and what their capabilities and missions are. This will complicate prioritization of ISR and firepower, and increase the probability of expending precision guided munitions (PGM) due to forced error.4
However, distributed lethality will induce friction on the dispersed force. It is presumed that naval forces will employ emissions control (EMCON) techniques to frustrate the adversary in the EM domain. But EMCON exacerbates the challenges inherent to coordinating a dispersed force. Prior Navy experimentation discovered these challenges. Operations Haystack and Uptiderevealed thatdispersed operations under EMCON dramatically increase carrier survivability against submarines and land based bombers but at the expense of lengthened decision cycles.5 Under electromagnetic opposition, the degradation of confidence in the networking of a distributed force is easier because of additional variables to be accounted for and that can be influenced by enemy action. Aggregated forces can also more easily employ alternative means of communication compared to distributed forces.
Lengthened decision cycles for dispersed forces causes handicaps and presents dilemmas. Operations whose success is contingent upon careful coordination are less likely to succeed. The ability to mass capability on short notice amidst determined opposition is impaired. Planners must consider the extent that a SAG may be tied down by enemy action and its own tasking, and the resulting impact on total force flexibility. Operations must have built in flexibility and consider myriad contingencies. Scenarios where SAGs may be called upon to support one another will pose a challenge given how the Navy’s offensive firepower may soon outstick its defensive firepower. These realities will place a premium on inclusive planning and the Navy’s command by negation tradition.
Dispersion will complicate the enemy’s ISR at the expense of reducing one’s own C2 agility. It is important to note that C2 is not just further left in the kill chain than ISR and targeting, but threads the entire process together. These realities may make distributed lethality inflexible under certain circumstances, and result in a higher echelon commander’s intent being articulated in broader terms and with more modest aims. Vice Adm. Ted N. Branch, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance, pointedly reminded that “the assured C2 pillar touches almost everything we do.”6 The nature of modern conventional warfare has made the EM domain the battleground for superior decision making, and distributed lethality affects the kill chain of all parties.
Distributed Lethality versus Anti-Access/Area Denial
The Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) environment is the threat environment dominating the thinking of senior Navy leaders. What advantages does distributed lethality offer in meeting the A2/AD challenge?
Combating an A2/AD adversary could involve operations spanning multiple areas including blue water sea control, power projection into the littoral and across land. While the CSG is a formidable asset against the warships of a near peer adversary, a salvo competition between a CSG and A2/AD forces, especially land based forces, would be suicidal. The A2/AD model is attrition based. Its predominant advantage over expeditionary forces is the logistical sustainment of PGM, ensuring victory in a salvo competition if accurate targeting is sustained. By denying commons, A2/AD reduces freedom of maneuver and raises the probability of attrition based operations, forcing expeditionary forces into the A2/AD’s strength.
Distributed lethality counters A2/AD’s attrition model through maneuver warfare’s intent to probe for weakness and influence psychology. Dispersion facilitates multiple points of entry into theater, allowing for more sea control and maneuver. This in turn strains the anti-access mission and forces the adversary into executing area denial simultaneously. Distributed forces can probe more areas of the A2/AD envelope to gain intelligence on the opponent’s ISR capabilities and discover the true extent of their maritime domain awareness (MDA), setting the stage for follow on operations. Complicating ISR and targeting offsets logistical superiority by injecting uncertainty.
Distributed lethality will benefit from the numerous capabilities the Navy is developing to maintain its edge. The concept seeks to employ platforms in different ways, and promote versatility to make the most of limited resources. How could the Navy employ its warships differently and which capabilities should be prioritized?
In a 2014 CIMSEC article Admiral Tom Rowden, then director of Surface Warfare Directorate OPNAV N96, articulated a concept of dispersed lethality andasserted a distributed force will not be dependent on the air wing.9 While distributed lethality deemphasizes carrier strike missions, the air wing will be a critical enabler for the distributed force. A distributed air wing can provide rapid response anti-submarine warfare capability and function as communications relays for maintaining a responsive decision cycle while the dispersed force operates under EMCON. The air wing’s screening and early warning functionswill be indispensable for enabling commanders on the scene to exercise initiative and engage on their own terms. The air wing will refocus from the right side to the left on the kill chain.
Much has been made of a recent memo issued by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus on the Navy’s programs. The most significant directives include cutting procurement of the littoral combat ship (LCS) from 52 hulls to 40, and procuring 31 additional F-35C aircraft.10 It is important to note that distributed lethality was born from a wargame at the Naval War College where a LCS equipped with a long range surface to surface missile “added stress and complexity to the red force commander, who had to spend precious ISR resources trying to find these upgunned ships.”11 If aircraft and fast frigates/LCS are mutually exclusive investments in the near term, the Navy should explore whether it needs more shooters in the form of additional warships or air wing enablers performing the aforementioned missions.
A payload that has been wisely distributed across the Navy’s warships is the AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare (EW) system. The Block III increment of the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) will provide common electronic attack capability to surface combatants.12 Not only does the CSG focus large surface combatants on the defensive application of anti-air warfare (AAW), it does the same for EW. A distributed force equipped with an offensive EW capability could cause great disruption to an adversary’s ISR picture, reinforcing distributed lethality’s intent to attack left on the kill chain. As a part of a proposed acquisition fastlane, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has singled out EW capabilities as “candidates for this kind of rapid acquisition, rapid prototyping”13 which will benefit distributed lethality enormously.
