Category Archives: Tactics and Warfighting

Fighting DMO, Pt. 5: Missile Salvo Patterns and Maximizing Volume of Fire

Read Part 1 on defining distributed maritime operations.
Read Part 2 on anti-ship firepower and U.S. shortfalls.
Read Part 3 on assembling massed fires and modern fleet tactics.

Read Part 4 on weapons depletion and last-ditch salvo dynamics.

By Dmitry Filipoff


There is more to the lethality of a volume of fire than sheer numbers. Missile salvos can take on different patterns, both in how the missiles are arranged within a single salvo, and how multiple salvos can be arranged together into a combined volume of fire. These patterns reflect how the aspects of concentration and distribution apply to the weapons themselves, and how these configurations apply within salvos and between salvos. Different patterns will affect how a volume of fire takes shape and can multiply the threat it poses. Commanders and autonomous missiles can leverage these patterns to increase tactical advantage by changing how salvos are maneuvered throughout key elements of the fight. These patterns have considerable tactical implications for defending against missiles and maximizing offensive volume of fire.

Stream versus Saturation

It is infeasible for a warship to instantly fire a large volume of missiles all at once. While warships can certainly fire missiles rapidly, their rate of fire is typically limited to only a few missiles at a time from the whole of their launch cells.1 Because the entirety of a salvo cannot be fired at once, salvos often default to a stream pattern, where a long, vertical column of missiles travels toward a target (Figure 1). Each missile in the column is slightly further away from the target than the missile ahead of it, because each missile was fired slightly later than the missile before it.

Figure 1. Click to expand. A warship launches a salvo in a stream pattern. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

This typical salvo pattern has several disadvantages, such as how an attacking stream salvo can allow the defender to more easily defeat the missiles in detail. If the streaming missiles are flying closely enough along the same flight path, destroying missiles at the head of the stream can disrupt missiles further behind as they may have to fly through exploding shrapnel and debris. A stream salvo can also minimize the maneuvering and targeting readjustments needed to apply warship defenses that are more directionally limited, including mounted defenses such as laser dazzlers, rolling airframe missile launchers, and close-in weapon systems (Figure 2). 

Figure 2. Click to expand. A close-in weapon system engages multiple missiles of a stream salvo approaching on a single axis. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

Alternatively, a saturation pattern has greater tactical advantages. Instead of flying in a staggered sequence or vertical column, the missiles are traveling abreast of one another in a wide horizontal row. This salvo pattern poses a broad front of concentrated firepower compared to the long and narrow front of a stream salvo, where a saturation salvo takes the form of a multi-axial attack instead of the stream’s single axis. Once a saturation salvo crosses over the horizon, all of the missiles aim to be at a similar distance from the target warship, intensifying the challenges of defense. Directional defenses will need to traverse more angles to acquire new targets, and the attacking missiles run a lesser risk of having to fly through the exploding debris fields of their destroyed colleagues (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Click to expand. A close-in weapon system engages a saturation salvo’s missiles across multiple axes. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

Platforms that feature small magazines and larger numbers, such as aircraft, truck launchers, and small missile ships can more readily assemble into firing formations that generate saturation patterns from the onset. But the feasibility factors that bottleneck a warship’s rate of fire make a saturation pattern more unnatural for a warship to launch than a stream pattern, where warships can only launch large salvos in streams. The missiles will have to be maneuvered into a saturation pattern after the salvo is fired. Ideally this will be facilitated by networking and autonomy on the part of the missiles, rather than a complex firing scheme on the part of the launch platform. Modern anti-ship missiles will be able to be programmed to self-organize into a saturation pattern after they are launched from a warship, or outside retargeting and in-flight updates could provide similar instructions.2 By maneuvering weapons after they are launched, these capabilities serve the critical function of helping a salvo’s missiles maximize the overlap of impact timing regardless of the launch platform’s rate of fire.

In salvo combat, if a missile is not able to hit the target because it was shot down by defenses, the next best thing is that its destruction can buy a sliver of time for another missile in the salvo to have a slightly better chance of striking. This dynamic can continue throughout an engagement, where through their destruction, missiles are buying small consecutive improvements in striking opportunity for other missiles. The way impact timing is distributed across a salvo’s missiles will affect how much opportunity the destroyed weapons purchase for the survivors. A majority of a salvo’s missiles will likely be destroyed in the process of ensuring that only a handful have a real chance of striking the killing blows.

Stream patterns stretch the volume of fire thin with respect to the timing of impact. Each missile in the salvo would impact the target at a slightly later time than the missile ahead of it, where the distribution of impact times across a stream salvo is mainly limited to being a function of the launching warship’s rate of fire. If defenses are robust enough, a defender can even keep a stream salvo at a fixed distance away from the target until the salvo is fully destroyed. The ability for stream salvo missiles to buy time for one another is diminished by how destroying the missile at the head of the pack slightly rolls back the clock.

What a saturation pattern offers is a salvo that is always closing the distance regardless of the extent of attrition. Even if missiles are being destroyed, the minimum time to impact is steadily winding down. The volume of simultaneous defensive effects required to keep the whole of a saturation salvo at a fixed distance away from a target warship is far higher than that of a stream salvo, because it would require destroying the entirety of the saturation salvo simultaneously.

A saturation salvo epitomizes the principle of concentrating effects, where all missiles in the salvo are angling to strike the target at the same time, and bring the full weight of the entire volume of fire to bear at once. Saturation salvos improve efficiency by maximizing concentration, and can reduce the number of offensive weapons required to overwhelm warship defenses.

Because defensive missiles typically have much less range and flight times than long-range anti-ship missiles, they have far less opportunity to be maneuvered into saturation patterns, especially when they must strike incoming missiles that are only miles or seconds away from impact. Saturation patterns can chiefly be a feature of attacking salvos, while a warship’s defending salvos are more likely to be relegated to stream patterns. This forms a critical asymmetry in the offensive-defensive balance and confers significant advantage to the attacker in naval salvo warfare.

Salvo Patterns and Tactical Information

One of the most critical considerations for preserving missile inventory and preventing wasteful fires is guarding against deception and maintaining quality targeting information while salvos are traveling toward distant targets. Salvo patterns heavily influence the tactics of missile search and deception, especially given how capable modern seekers have become.

Anti-ship missiles are difficult to evade and deceive when their onboard seekers feature a robust combination of sensor modes including infrared, electro-optical, active, passive, and others. These combined sensors are meant to work together to maximize their strengths while covering each other’s blindspots. They aim to simplify the challenge of terminal search while negating softkill capability. A passive radar receiver can often detect a target or radiating decoy at longer range than an electro-optical sensor, but the latter is much harder to deceive when the contact enters within visual range.3 At that range missiles will be especially challenging to deceive, where they are close enough to visually verify a target’s authenticity. And once they make their final approach, the missiles’ targeting logic can employ aimpoint selection capability, where they select the most lucrative impact points on a ship to maximize destructive potential, such as hitting a ship directly in its missile magazines.4 Aimpoint selection capability makes effective damage control a dubious proposition and helps ensure that only a single well-placed hit is enough to destroy a target, reducing the volume of fire necessary to inflict sufficient striking power.

