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Publication Release: Distributed Lethality 2016

Released: February 2016

The US Navy is investigating distributed lethality as a potentially game changing approach for the conduct of naval warfare. Exploration of the concept has progressed considerably since the previous CIMSEC distributed lethality week. The US Navy’s Distributed Lethality Task Force partnered with CIMSEC to co-launch the February 2016 Distributed Lethality topic week, and released a call for articles outlining specific lines of inquiry. Contributors included active and retired US naval officers representing various communities in the Fleet, as well as civilians with relevant experience. This compendium consists of the articles that featured during the topic week.

Authors:Distributed Lethality 2016 Cover Image
Jeff E. Kline, CAPT, USN, (ret) 
Matthew Hipple
LCDR Chuck Hall with
LCDR David T. Spalding
LCDR Chris O’Connor

Anthony Freedman with
Mark Rosen
Chris Rawley
LCDR Collin Fox

LCDR Josh Heivly
John Devlin
LCDR Christopher Moran with
LT Ryan Heilmann
Alan Cummings
ENS Daniel Stefanus

Dmitry Filipoff
Matthew Merighi
John Stryker
Sally DeBoer

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A Tactical Doctrine for Distributed Lethality by Jeff E. Kline, CAPT, USN, (ret)
Distributed Lethality: Old Opportunities for New Operations by Matthew Hipple
Enabling Distributed Lethality: The Role of Naval Cryptology by LCDR Chuck Hall and LCDR David T. Spalding
Distributed Leathernecks by LCDR Chris O’Connor

The Legal Implications of Arming MSC Ships by Anthony Freedman and Mark Rosen
Distributed Lethality, Non-Traditional Fleets, and the Law of War by Chris Rawley
Implementing Distributed Lethality within the Joint Operational Access Concept by LCDR Collin Fox

Enabling Distributed Lethality by LCDR Josh Heivly
Reconfiguring Air Cushioned Vehicles to Enhance Distributed Lethality by John Devlin
The Elephant in the Room: E2-D and Distributed Lethality by LCDR Christopher Moran and LT Ryan Heilmann

Distributed Lethality: China is Doing it Right by Alan Cummings
Unleashing Unit Lethality: Revising Operational & Promotion Paradigms by ENS Daniel Stefanus

Be sure to browse other compendiums in the publications tab, and feel free send compendium ideas to

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The Elephant in the Room: E-2D and Distributed Lethality

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By LCDR Christopher Moran and LT Ryan Heilmann

Admirals Rowden, Gumataotao, and Fanta introduced the concept of distributed lethality over a year ago as a “means  to increase the offensive might of the surface force and employ ships in dispersed formations known as ‘hunter killer surface action groups.’”[i] The basic concept as outlined in the original article and further discussion has evolved into “the condition gained by increasing the offensive power and defensive hardening of individual warships and then employing them not only in traditional roles but also in different ways than have been the practice in the past few decades” according to Ryan Kelly.[ii] Discussion and interest grew around the country over the past year and with the formation of the Distributed Lethality Task Force. Many great minds have come together, primarily from the surface navy, to offer ideas and solutions. Furthermore, three key initiatives describe what needs to be harnessed within Distributed Lethality: To Deceive, Target, and Destroy.

One area of involvement that has been partially neglected in the distributed lethality discussion is aviation.  In an update to distributed lethality, Admiral Rowden states:

“Nothing we do in Distributed Lethality should be seen as taking away from our historic and necessary role in enabling naval power projection and helping 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 are going to take the necessary time to study and analyze that proposition in order to get it right.”[iii]

The perceived assumption is that the surface navy is either supporting power projection by providing “HVU operations and defense” or operating independently from the air wing with more “lethal and distributed surface forces.” 