Distributed lethality aims to add more firepower to the fleet, potentially even equipping logistics vessels with missiles as a part of the maxim “if it floats, it fights” issued by OPNAV N96 chief Rear Adm. Peter Fanta.14 However, the Navy should reexamine prioritizing anti-surface warfare (ASuW) capability and consider focusing on land attack. While putting modern anti-ship missiles on more surface combatants would reinvigorate the Navy’s ASuW capability, enhanced power projection across land holds greater deterrence value. The Navy’s land attack proficiency is well honed and proven through recent experience. Thankfully the versatility of the tomahawk missile can enhance both mission sets, but presents the technical challenge of installing vertical launch cells on ships that may have little space and weight to spare.
Arguably no set of capabilities stand to enhance distributed lethality more so than Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) and Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA). These capabilities allow one platform’s sensors to provide a targeting solution to another platform’s weapons. This will multiply the lethality of a distributed force across vast areas of influence by allowing for the massing of payloads but not platforms. Distributed forces will be able to mitigate risk by mixing and matching whatever combination of sensors and shooters best fits an engagement while ensuring survivability.
An operational concept’s warfighting advantages are linked to its deterrence value. How does distributed lethality contribute to deterrence, and what options does it provide policymakers confronting crisis?
Distributed lethality enhances deterrence by influencing psychology through more than just kinetic means. It aims to degrade an adversary’s confidence in their weapons rather than through the threat of overwhelming force, a threat that is not as credible against an A2/AD adversary. Dispersion better allows for demonstrations within the EM domain, which may prove a less escalatory form of conveying resolve than deploying a CSG to a hotspot. The enormous creativity allowed by electromagnetic maritime deception allows for a more nuanced and flexible escalatory dynamic. Demonstration options range from temporarily confusing sensors tosimulating strikes against strategic forces with impunity as the Navy did in NORPAC 82.16 Not only does threatening the destruction of networks constitute escalation, it attacks the channels by which deception conveys deterrence.17 During crisis, distributed lethality’s modularity allows for more options in terms of what and how many assets are committed to posturing, giving policymakers a more flexible means for adjusting the “temperature.” Distributed lethality not only has more to offer for maneuver in the military sense, but also politically.
As the threat environment evolves, reassessing the CSG’s deterrence value should occur in tandem with reevaluating its warfighting applications. Captain Robert C. Rubel (ret.) makes the excellent point that “If a lucrative target loaded with potent geopolitical symbolism is on scene, with more on the way, it could precipitate a dangerous “window-of-opportunity” mindset in the opposing government.”18 Sending a CSG to a hotspot could “catalyze as deter” and threaten nightmarish devastation or monumental loss of face as carriers are hurriedly withdrawn for the sake of preservation at the outbreak of war. During the initial phases of conflict, failing to deceive ISR through nonkinetic means could quickly escalate into attempting their physical destruction, up to and including strikes on mainland installations, which is more likely if a carrier’s survival is at stake.
Distributing forces will lower a first strike’s potential for success, which is especially important for deterring an adversary employing A2/AD. Jon Solomon points out an adversary’s maritime domain awareness “will never be as accurate and comprehensive at any later point in a conflict as it is during peacetime’s waning moments.”19 A patrolling, dispersed force would provide a more complex targeting picture, and would reveal more indicators and warning of an impending attack across a larger geographical area. These advantages would be realized by having forward deployed forces already operating in a dispersed manner at Phase 0, or otherwise face the uncomfortable process of transitioning into a dispersed force in the midst of crisis or at the onset of conflict.
“It will be orange and it may look kind of odd put together and won’t have the nice slick red/gray paint and it won’t be totally tested and it might fail, but we’ve got to get it out there and see what we can do with that.”-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert.20
There are additional lines of inquiry that must be explored in order to flesh out distributed lethality. For example, what does it entail for amphibious forces? These forces are more likely to face the littoral arena, and their objectives are set upon fixed geography which limits their freedom of maneuver. The history of naval warfare has shown time and time again that key naval engagements precipitated in relation to developments and objectives on land. Scenarios commonly envisioned today such as a Taiwan contingency or a defense of the Strait of Hormuz demand that the Navy examine distributed lethality in a fixed geographical context. The concept will also challenge the ability to wage coalition warfare, as the careful planning and execution demanded by dispersed operations under EMCON will require ample cooperation and true interoperability.
Nonetheless, distributed lethality offers numerous benefits. It will make the most of what the Navy has today, while maximizing the value of investments that will achieve fruition both in the short and long term. It provides means for confronting the A2/AD challenge, and fulfills Air-Sea Battle’s intent to ensure U.S. forces can “assure access, maintain freedom of action, conduct a show of force, or conduct limited strikes.”21 Ultimately, it provides political and military leadership more flexibility to maneuver within crisis and conflict. The Navy must call upon its rich history of innovation and experimentation to turn distributed lethality into a credible warfighting construct that will deter foes, reassure allies, and make the greatest Navy the world has yet seen greater still.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. He can be contacted at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
 Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. US Naval Postgraduate School address (16 March 1954).