These electro-optical and infrared sensors are major force multipliers by making it much easier for missiles to ignore the short-ranged warship-launched decoys that form a major portion of a warship’s softkill defenses. Even if these decoys pull a missile away from a ship at the last moment, an intelligent missile would know to circle back for another pass, where the decoy only buys the warship more time to shoot down the threat. Effective softkill deception against intelligent missiles therefore needs to occur at a distance that goes well beyond the horizon. Otherwise deception measures that occur within the horizon view of a warship will struggle to have an effect against missiles that can literally see the warship.

The seeker head of an IRIS-T air-to-air missile. (Photo via
PACIFIC OCEAN (July 11, 2018) – The guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) launches an electronic decoy cartridge from an MK-234 Nulka Decoy Launching System while underway. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin M. Langer/Released)

Successfully deceiving these anti-ship missiles may be less likely to take the form of getting them to strike false targets. It may instead become more a matter of keeping them at arm’s length and pulling them in directions away from friendly forces until they waste enough time and fuel that they fall from the sky. But most of a typical warship’s decoy capability is very short-ranged, and warships are extremely limited in their ability to deploy decoys tens of miles away from the ship. They may have to rely on other platforms such as aviation to deploy decoys at a tactically meaningful distance away from the warship.

Once a salvo is fired against a warship, an area of uncertainty grows around the target, where the warship may have moved from its original position at the time of launch, and where decoys may be deployed within this area of uncertainty. This area of uncertainty remains relatively small for the speediest weapons and missiles with short times-to-target. But for long-range and subsonic weapons, this area can grow to include thousands of square miles.5 If the area of a missile seeker’s coverage can overlap most of the area of uncertainty, then the problem of terminal homing is somewhat simplified. But if the area of uncertainty exceeds seeker coverage, then missiles may need to rely more on their own search capabilities to find and discriminate contacts for attack in the final phases.

Saturation patterns maximize the ability of a salvo to search and find a target. A saturation pattern spreads missile seekers across a wide front, allowing each seeker to search a given axis (Figure 5). If a seeker acquires a target, in-flight networking and autonomy between missiles can allow them to converge on a specific contact. A stream salvo by comparison makes for a highly redundant search pattern by concentrating seekers along a single axis, which is hardly ideal for searching across an area of uncertainty (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Click to expand. The seekers of a stream salvo pattern search along a narrow axis. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

Figure 5. Click to expand. The seekers of a saturation salvo search across multiple axes. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

Missiles can be drawn to contacts that turn out to be decoys, which may need to be discriminated by much shorter-ranged seeker modes than radar, such as electro-optical or infrared sensors. The need for missiles to close the distance to more rigorously investigate and verify contacts can threaten the cohesion and range of the salvo. Relying on only a few missiles at the head of a stream to do most of the searching on behalf of the salvo runs a greater risk of having the whole salvo being led astray by false contacts, which will come at a significant cost to fuel, range, and time. Advanced networking and autonomy may do little to alleviate the inherent tunnel vision of a stream salvo, where the whole of the salvo can be made to suffer penalties if only the leading missiles are deceived. If the missiles lack the programming and networking to work together, a stream salvo encountering a decoy could fragment and lose its cohesion as some missiles take the bait and others do not.

In a primitive stream salvo, the pattern of searching for a target and attacking a target remains virtually the same, compared to the more dynamic expansion and contraction of a saturation salvo that widens while searching for a target and then converging on it. A saturation salvo is much better able to withstand the disruption decoys can inflict against the coherence of the volume of fire. When the salvo is searching across a wide front, a single weapon could investigate a contact and make sure to only cue the rest of the salvo to converge on the contact after it has been verified. This helps a saturation salvo reduce the cost of deception to a single weapon or a handful of weapons being led astray at a time, rather than larger segments of the salvo like a stream pattern. However, if the deception is effective enough to get networked missiles to cue convergence, then a saturation salvo that is made to repeatedly expand and contract as it converges on false contacts and then renews its search is a salvo that will be quickly running down its mileage.

Stream salvos may offer some informational advantages when it comes to battle damage assessment and assessing the effectiveness of an attack. Missiles later in the stream could use their sensors to perceive that the target ahead has been destroyed and communicate fresh battle damage assessment information to the network. Or they could communicate that the vast majority of the missiles ahead them have been destroyed by defenses and strongly suggest that a salvo is on the verge of being defeated. In either case, missiles could deliver especially critical and time-sensitive intelligence on the effectiveness of attacks and defenses, assuming they are able to deliver such information through a network in those contexts. A saturation salvo that simply maintains several weapons to the rear of the main wave of attacking missiles could deliver similar information.

If the targeting and search capabilities of salvos are capable enough, they can lower the threshold of information required to precipitate a strike and speed the decision cycle. If the missiles are capable enough to sort out contacts and even decide their own distribution of fire across a target naval formation, then commanders can launch on less information knowing the missiles themselves can reliably sort out critical details. If an adversary is presenting a mass of cluttered signatures that makes target discrimination difficult from afar, saturation salvos could be fired into the mass in a bid to earn positive identification themselves and function as one-way scouts. Modern seekers that can visually identify a target based on robust onboard databases of warship designs should be capable enough to differentiate most warships from civilian vessels and minimize the ability of navies to use commercial traffic as human shields.

With respect to the vulnerability of the launch platform, a stream salvo can more easily betray the position of its launching warship by providing a clearly defined line of bearing back toward the vicinity of the platform. A warship under attack from a stream salvo could fire its offensive weaponry down this line of bearing in a last-ditch salvo and have a greater chance of striking back. Nonlinear flight paths and saturation patterns can help mitigate this risk through multi-axis attacks that can manipulate perceptions of where an attack originated.

But nonlinear attacks and saturation patterns incur penalties in range and fuel economy. Stream salvos will suffer less penalties than saturation salvos in this regard because it is more fuel efficient to maneuver a salvo across waypoints when maintaining a stream pattern. By comparison, saturation salvos will suffer a greater cost in fuel given how some missiles will have to cover more distance than others to preserve the abreast formation while traveling across waypoints. It may be more preferable to confine a saturation pattern to the terminal phase of attack rather than the cruise phase of missile flight, where a stream salvo only expands into a saturation profile just before breaking over the target’s horizon.

Salvo patterns can therefore be flexed during flight to emphasize search, fuel economy, or lethality depending on what is more applicable at various points in the engagement. The need for maximizing range and fuel may compete with the need to search and withstand deception, where these latter factors encourage a saturation pattern. If enough outside retargeting support can confidently convey information to a salvo during flight, then it can minimize the amount of fuel the salvo would have to expend in a broader search pattern. This can also improve the survivability of the salvo and improve its element of surprise, where a saturation pattern engaged in search could provide more early warning to an adversary by posing a radiating wall of missile seekers. Even emphasizing passive detection can reduce the element of surprise, since missiles may have to leave sea-skimming altitudes to broaden the reach of their sensors. Outside retargeting support is helpful toward improving the range and survivability for missile salvos on their way to the target by allowing them to maintain low-altitude stream patterns, and reduces the need for saturation patterns to only the final moments of attack.