Dmitry Filipoff proposes a third option of a dispersed surface force that is supported by air wing assets:

“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 functions will be indispensable for enabling commanders on the scene to exercise initiative and engage on their own terms.”[iv]

In this article we build upon the ideas of Mr. Filipoff, specifically focusing on the unique capabilities of the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. Before proceeding further it might be helpful to offer some background information on the Hawkeye Community and its relevant areas of warfighting focus. 

The Hawkeye was developed primarily as a blue water airborne early warning platform capable of long range detection of both aircraft and ships. While detection is the primary organic capability, Hawkeye aircrew are well versed executing real time command and control over a wide range of mission sets, including anti-surface warfare (ASuW). Through application of the Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) concept, new air intercept controllers and mission commanders learn the basics of conducting  ASuW during the earliest stages of their training, which is then built upon throughout the work up cycle. At the same time, as an airborne C2 asset the Hawkeye is more than capable of bridging the gap (both literally through network relay and bridging, and figuratively through the ability to have one coordination entity) between warfare commanders.

E-2D Advanced Hawkeye flown by Test and Evaluation Squadron TWENTY demonstrating proof of concept of in flight refueling. Photo taken by Kelly Schindler (US Navy).
E-2D Advanced Hawkeye flown by Test and Evaluation Squadron TWO ZERO demonstrating proof of concept of in flight refueling. Photo taken by Kelly Schindler (US Navy).

That being said, no amount of training or warfighting culture is going to matter if processes are not in place to make use of that corporate knowledge. Enter the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye with the APY-9 radar and associated sensors and communications equipment. While specific ranges of the radar are classified, suffice to say that the APY-9 greatly increases the ability of a strike group (or individual cruiser or destroyer) to detect and classify contacts at range. Furthermore, the data link and communication suite enables the Hawkeye to connect widely dispersed forces through multiple networks and means of voice communication. The continuing development of integrated fires offers unique employment options.

Taking into account the systems as well as the aircrew operating the platform, the organic and currently fielded capabilities of the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye serving as the centralizing  C2 node, bring the persistent ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), Command and Control, and strike group defense capabilities otherwise unavailable to the distributed fleet. 

The overall theme of this article seeks to speak to several of the “key issues” brought up in Mr. Kelly’s call for articles, but particularly:

How should the upcoming Adaptive Force Package be employed: including Tactical Situation (TACSIT) execution, organic and inorganic targeting, fielding of modified weapons, and improved integration with Amphibious Forces and Expeditionary Marine Corps units in support of sea control operations?

Command and Control

First and foremost, the E-2 Hawkeye is an airborne command and control platform, capable of providing both C2 technology as well as “man-in-the-loop” decision making, necessary for effective control of a dispersed and dynamic battlespace. The E-2 is equipped with various data link capabilities which allow for the sharing of not only track data but also raw sensor information.  Additionally, the communication suite in a Hawkeye includes V/UHF, HF, and SATCOM communications with various options for secure and anti-jam capabilities. The typical stationing altitude of a Hawkeye and the power output of the communication and data link equipment allows for a large range of operation ensuring a widely dispersed fleet can stay connected without the requirement for individual ships to maintain line of sight with each other. 

Furthermore, the highly trained crew of the Hawkeye is capable of assessing the situation and making decisions for various commanders – carrying out their intent across various warfighting domains. This allows for the efficient choice of targeting solutions for offensive and defensive scenarios across the battlespace. 

And finally, the warfighting experience of the crew allows for tailoring of information for specific recipients, ultimately cutting down the volume of information sent.  For example, what the air defense commander needs to know is not necessarily what the surface warfare commander needs to know, or what the OTC or JFMCC need to know. The Hawkeye crew has the experience to tailor the information specifically desired by various levels of the chain of command, thereby limiting the total amount of information being transmitted.  In an environment where uncontested usage of the electromagnetic spectrum is not guaranteed, knowing exactly what information to send and only sending that information becomes paramount in reducing our own electromagnetic footprint.

Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconaissance

One of the biggest challenges facing friendly forces in an “over-the-horizon” war is positive identification of a contact at range. With inherent line of sight limitations there is currently very little organic capability in a Carrier Strike Group to determine what exactly a particular OTH contact is. In an area of high surface and/or air traffic, the ability to identify a contact becomes a great concern for self-defense, especially in a distributed fleet. Ultimately what is needed, and can be provided by the Hawkeye, is an ability to maintain a single persistent track with consolidated ISR from multiple assets.

The airborne E-2 detects and localizes a contact, and begins to evaluate the contact using available onboard sensors. Simultaneously, the Hawkeye crew begins to work with any and all available ISR assets (EP-3, EA-18G, FA-18, UAV, surface ships) to determine any additional information to help with identification. A track with consolidated ISR information is then “pushed” to the fleet via available data links and/or voice communication as required. When the on station E-2 is forced to leave station due to the end of mission time, the relieving E-2 conducts a positive turnover of all tracks of interest ensuring no change in reported data.  (Currently, station time is limited by fuel capacity, however in-flight refueling capability is currently in development for the E-2D which will significantly increase on station time). The result is a persistent, constantly communicated, consolidated “picture” of the area of interest. This picture is capable of being received by interested parties with very little, if any, electromagnetic emission.

Strike Group Defense

A dispersed and more offensive fleet creates some advantages for carrier strike group defense. For the threat, the left side of the kill chain becomes lengthened as it will be harder to find and track their intended targets. On the other hand if the threat is able to identify the high value unit they could face less resistance as the friendly layered air and missile defense will be reduced in strength. A reduced number of assets concentrated around the high value unit will inherently result in less overall defensive missiles, however technological advances and weapon system upgrades that have already reached initial operational capability, such as the SM-6 and E-2D, can reestablish a layered defense and reduce the number of assets required to defend the carrier strike group. Furthermore, these capabilities increase the defensive effectiveness of individual units spread throughout a distributed force. NIFC-CA is a tool that can be utilized for CSG defense and potentially establish a non-permissive environment for threat aircraft, but it is not the end-all solution. Cross community tactics must be developed to optimize weapons target pairing. Training and work-up cycles need to be significantly more integrated to exercise and reinforce new air and missile defense processes. The capabilities are in place (or will be soon) to defend a high value unit in a dispersed fleet; CVW aircrew and Surface Warfare Officers must remain flexible and innovative to most effectively employ the new capabilities available to them.

An E-2d from VAW-125 launches off of the aircraft carrier USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Photo taken Ben Hayashi (US Navy).


The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye is uniquely equipped and positioned to facilitate the deception of dispersed forces, the targeting of the adversary and ultimately, the destruction of designated targets. This assistance and support can enable the surface force to indeed perform better with a more lethal positioning of forces distributed across the battlespace. The development of distributed lethality will include identifying current gaps in training and capability that can make our force more lethal. As we as a Naval force continue to develop innovative ways to counter adversaries, we would be wise to develop cross-domain warfighting tactics and increase the interoperability of our forces.   

LCDR Christopher Moran and LT Ryan Heilmann were both assigned to VAW-125, the first operational E-2D Advanced Hawkeye squadron. Their views do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency. 

[i] Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, Rear Admiral Peter Fanta, ‘Distributed Lethality’, Proceedings Magazine – January 2015, vol. 141/1/1.343.

[ii] Kelly, Ryan. Distributed Lethality Task Force Launches CIMSEC Topic Week, Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) website, 1 February 2016.

[iii] Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, ‘Distributed Lethality: An Update’, CIMSEC website, 12 March 2015,

[iv] Filipoff, Dmitry, ‘Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War’, CIMSEC website, 4 January, 2016,

Reconfiguring Air Cushioned Vehicles to Enhance Distributed Lethality

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By John Devlin

With the continuing buildup of Chinese and Russian navies, as well as increasingly capable regional actors, the task of leveraging a 300 ship US Navy using distributed lethality (DL) as a force multiplier in response remains a formidable task. It is reminiscent of another period in our history when our scientists and engineers had to conjure a way to prolong a life sustaining air supply while constrained to only limited resources available to a stricken space craft. Most of us are familiar with the story of Apollo 13 astronauts using duct tape and plastic bags to adapt parts never intended to work together in order to return safely back to earth. Those scientists and engineers toiled feverishly with various configurations before agreeing on a workable course of action. The birth of distributed lethality is similarly constrained, but with a much larger mission and far-reaching consequences.