A salvo of Soviet P-500 Bazalt anti-ship missiles (NATO reporting name: SS-N-12 Sandbox) is fired by a Slava-class cruiser against a U.S. Cold War-era surface action group. Demonstrated intelligent missile swarming behaviors include self-organization from stream pattern into saturation pattern, single high-altitude missile searching on behalf of larger sea-skimming salvo, target prioritization for distribution of fire, and weaving flight profiles in terminal attack phase. Blue trails mark offensive missiles, pink trails mark defensive missiles. (Work-in-progress developer video of forthcoming naval wargame, Sea Power: Naval Combat in the Missile Age.)

Patterns of Combining Fires

Saturation and stream patterns go beyond describing individual salvos, where they can also describe the broader aggregated salvo as a whole. Depending on how contributing fires are being amassed from distributed forces, the aggregated salvo itself may take on an overall stream or saturation profile, or some mixture of the two. The overall profile of an aggregated salvo may feature an amalgamation of waypointing and salvo patterns that generate especially complex threat presentation as a shapeshifting volume of fire closes in on a target (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Click to expand. A reverse range ring is centered on a REDFOR surface action group under attack by massed fires featuring a combination of stream and saturation patterns. (Author graphic)

It is easier to combine with stream salvos than saturation salvos. Because not all missiles in a stream salvo will hit the target at the same time, there is slightly more opportunity to overlap with the salvo, which can measure in the tens of seconds. A saturation salvo will pose greater challenges for effective aggregation because the salvo is already attempting to position all its missiles to strike the target at the same time. Outside salvos attempting to combine with saturation salvos will have to be very closely aligned in timing because of the minimum of opportunity for overlap.

In-flight retargeting and programming can play a critical role in ensuring aggregation can maximize opportunity for saturation. Multiple contributing salvos can approach a target as streams and then travel waypoints in a holding pattern beyond the target’s horizon until more contributing fires arrive. Once the final attack is initiated, the contributing fires switch to saturation patterns and converge on the target. The efficiency of the stream pattern buys more time to grow the volume of fire, and the lethality of the saturation pattern is reserved for the final approach.

As various contributing fires approach a target, the defenders may prioritize the destruction of specific salvos based on their patterns. Defenders may prioritize saturation patterns especially, believing them to be the greater threat. The more complex the flight profile and missile behavior, the more an adversary may assume that a set of contributing fires consists of more capable missiles, and prioritize those salvos for interception by its defensive airpower and other means.

Salvo patterns can be flexed to manipulate adversary threat perceptions and potentially open gaps in defenses. By flexing a combination of salvo patterns and waypoints, a set of contributing fires could expand into a saturation profile to draw adversary airpower away from a target and open opportunities for other salvos to make the strike. And as a salvo comes under attack from airpower, it can shift its flight profile as it senses radar illumination and notices that friendly missiles are disappearing from the local network. By shifting flight profiles while under aerial attack, a missile salvo can make defense more challenging and buy time for the overall strike. Primitive anti-ship missiles by comparison may hardly change their flight behavior when under attack or radar illumination, simplifying the defender’s challenge.

Salvo Patterns: A Forthcoming U.S. Advantage?

The ability to leverage the tactical advantages of salvo patterns may be one of the key advantages the U.S. will have over China by fielding the anti-ship capable variants of the Tomahawk missile, assuming China does not develop similar weapons. The Tomahawk missile’s especially long range gives it great flexibility for maneuvering through various patterns and along many waypoints. Greater range also improves the missile’s ability to recover from deception by false contacts and extend its search for real targets. These capabilities are magnified by another dimension of salvo patterns, that of sea-skimming versus high-diving attacks.

Anti-ship ballistic missiles can take on saturation patterns by virtue of being launched by multiple platforms with shallow magazines, such as truck launchers. But despite having similar range as Tomahawk, anti-ship ballistic missiles are heavily disadvantaged when it comes to reconfiguring their salvo patterns in real time. The fixed nature of a ballistic trajectory strongly constrains the ability of these weapons to alter the disposition of their salvos while in flight, and the steep high-diving nature of their final approach constrains the scope of ocean their onboard seekers can search across.6 A ballistic missile on its terminal descent cannot decline a false contact and then default back to a wider search pattern as easily as a cruise missile. A ballistic missile locked into its terminal descent is only moments away from hitting the ocean regardless of whether its targeting information is viable or not, whereas a cruise missile has more margin for error. By their nature, ballistic missile attacks attempt to minimize the area of uncertainty around a target not so much by coordinating search across a salvo’s seekers, but more by having tremendously high speed that helps preserve the viability of the original targeting information given at launch.

The differences in terminal search and attack patterns between ballistic missiles and cruise missiles is somewhat similar to that of the attack profiles of WWII dive bombers and torpedo bombers, respectively. The dive bomber, like a ballistic missile, makes its final approach from a steep angle at higher altitude, exposing itself to a broader array of sensors and defensive firepower, while having relatively little leeway to shift to new targets midway through its high-speed dive. The torpedo bomber by comparison is usually traveling more slowly, but its flight profile is at a flatter angle that affords it much more maneuverability, even in the terminal attack phase. This flatter flight profile offers a broader scope of opportunity to investigate contacts, recover from deception, and shift targets, while giving the platform more options in when it begins its terminal approach.

A sea-skimming cruise missile is therefore better able to employ a wider search pattern across the area of uncertainty around a target than a weapon locked into a high-diving flight profile. While the visibility of sea-skimmers is more deeply affected by horizon limits than high-divers, a high-diving platform or missile may struggle to radically reorient itself toward a new contact during its dive, and the smaller size of the seekers used by missiles can limit how much those weapons can leverage the broader visibility for search. However, sea-skimming attackers may have to break through successive layers of defending warships and aircraft before they can threaten a priority target in the interior of a formation. In exchange for some disadvantages, high-diving attackers can threaten those priority targets directly.


Sharpening the intelligent swarming behaviors of anti-ship missiles will be a key area of naval competition, one with significant potential for building offensive advantage. These capabilities should be expected to proliferate and magnify missile threats. Navies should take care to assess the programming and autonomous targeting logic of their salvos to consider how this may make their striking power concentrated or stretched thin during an attack. When warship salvos have little in the way of effective networking or autonomy, they default to more primitive stream salvo patterns and suffer major disadvantages. They become more susceptible to deception, struggle with long-range search, and raise the cost of attack.

As a distributed force masses its fires, it will attempt to maximize the saturation effect. In those final phases of attack, the greatest offensive advantage will be gained when saturation patterns characterize how salvos are arranged as they converge on a target. What these salvo patterns make clear is that in the missile age, the weapons themselves have become a chief maneuver element.

Part 6 will focus on the strengths and weaknesses of platform types in distributed warfighting.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content and Community Manager of its naval professional society, the Flotilla. He is the author of the “How the Fleet Forgot to Fight” series and coauthor of “Learning to Win: Using Operational Innovation to Regain the Advantage at Sea against China.” Contact him at


1. Factors that bottleneck a warship’s rate of fire from vertical launch systems include exhaust gas limits and safety risks of launching numerous missiles in very close proximity to one another. The minimal unit of a MK41 vertical launch system takes the form of eight-cell module, with each module sharing a common exhaust gas system. 

For module and exhaust gas design of MK 41 VLS, see:

Eric Fiore, “A Promising Future for US Navy Vertical Launch Systems,” DISIAC Journal, Volume 1, Number 2,, pg. 35, Fall 2014,

2. John Keller, “Lockheed Martin to build six more LRASM anti-ship missiles with GPS/INS, infrared, and radar-homing sensors,” Military and Aerospace, March 23, 2022,

3. Wayne P. Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet Tactics And Naval Operations, Third Edition, pg. 188, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2018.

4. For aimpoint selection capability, see: 

“JSM: Joint Strike Missile,” Kongsberg,

5. Jeffrey R. Cares and Anthony Cowden, “Fighting the Fleet: Operational Art and Modern Fleet Combat,” U.S. Naval Institute Press, pg. 30-42, 2021.

6. Gerry Doyle and Blake Herzinger, Carrier Killer: China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles and Theater of Operations in the early 21st Century, Helion & Company, pg. 42, 2022.

Featured Image: US joint forces conducted a sinking exercise on the decommissioned guided missile frigate ex-USS Ingraham in the Hawaiian Islands Operating Area, 15 August 2021. (US Navy photo MCS David Mora Jr)

Fighting DMO, Pt. 4: Weapons Depletion and the Last-Ditch Salvo Dynamic

Read Part 1 on defining distributed maritime operations.
Read Part 2 on anti-ship firepower and U.S. shortfalls.
Read Part 3 on assembling massed fires and modern fleet tactics.

By Dmitry Filipoff


Modern naval combat can consist of forces firing dozens if not hundreds of missiles at one another’s fleets and salvos. These volumes of fire can be unleashed within mere minutes as forces look to launch offensive and defensive salvos that are large and dense enough to kill and defend warships. Yet these sophisticated weapons are available in limited numbers and require long lead times to produce.1 Only a fraction of these inventories are available for immediate use given how the magazines of the operating force’s platforms are distinct from the weapon stocks they draw from. Militaries can be limited to using the weapon stocks they had shortly before conflict broke out, and a short conflict may be decided by what was mainly fielded in platform magazines. Unless the conflict becomes especially prolonged and the industrial base grows significantly, the inventory of precision weapons will steadily diminish and pose critical constraints. A core operational challenge is how to carefully manage weapons depletion while still unleashing massed fires.

Weapons depletion is in its own right a powerful force for shaping warfighting behavior and securing major operational advantage. The larger consequences of depletion can include steep decreases in unit availability and overall operations tempo on a theater-wide scale. This challenge is especially severe for the U.S. Navy given how long it would take a depleted U.S. warship to travel out of a Pacific battlespace, rearm in safe havens, and return to the fight.2 In a short, sharp conflict featuring intense salvo exchanges, a warship that depletes itself only once may very well miss the rest of the war.

The concentration and distribution of a force will flex and evolve as its platforms suffer depletion. As commanders look to employ mass fires, they must be mindful of how to spread depletion across the force, how to interpret the adversary’s expenditures, and how inventory pressures can be manipulated through the last-ditch salvo dynamic.

Distribution and Depletion

One of the critical advantages of massing fires from distributed forces is the ability to more effectively manage depletion. A distributed force fielding a vast array of overlapping firepower makes for an especially large and shared magazine. This offers a much greater chance of mustering enough firepower to overwhelm robust defenses while achieving a better spread of depletion. Depletion can be spread across a broader scope of platforms and occur more gradually across the force, rather than all at once for individual strike platforms and force packages. Spreading depletion prolongs distribution, because every depleted asset makes the remaining force less distributed and more concentrated.

Some platforms and force packages certainly have sufficiently deep magazines to launch large enough volumes of fire on their own, with less of a need for outside contributing salvos. But large standalone salvos diminish a core tenet of distribution – maintaining many spread out threats to complicate adversary targeting. Forces that fire large standalone salvos can quickly give away that they just depleted most of their offensive firepower, reducing their value as targets and diminishing the distribution of the broader force.

The more a platform has to discharge a large number of missiles to contribute fires, the more easily an adversary can ascertain the composition and depth of their remaining inventory. A U.S. destroyer that fires 30-40 Maritime Strike Tomahawks in a single large salvo can give away that it has little remaining long-range anti-ship weaponry. By comparison, massing fires from a broader array of distributed forces makes it harder for an adversary to ascertain when platforms and formations have depleted their individual magazines.

Aggregation allows firepower to be combined in smaller portions from individual launch platforms. Ideally each launch platform can afford to expend only a small fraction of its magazine at a time, if many other platforms are doing the same with proper timing and coordination. Individual platforms will be able to sustain distributed offensive threats for longer than if they had fired off large, independent salvos of their own.

However, as inventory begins to dwindle across a distributed force, mass fires can cause larger portions of the force to reach the end of their magazines around a similar timeframe. This could radically collapse the offensive posture and capability of the distributed fleet if not carefully managed. By delaying magazine depletion at the individual platform level, mass fires risk magazine depletion across a broader portion of the force at a later time.

Consider a fleet that has four distributed warships available for contributing fires. If one warship emptied its entire offensive inventory per strike, then the remaining force becomes increasingly concentrated and predictable as to where the next several strikes may come from. Instead, if those four warships combine fires to launch a quarter of their offensive inventory per strike, the distributed force posture endures for more time and across more attacks. But all of those warships would deplete at a similar time, triggering a larger drop in force distribution compared to depleting only one platform per strike through the first scheme. By spreading depletion to prolong distribution, mass fires trade smaller decreases in distribution earlier in the fight in exchange for larger decreases later on.

Having deeper magazines or more strike platforms reduces the share of magazine depth each attacker must deplete to contribute to mass fires, and further delays the broader depletion of the force. A distributed force posture can be preserved by having a large number of assets with overlapping firepower, or rotating assets quickly enough to replace those that have depleted their magazines. The goal is to maintain enough available firepower over time so the distribution of the force can endure.

Asymmetric Weapons Depletion and Operational Risk

There are important asymmetries in how warships can deplete their offensive missile firepower versus their defensive firepower. One asymmetry is that commanders may be deeply uncomfortable keeping large surface warships in the battlespace when they are low on defensive firepower but fuller on offensive firepower compared to the reverse situation. Another key asymmetry is that defensive firepower is mostly drawn from the local magazines of the naval forces under attack, while offensive firepower can be drawn from the many magazines of a broader distributed force. Leveraging these key asymmetries can secure operational advantage.

Even if a ship survives an intense attack, being on the wrong side of firing effectively first can take the form of being low on defensive firepower while still full on unused offensive firepower. These units can still remain offensive threats, but the volume of fire required to overwhelm their defenses is substantially lowered. This can force commanders to pull these units out of the fight for the sake of survival and replenishing their defenses.