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BRAVO ZULU to the tacticians and engineers who adapted the SM-6 surface-to-air missile (SAM) to a surface-to-surface missile (SSM) to rapidly extend the stand-off range for our surface action groups (SAG).  It is encouraging that these innovators were not dissuaded from their pursuit by the arguments against using an air warhead against a surface target or the $4M cost per unit or the command and control implications of shooting at a target so many miles over the horizon potentially dispersed among friendly vessels. This is an innovative first step to demonstrate the capability.  The necessary refinements will follow as the value of this new weapon becomes accepted and integrated into battle group tactics.

Figure 1. Air Cushioned Vehicle easily maneuvers over a rocky beach.

Let’s examine the advantages of the SM-6 in the SSM mode and why this adaptation is a smart and innovative use of existing ships and munitions. The missile dimensions are the same as the SM-6 in the SAM mode which allows the use of existing launchers and platforms. Crews are in place. As mentioned previously, the stand-off range is substantially improved. The kill probably of a continuous rod or fragmentation warhead against hardened ship targets is unlikely; however, a soft kill of the target’s sensors and communications antennae, at least initially, is almost as good as sinking it. It will likely blind the enemy’s fire control systems. The allocation of missiles in the ship’s missile magazines for SSM versus SAM targets is an old discussion and is only appropriate when discussed relative to the expected opposing force. Another potential negative is the $4M cost of these missiles. But nonetheless, this is a step in the right direction and is in alignment with distributed lethality.

Where else can the US Navy apply this type of innovative thinking to further increase lethality? How do we out gun, out run, and out maneuver opposing forces using the current inventory of platforms, weapons systems, C2, and manning? Why not reconfigure the 1st generation Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCAC) into shooting platforms? The VLS Hellfire missiles can be mounted in the cargo deck. Pedestal-mounted APKWS missiles could be similarly mounted. Chain guns such as the M61 Vulcan 20mm Cannon or the Mk38 25mm machinegun can all be mounted in the cargo deck for line-of-sight targeting. This craft has demonstrated 100 knots speeds.  Its ability to maneuver in shallow water, reef zones, shifting sand bars, riverine, and beach zones gives it the maneuverability of no other afloat vehicle. This tactical advantage of speed and maneuver cannot be matched. It travels at near-helicopter speeds, can carry 10 times the helicopter’s payload, with four times the on-station time. It could be configured with an AEGIS Ashore Missile Payload and positioned at many improved and unimproved sites.

Initially, targeting can be line-of-sight with over-the-horizon targeting when DL integration development progresses. We have seen enemy fighters using mosques and urban

Figure 2. Air Cushioned Vehicle maneuvers from an obscure beach.
Figure 2. Air Cushioned Vehicle maneuvers from an obscure beach.

areas to shield them from incoming fire. We can expect enemy maritime forces to use fishing, merchant vessels, and fleeing refugees as defensive shields. Engagement criteria, for at least the initial engagement skirmishes, will be line of sight positive identification via manned observation or remote observation. Clear Rules of Engagement (ROE) will need to be developed and practiced. Greater forward force autonomy should be anticipated to ensure engagement success.

The air cushioned vehicles will be positioned forward of the battle group in picket roles in archipelagic regions or in strategic straits such as the Strait of Hormuz where the shifting sandbars are not an obstacle to maneuvering for these vehicles. Their maneuverability will allow them to cut the escape routes of marauding high speed conventional craft who traverse narrow channels with impunity because they know the potential of grounding a chasing naval vessel is an unacceptable risk to the USN.  Submarine based threats and mined areas are also of limited concern for a vessel that has no draft. 