In this sense, firing effectively first is not only defined by scoring successful hits and kills, it can also mean depleting enough of the adversary’s defenses that commanders no longer feel confident in pressing their attack or maintaining warships in a contested battlespace. If those depleted warships are in escort roles and are responsible for defending other ships, then those ships could be forced to withdraw as well. By depleting defensive firepower to the point that warships must be withdrawn before they can attack, those warships’ offensive inventory can be removed from the fight before it can be used, thereby suffering depletion indirectly.

The battle of nerves in naval salvo warfare is partly a function of accepting risk for the sake of minimizing weapons depletion. A more efficient missile exchange tolerates more risk, demanding stronger nerves on the part of commanders. Otherwise, the desire to build more confidence into offensive or defensive engagements can make commanders waste their munitions. A defending warship that fires too many anti-air weapons per incoming missile wants to bolster its odds of near-term survival, but it can deplete itself earlier than warranted and increase risk in follow-on engagements. A warship that fires an excessive amount of anti-ship weapons can risk too much overkill and leave it with little offensive capability for later in the fight.

But commanders who attempt to precisely optimize their offensive salvos in a bid to just barely overwhelm targets with enough fire will risk much greater uncertainty than those willing to accept overkill by expending more volume. Indeed in a form of combat featuring salvos with dozens of missiles that only need to strike a single hit, overkill is more likely than not. Instead, it is the degree of overkill that separates what is sufficient from what is wasteful. Achieving a small degree of offensive overkill can be the more efficient outcome, since attacking with an insufficient volume of fire can lead to waste by making follow-on salvos once again pay the price of breaking through strong defenses to threaten a target. With too much overkill, a unit or commander witnessing a heavy volume of fire pouring into a dead or dying friendly warship may take some small satisfaction in knowing the enemy just suffered depletion far out of proportion to their target.

A key asymmetry is how the risk of depletion through overkill is much more manageable for offensive fires because of the greater ability to mass those weapons from across many forces. Defensive inventory has far less margin to work with because of the isolating effect of the radar horizon on ship self-defense, where there is little ability for ships to leverage a broader shared magazine against sea-skimming threats. An attack on a naval formation can consist of fires pulled from a wide variety of forces, but the formation will often have only its own magazine to defend itself. And with that magazine, the formation may not only have to match the incoming volume of fire, but exceed it to ensure survival. Matching the attacking volume with only one interceptor fired per incoming missile may not be enough to confidently survive a dynamic where a warship cannot afford to take a single hit, yet the attacker can afford to have every attacking missile take a hit except one.

For defensive volume of fire, there can be a thin line between what is sufficiently dense and what is wastefully excessive. Firing just one more interceptor per incoming missile can dramatically increase expenditure in a single engagement and result in a warship facing follow-on threats with a far more depleted magazine. But as mentioned, defensive depletion not only increases risk to the individual platform, it threatens to take that platform’s offensive fires out of the fight prematurely. The broader offensive inventory that is available for massed fires can therefore be threatened by the localized manner of defensive engagements and their especially depleting nature.

Range advantages convert to depletion advantages, where forces with longer-ranged weapons can inflict asymmetric depletion against their shorter-ranged opponents. These threatening dynamics are more probable for navies that can be up against anti-ship weapons with much greater ranges than their own, such as the current range disparity the U.S. Navy is suffering against many Chinese anti-ship missiles.

If two opposing forces have a major disparity in the range of anti-ship weapons, then the forces with less range can be forced to travel hundreds of miles while under fire before they can finally be in a position to attack. These warships can be depleting their defensive firepower while still pressing forward in an increasingly risky bid to bring their offensive firepower to bear. By comparison, the longer-ranged side will deplete far fewer defenses to make their attacks, if they have to deplete those defenses at all. Warships with a significant offensive range advantage are not only in a much better position to fire first, they can fire their salvos and then simply reverse course to keep themselves out of reach while preserving their defensive firepower. The outranged fleet can be pressing forward without much of its defensive firepower left, while the other fleet can be in the much more comfortable position of pulling back with most of its defensive firepower remaining. It is unlikely that the fleet with shorter-ranged weapons would be in a position to catch up to the opposition in many circumstances. Because of the vast distances involved and the large speed differential between anti-ship missiles and warships, it seems improbable that surface warships will run each other down on the open ocean in the age of missile warfare. 

Increased payload range can also translate into increased reload speed, where shifting more of the burden of maneuver onto the payload shortens the logistical lifeline of the platform. The longer the range of the weapon, the less the platform has to travel between its launch areas and rearmament points, shortening the episodic drops in force distribution while offering higher rates of fire. This effect is especially potent for aviation, such as how aircraft firing JASSMs at 230 miles can have much lower reload rates and availability of fires compared to aircraft firing the 1,000-mile extreme range variant of JASSM (Figure 1).3 An asymmetry in weapon range between opposing forces can translate into asymmetry in reload speeds, and make the distribution of a force more resilient against depletion than its adversary’s.

Figure 1. Reverse range rings centered on Taiwan illustrate the area from which targets on the island can be fired upon by 1,000-mile and 230-mile variants of JASSM. Aircraft firing the longer-ranged variant can benefit from shorter journeys between launch points and airbases, such as those on Guam, allowing for quicker rearmament, more enduring force distribution, and higher rates of fire. (Author graphic)

Massed Fires and Uneven Depletion Across Platform Types

As waves of massed fires ensue, the distribution of depletion across the platforms of a force can become uneven. A distributed force may prefer to prioritize its longest-ranged fires, its most common weapons, or other payloads for other reasons, which depletes the specific platforms that launch them. This sets the stage for operational tradeoffs and an evolving risk profile, since one type of platform’s fires can preserve the inventory of another’s, and different platforms have different magazine depths and timeframes for reloading. Uneven depletion can gradually shift the burden of massing fires onto platforms that must assume more risk to continue the fight, encouraging a force to carefully consider how to distribute weapons depletion across platforms over time.

The anti-ship Tomahawk will offer long range and broad magazine depth across many platforms, making it an ideal weapon for massing fires. But heavily prioritizing the use of the anti-ship Tomahawk can make surface forces and submarines among the first to deplete their anti-ship missile inventories, and where these platforms can take many days to reload and return to the fight. The weapons that can contribute the most to mass fires can suffer the most depletion, putting the distribution of the force at risk down the line.

As the fight continues and warships become more depleted, more of the U.S. burden of assembling mass fires against warships can gradually accrue to aviation because aviation can reload much faster than warships. This is especially true for carrier air wings, and carriers have the deepest magazines of all afloat combatants, potentially making them the last warships standing when it comes to remaining inventory after intense exchanges.4 Yet this would pose an especially concentrated posture to an adversary and force air wings to take major risks in deploying the remaining firepower. Preserving the anti-ship inventory of warships is therefore critical in forestalling a need to rely more heavily on aviation-based strikes, which would tie down numerous aircraft to muster volume of fire, pull carriers deeper into the battlespace, and assume more risk.

Yet this relationship is paradoxical. Preserving warship-based inventory can also take the form of leaning more on aviation fires earlier in the fight. Therefore a balance can be defined between the proportion of fires to come from different platform types at different phases of the fight, in order to manage how the risk profile of depletion evolves. A commander that carefully balances a combination of air wing depletion and warship depletion earlier in the fight can better delay the prospect of air wings shouldering more of the burden. Or a commander could heavily favor bombers in the opening phases, which can preserve warship-based fires for later phases, which preserves carriers. Depletion does not necessarily mean firing options have to get far worse as time goes on, depending on how commanders balance risk with regard to what combinations of launch platforms they favor depleting at different periods of the fight.

Submarines offer one of the most critical advantages in managing depletion through the highly favorable tradeoffs that come with sinking ships with torpedoes instead of missiles. The undersea domain is far less saturated with warship defenses compared to above the waterline. The cost of a missile salvo large enough to credibly threaten a group of several warships could easily exceed $100 million and require expending dozens of missiles.5 Credibly threatening the same group would require only several torpedoes, which could cost ten percent or less of the missile salvo.6 A single lethal torpedo strike can substitute for the dozens of missiles that could be required to overwhelm the same warship from above water.

By sailing far into contested littorals and laying near ports, bases, and maritime chokepoints, submarines are much more likely to be in a position to sink ships with fuller magazines compared to other platforms and deprive the adversary of inventory. However, closing the distance for torpedo strikes increases risks to submarines. The operational implications include weighing tradeoffs in the amount of risk commanders are willing to accept for their valuable submarines, versus the risk that could be incurred by depleting the broader missile magazine of the distributed force. Risking submarines in torpedo attacks can spare broader missile inventory and vice versa.

Aircraft and ground-based launchers certainly carry far fewer missiles per loadout compared to a large surface warship. Their shallower magazine depth substantially shortens the interval between launching fires and reloading, even if each of their fires is limited to a few missiles. But these platforms can typically access weapons stocks to rearm at a fraction of the time it takes a warship to do the same. Their shallow magazine depth can make their availability for fires more episodic than warships, but their episodes of depletion are not nearly as steep or prolonged. Land-based forces in the form of Chinese launchers on the mainland would have particularly more endurance than expeditionary stand-in forces that heavily depend on lengthy logistical lifelines to sustain their fires in a long fight.

The nature of uneven depletion will make for especially challenging command decisions. Commanders may face pressure to maintain depleted assets in the fight for the sake of posing some semblance of a distributed posture to the adversary. Commanders weighing such decisions would have to consider whether the adversary’s tracking of expenditure may have been accurate enough to provide the critical insight that portions of the distributed force are depleted. Operational behavior may significantly change based on one’s estimate of an adversary’s depletion and if asymmetric depletion has emerged between opposing forces.

Tracking adversary depletion is a critical operational imperative, but the desire to understand the specific composition and volume of missile salvos can place major demands on ISR and decision-making. Forces may struggle to distinguish between different types of anti-ship or anti-air missiles at long range and in the midst of battle. But knowing the type of launch platform narrows down the potential type of fires, where the tracking challenge is simplified by how certain weapons are exclusive to certain kinds of platforms. An F/A-18 firing on a warship is most likely firing Harpoons or LRASMs, and a Chinese warship firing on a ship is most likely firing YJ-83s or YJ-18s. Weapons that have longer range and are compatible with a broader variety of launch platforms will complicate the adversary’s ability to track expenditure and form estimates of depletion.

Defying Destruction and the Last-Ditch Salvo Dynamic

The adage of “firing effectively first” may be better described as striking effectively first, since two opposing naval formations can still destroy each other even if one fires after the other. In defining what it means to fire effectively first, an ideal kill of a warship or platform can include putting it out of action before it had a chance to use its offensive firepower. Similar to how it would be ideal to destroy a carrier while it is still embarking its air wing, it is ideal to destroy a warship before it has depleted its magazine of offensive missiles. This creates profound psychological and operational pressures that come into play when commanders of individual platforms and formations feel on the cusp of being destroyed. The critical phenomenon of last-ditch fires can threaten to destabilize distributed fleets and massed fires.

Commanders can be extraordinarily pressured to unleash most if not all of their offensive firepower if they believe there is a real risk of imminent destruction. Once a ship or fleet realizes that a potentially fatal salvo is incoming, enormous pressure can quickly force commanders to discharge their offensive firepower soon or else risk losing it permanently. Similar to how a carrier commander would be tempted to launch the air wing before the salvo hits the carrier, warships can make similar decisions with their missile magazines.

Last-ditch salvos are meant to deny the enemy one of the most critical benefits of firing effectively first. Launching a last-ditch salvo right before ships could be destroyed gives those offensive weapons a final chance of somehow contributing to the fight and deprives the adversary the benefit of sinking ships with fuller magazines. Last-ditch fires aim to ensure that archers are never destroyed before they can fire arrows. Concerns over losing limited weapons inventory are sharply intensified by lethal inbound salvos, making the last-ditch salvo a critical protocol for making the most of friendly losses moments before they are incurred.

A last-ditch anti-ship salvo cannot be an act of self-preservation. Commanders can be completely confident that an incoming salvo is dense enough and capable enough to overwhelm their defenses and destroy their warships. Launching their own anti-ship salvo in response is not going to change such an outcome. Anti-ship missiles cannot save warships from anti-ship missiles that are already incoming. These weapons can only save warships from anti-ship missiles that have yet to leave their magazines.

Many platforms that can threaten warships with anti-ship missiles cannot be threatened by those same missiles in return. This creates an asymmetric dynamic where some forces can enhance the effects of distribution by threatening to trigger last-ditch salvos that are futile. Since airborne aviation, submarines, and land-based forces cannot be directly attacked by anti-ship missiles, a warship launching a last-ditch salvo could very well be firing at perceived targets it can do nothing against. Even a single incoming torpedo from a submarine attack could trigger a last-ditch salvo fired in futility. Warships must strive to maintain awareness of candidate targets they can actually threaten with last-ditch salvos if a fatal attack comes from a domain they cannot effectively retaliate in.

A last-ditch salvo may be fired despite a lack of quality targeting information, since the method of simply firing down a line of bearing suggested by the incoming attack may be more than enough for a desperate warship. But warships ideally need broader situational awareness to launch effective last-ditch salvos, and especially to know whether they are under attack by a last ditch salvo themselves. If a warship does not recognize it is facing down a last-ditch salvo and simply reciprocates the attack, it could be firing on a warship with an empty magazine or even a warship that was already destroyed minutes earlier. This is even more wasteful than firing on a depleted warship, and a worthy result for warships whose final actions caused an adversary to waste precious firepower.

Last-ditch salvos are therefore a double-edged sword. This desperate act is meant to prevent precious weapons inventory from being permanently lost, yet this desire can be manipulated to prompt wasteful fires. An adversary can be made to take self-defeating actions in the crucial battle of nerves that infuses salvo warfare.

The simple appearance of an inbound volume of fire can be enough to trigger last-ditch firing protocols. Weapons with longer range and waypointing ability will have more opportunity to feint attacks on the way to their true target, multiplying the combat potential of salvos. If a weapon has enough range, attacking salvos may be waypointed to appear to threaten multiple targets in succession and provoke last-ditch fires from each (Figure 2).