But these air cushioned vehicles are not suitable to plow through high seas. How can we get them to theater and provide operating support?  Platform Supply Vessels (PSV) have been performing this type of role in the off-shore oil industry for three decades. They have transported the heavy equipment and operating supplies that allow oil rigs to operate at sea for long periods. These vessels are designed to carry a tremendous volume of drill mud, fresh water, and fuel needed for use in off-shore oil drilling. The drill mud storage tanks can be used to ballast down the stern and allow self-propelled access to air cushioned vehicles. They are rugged vessels and are built to withstand the rigors of high seas.  In the

Figure 33. PSVs can carry Air Cushioned Vehicles to theater on this wide open deck.
Figure 33. PSVs can carry Air Cushioned Vehicles to theater on this wide open deck.

post-Deepwater Horizon off-shore oil industry, they have reduced the high insurance costs of hoteling crews on the rigs by providing hotel services on the PSVs. As a consequence of the shale oil revolution and low world oil prices, new PSVs are tied to their piers because operating them is no longer profitable. They are available for lease, purchase, or contracted services.

As the new LCAC 100 comes into service, the old LCACs are headed to the scrap pile.  Why not reconfigure them with modular weapons to give the US Navy a combatant craft that can out gun, out run, and out maneuver opposing forces?

John Devlin is Director of Navy Programs with ISPA Technology and a retired US Navy Captain.  He was a Tactical Action Officer (TAO) in carrier battle groups as a Surface Warfare Officer and has experience in littoral operations as a Special Operations Officer.

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Enabling Distributed Lethality

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By LCDR Josh Heivly 

Distributed lethality offers an innovative way ahead for the US Navy’s surface forces by returning them to a sea control role, detached from HVT defense and grouped into hunter-killer SAGs designed to complicate adversary targeting efforts, deter adventurism, and reassure allies and partners. This has been couched in terms of an “operating concept” and not a strategy, per se, but its implementation will certainly produce strategic effects.  Distributed lethality amounts to a form of strengthened dispersal, designed as a direct counter to anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies [1] while increasing the deterrence value of USN forces. The US Navy has already made strong efforts to find “least-cost” paths toward achieving the desired increases in lethality and survivability of surface platforms. The long term implications of distributed lethality may necessitate a revised USN approach to basing and shipbuilding – it could also prompt regional arms races as potential adversaries respond to distributed lethality by expanding their ISR and A2/AD capabilities in kind.

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The strategic implications of employing USN surface forces using Distributed lethality concepts are considerable. Operationally it acts as a direct response to A2/AD concepts, complicating adversary sea denial efforts by filling the sea space with small groups of well-defended, heavily armed platforms, each of which is capable of producing additional deception and counter-targeting effects. Politically, doubling down on presence in the form of surface combatants will reinforce deterrence by complicating the operational picture, enable persistent challenge to the excessive maritime claims of regional actors, and counter larger strategies designed to weaken US influence. By creating uncertainty on the part of potential adversaries, distributed lethality ”…aims to degrade an adversary’s confidence in their weapons rather than through overwhelming force…,”[2] fundamentally altering calculations of risk and lowering the potential payoffs of initiating hostilities. Distributed lethality also acts to reassure and support US partners and allies by providing consistent presence and support, strengthening our coalitions abroad.

It is in the economic details that the viability of distributed lethality becomes a bit murkier. In the short term, the Navy has actually done very well by capitalizing on existing systems. Rapid acquisition and fielding efforts are currently underway to build a long-range strike capability to replace the aging Harpoon by adapting existing systems; possibilities include the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), the Norwegian Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile [3], the SM-6 [4], and a proposal to modify existing stocks of TLAMs for anti-ship missions [5].  Survivability has also been addressed in the same way with an ongoing project to update and integrate SeaRAM [6].  All of these efforts are a testament to the Navy’s commitment to implement distributed lethality without calling for larger budgetary outlays. This makes distributed lethality easier to sell on the Hill and allows the Navy to claim the high ground on this issue in terms of resource utilization.