Figure 2. A waypointed salvo triggers last-ditch fires from multiple formations by feinting attacks along the way to its true target. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command) 

The U.S. may eventually have a substantial advantage in this regard by fielding a cruise missile with especially long range. The Tomahawk has enough range to where a salvo can threaten multiple naval formations through waypointed feints, even if those formations are distributed across hundreds of miles. If several Chinese naval formations are concentrated within 300 miles so they can mass YJ-18 missiles, then it becomes even more feasible to waypoint Tomahawks to trigger last-ditch fires within this radius. If one side’s naval formations have to concentrate within shorter distances to mass their fires, they become more susceptible to this waypointing tactic than their opponents, and they may not even have the range to launch viable last-ditch salvos at all.

Salvos used to trigger last-ditch fires may have to risk a degree of attrition by allowing themselves to be seen by warships. Networked missiles could coordinate pop up maneuvers to rise above the horizon and make themselves known, but only briefly enough before they can be struck by defensive fires. Otherwise the salvo could suffer enough attrition that it loses both its psychological and kinetic potency. Decoy weapons that can project the signatures of multiple aerial contacts, such as the ADM-160 MALD, can be used to inflate the appearance of mass while reducing the ability of defensive fires to chip away at the salvo.7

Two Miniature Air Launch Decoys (ADM-160 MALD) sit side-by-side in the munitions storage area on Barksdale Air Force Base, La., March 21, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Micaiah Anthony)

Posing the appearance of significant mass may not be a hard requirement for inducing last-ditch fires from a target. There may be a significant disparity in the volume of fire required to actually kill a platform, versus the volume of fire that is enough to manipulate it into firing prematurely. This disparity can stem from commanders being uncertain about the capability of enemy salvos or their ability to defeat them, or the strain of combat operations taking its toll on decision-making. The last-ditch dynamic can therefore magnify the tactical value of salvos that lack enough volume of fire to destroy targets. Commanders that are limited to local awareness may struggle to differentiate between a small salvo that was only launched as a standalone attack, versus a small salvo that is a harbinger of incoming mass fires. A small salvo can leverage these uncertainties to score outsized tactical benefit by triggering last-ditch fires despite not being able to actually threaten the target. 

Even if a salvo cannot strike a target due to limited range or other constraints, it may still provoke emissions, signatures, and other reactions that could be exploited. Commanders may struggle to distinguish between different types of incoming missiles in real time, where last-ditch salvos consisting of low-capability, short-range, or non-anti-ship weapons can still manipulate reactions. A warship launching a last-ditch salvo could certainly fire its land-attack cruise missiles toward an enemy warship, who either can’t tell the difference or won’t take the chance. The prospect of wresting any sort of non-kinetic benefit can encourage platforms under heavy attack to launch last-ditch salvos regardless of capability or volume of fire.

And non-kinetics can prompt last-ditch fires themselves. Actions such as heavy jamming, blinding attacks against networks, aggressive posturing, and other methods that could be interpreted as a prelude to an imminent attack could also provoke last-ditch salvos. Last-ditch fires can be triggered by much more than just other fires.

The act of firing last-ditch salvos is extremely sensitive to timing given how warship launch cells are often carrying both offensive and defensive firepower, and how some cruise missiles require a minimum amount of lead time to be programmed for launch.8 A warship under attack from a subsonic anti-ship missile fired at a range of 250 miles has barely more than 20 minutes to react. And this assumes the target warship has knowledge of the launch. If the warship becomes aware of the incoming salvo only after it crosses the horizon, it can have roughly two minutes or less to prosecute an intense anti-air engagement while simultaneously discharging the whole of its offensive firepower in a last-ditch salvo. Those final moments would be characterized by an intense outpouring of the ship’s firepower in all-out offensive and defensive warfare. But these vast volumes of firepower would be bottlenecked by the rate of fire, of how many missiles can be fired by a warship’s launch systems in short periods of time. The volume of outgoing offensive and defensive firepower would be diminished as missiles of both types are primarily being fired from the same sets of launch cells, making them compete with each other for brief launch windows.

These challenges can be mitigated by having situational awareness over sea-skimming spaces that go beyond the radar horizon of a warship. Aircraft can provide early warning of incoming salvos and help warship commanders determine whether they must initiate a last-ditch salvo. Effective warning can allow commanders to discharge their last-ditch salvos early enough so that offensive missiles are not competing with defensive missiles for launch windows when it comes time for the warship to defend itself. In any case, warship commanders should strive to have a variety of pre-programmed responses at the ready so they can initiate last-ditch fires as fast as possible, and to have the subjective tactical judgement to know when it is time.

Warships under attack could be forced to fire their final salvos alone and in isolation from the broader distributed force. Yet last-ditch salvos may hardly be enough on their own to overwhelm concentrated defenses. This can put pressure on other combatants and commanders to add contributing fires in the hopes of growing enough volume to credibly threaten targets. A cascading domino effect could threaten to unravel a distributed force’s firepower as last-ditch salvos prompt hasty contributing fires from other platforms. The pressured nature of last-ditch salvos will exacerbate the timing challenges associated with combining fires and potentially rule out a variety of options for growing the volume of fire.

A commander of a distributed force must weigh the risks of attempting to combine fires with a last-ditch salvo. A last-ditch salvo may force a commander’s hand in adding contributing fires to a salvo that was fired on insufficient targeting data, lacks the volume to penetrate defended targets, or features other deficiencies. A commander could hold off on launching contributing fires, conserve the inventory of weapons, and allow the last-ditch salvo to play out on its own. But this may come at the risk of failing to support a salvo that could have effectively put opposing warships out of action if it had received just enough outside fires to tip the scales and cross the thresholds needed to overwhelm defenses. Commanders have to be ready to weigh these options as missile exchanges unfold in real time, and decide if a last-ditch salvo should remain a standalone attack, or leverage it through adding contributing fires.


As distributed forces unleash massed fires against one another, their desire to decisively overwhelm the opposition will be tempered by the need to minimize depletion. Depletion can threaten to break naval operations and yield major advantage to an adversary. Effectively massing fires from distributed forces can help manage depletion, but the need to achieve overwhelming volume of fire will make this risk a pervasive consideration at all levels of warfare.

Part 5 will focus on missile salvo patterns and maximizing volume of fire.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content and Community Manager of its naval professional society, the Flotilla. He is the author of the “How the Fleet Forgot to Fight” series and coauthor of “Learning to Win: Using Operational Innovation to Regain the Advantage at Sea against China.” Contact him at


1. For weapon production lead times, see:

“Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 Budget Estimates,” Navy Justification Book Volume 1 of 1 Weapons Procurement, Navy, Page 2 P-1 Line #7, (PDF pg. 94), April 2022,

Seth Jones, “Empty Bins in a Wartime Environment: The Challenge to the U.S. Defense Industrial Base,” Center for International and Strategic Studies, pg. 14, January 2023, 

2. For one example, a warship on a one-way trip and traveling at 20 knots would take nearly two weeks to reach the Philippine Sea from U.S. naval infrastructure in San Diego. This assumes a straight line path, which may be less realistic under wartime conditions.