Norweigan Strike Missile (NSM) launch.
Norweigan Strike Missile (NSM) launch.

None of this changes the arithmetic of force generation required to create persistent presence.  There are only so many forward deployed platforms overseas, certainly nowhere near enough to complicate the operational picture of potential adversaries.  Sooner or later the Navy will need to reassess its ability to support distributed lethality with current platforms, systems, and budgets; achieving the desired effects (dispersal and deterrence) will require cost-effective numbers of platforms to be maintained on-station. Surface combatants will need to transit back and forth from CONUS bases, taking up large periods of time moving to and from operational areas. 

In order to maximize loiter time and capitalize on existing platforms, the Navy should take a long hard look at the forward basing of more surface combatants.  This will require close engagement with host nations and long term investments in infrastructure; shipyards, repair facilities, distribution centers, housing, and administrative activities would all need to be expanded to support additional hulls. The LCS, although designed as a littoral platform specifically in response to swarming attacks, partially fulfills the requirement for numbers of hulls, although the details of this system are still being worked out and the Navy is now working on an expanded “fast frigate” concept based on the LCS [7].  Small surface combatants have been proposed as a partial solution [8], offering cost-effective platforms that can be produced in quantity – but not without some compromises in survivability. It seems certain that the Navy will have to seek a balance of quantity and quality, and this will require a reassessment of design concepts.

Morning colors at Naval Support Activity Bahrain (US Navy photo).
Morning colors at Naval Support Activity Bahrain (US Navy photo).

Finally, by its very design, distributed lethality is intended to elicit a desired reaction on the part of potential adversaries [9]. A2/AD strategies were adopted by regional actors as an asymmetric response to US power projection capabilities, in direct support of their perceived interests; these countries will not simply drop this approach in the face of multiple hunter-killer SAGs operating nearby. They will undoubtedly expand their investment in ISR and A2/AD capabilities, responding with both increased quantity and quality of their own.  This increased expenditure of resources will produce comparatively greater strain on the more modestly sized and resourced militaries of these countries, many of which already labor under sanctions. Technological and industrial competition will almost certainly increase as a result.  Luckily, as the world leader in innovation, such a situation would favor the US, but only in general terms and with considerable uncertainty.

LCDR Josh Heivly is an active duty Navy Supply Corps Officer. The views voiced here are his alone and in no way represent the views of the US Navy or the Department of Defense.

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[1] Rowden, Thomas, Gumataotao, Peter, and Fanta, Peter.  “Distributed Lethality.”  Accessed 20 Feb 2016 at

[2] Filipoff, Dmitry.  “Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War.”  Accessed on 16 Feb 2016 at

[3] LaGrone, Sam.  “SNA:  Navy Surface Leaders Pitch More Lethal Ships, Surface Action Groups.” Accessed 17 Feb 2016 at

[4] Eckstein, Megan.  “Navy Finds Offensive Uses for Defensive Systems to Support Distributed Lethality.”  Accessed 17 Feb 2016 at 

[5] Eckstein, Megan.  “A Year Into Distributred Lethality, Navy Nears Fielding Improved Weapon, Deploying Surface Action Group.”  Accessed 17 Feb 2016 at

[6] Eckstein, supra. “Navy Finds Offensive Uses for Defensive Systems to Support Distributed Lethality.”

[7] LaGrone, Sam. “SNA:  Modified Littoral Combat Ships to be Designated Frigates.”  Accessed 21 Feb 2016 at

[8] McCabe, T. Holland.  “Capstone Essay:  Distributed Lethality Requires Distributed Capability Across the Surface Fleet.”  Accessed 17 Feb 2016 at

[9] Rowden et al.