3. For JASSM range, see:

“AGM-158 Joint Air-to-surface Stand-off Missile (JASSM),” U.S. Air Force,  

For extreme-range JASSM variant, see:

Brian A. Everstine, “USAF to Start Buying ‘Extreme Range’ JASSMs in 2021, Air & Space Forces Magazine, February 14, 2020,

4. Hon. John F. Lehman with Steven Wills, “Where are the Carriers? U.S. National Strategy and the Choices Ahead,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, pg. 67, 73, September 9, 2021, 

5. At an average unit cost of $3.5 million per missile, a combat credible salvo of about 30 LRASMs yields a volume of fire that costs in excess of $100 million.

For LRASM unit cost, see:

“Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 Budget Estimates,” Navy Justification Book Volume 1 of 1 Weapons Procurement, Navy, Page 1 of 10 P-1 Line #16, (PDF pg. 261), April 2022,

6. MK 48 MOD 7 torpedoes have an average unit cost of around $5 million, but have far less of a requirement to be salvoed in large numbers because of the less saturated nature of undersea warship defenses.

For MK 48 MOD 7 torpedo cost, see:

“Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 Budget Estimates,” Navy Justification Book Volume 1 of 1 Weapons Procurement, Navy, Page 1 of 16 P-1 Line #27, (PDF pg. 351), April 2022,

7. “U.S. Airborne Electronic Attack Programs: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, pg. 16-17, May 14, 2019, 

8. General Accounting Office, “Cruise Missiles: Proven Capability Should Affect Aircraft and Force Structure Requirements,” GAO/NSIAD-95-116, April 1995, pg. 35-36,

Newer Tomahawk variants than those discussed above have considerably shorter launch preparation times. See:

“Tomahawk,” Missile Threat CSIS Missile Defense Project, last updated February 23, 2023, 


Rear Admiral Edward Masso (ret.), “On The Tomahawk Missile, Congress Must Save The Day,” Forbes, June 10, 2015,

Featured Image: September 3, 2005 – U.S. Navy Sailors aboard the USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) inspect the MK 41 Vertical Launching System (VLS). (Photo via U.S. National Archives)

Fighting DMO, Pt. 3: Assembling Massed Fires and Modern Fleet Tactics

Read Part 1 on defining distributed maritime operations.
Read Part 2 on anti-ship firepower and U.S. shortfalls.

By Dmitry Filipoff

Massed Fires – A Core Tactic of Distributed Warfighting

A core tactic that operationalizes the concept of concentrating effects without concentrating platforms is combining the missile firepower of widely distributed forces. As various platforms launch weapons, their contributing fires combine to grow an overall aggregate salvo that is directed against a shared target. As commanders look to defeat and defend fleets, their decision-making will be strongly influenced by shaping the potential of these massed fires. These methods of massing missile firepower can form a centerpiece of fleet combat tactics in the modern era.

Because even one missile hit can be enough to put a ship out of action, modern high-end warships tend to emphasize powerful air defenses, which can include anti-air weapons, point defenses, electronic warfare, decoys, and other means. These many defenses significantly drive up the volume of fire needed to overwhelm warships and score hits. This makes the ability to mass anti-ship fires from distributed forces a valuable method for mustering enough volume of fire to threaten naval formations.

The adage of “firing effectively first” has sometimes been based in winning the scouting competition that precedes the launching of fires.1 But one can certainly find the adversary first while not having enough available firepower to overwhelm their defenses. It is possible for opposing naval formations to effectively target one another, but are forced to hold fire until more additional launch platforms are made available to add enough contributing fires. A critical component of firing effectively first is being the first to launch enough volume of fire to overwhelm warship defenses.

The current inventory of only eight Harpoons or Naval Strike Missiles on many U.S. surface combatants is hardly enough to be a credible threat to many modern warships. However, if warships carrying only a few missiles apiece can be credibly augmented by more anti-ship fires delivered by bombers, submarines, and other platforms, then the individual warship presents a much larger and amorphous threat. The individual warship features as part of the greater whole that is the distributed force, because a small salvo launched by one platform could very well mean that more salvos from more platforms are on the way. Warships fielding small loads of missiles cannot be discounted or viewed in isolation from the larger force, which magnifies the threat posed by even lightly-armed combatants. Therefore the ability to mass fires considerably broadens the extent of force distribution in the eyes of the adversary.

Contributing Fires and Aggregation Potential

Massed fires can combine multiple different types of missiles, which can be done for the sake of presenting more distributed threats, preserving certain types of weapon inventory, or making due with whatever firepower is available. However, combining fires from a variety of platforms fielding a variety of weapons will pose challenges. Commanders must understand what characteristics dictate the options for how massed fires can take shape, and how these options affect the distribution and risk profile of their forces.

Each individual act of contributing fires to an aggregating salvo can have a narrow window of opportunity measured in only the tens of seconds.2 Launching too late or too early will amount to launching an entirely separate salvo, and risk having missiles suffer defeat in detail while forsaking the advantages of combining fires. To effectively overwhelm multiple layers of air defenses, the missiles of an aggregated salvo have to tightly overlap the target within a similar timeframe, such as within the critical two-minute timeframe that subsonic sea-skimming missiles are visible to a target warship after they break over the horizon. Coordinated timing is central to concentrating firepower.

Regardless of the range or speed of the types of missiles, they will combine over a target if their time to reach the target is similar. One salvo does not need to physically merge with another salvo on the way to the target so long as their time to reach the target overlaps. However, the firing sequence will be affected by how different missiles have different ranges, and how quickly their speed allows them to travel those ranges. The desired timing of strikes affects the sequencing and availability of distributed launches.

Although contributing fires must overlap the target at a similar time, the fires may not all be launched at a similar time. If the U.S. Navy wanted to fire each type of its anti-ship weapons at the same time and have them strike at the same time, then all launch platforms would have to be roughly within the small 80-mile range of the Harpoon missile. The SM-6 launch platform would be a few dozen miles further out because of the weapon’s greater speed. More realistically, taking advantage of a variety of weapon ranges means distributed forces will be at different distances from the same target, and will have to sequence their launches to combine fires. A core task of assembling massed fires is organizing these firing sequences, and understanding the tactical implications of their design.

A critical factor is how long it takes a type of missile to fly to the limit of its range. Assuming the missile can be targeted out to this distance, the maximum flight time creates thresholds and ceilings for how much opportunity the missile has to combine with other fires. Missiles with longer flight times or longer ranges have more aggregation potential and offer more opportunity to combine with other fires. But if missiles have to be fired from a variety of ranges, then missiles with shorter times-to-target will have to wait on missiles with longer times to combine with them.

The maximum flight time of LRASM is estimated here at slightly less than 40 minutes. 3 If LRASM fires are to combine with a separate salvo, then that salvo must also be 40 minutes away or less from striking the target. Once these two factors come close to overlapping – the time-to-target of the waiting contributing fires and the time-to-target of the traveling aggregated salvo – those contributing fires will then have tens of seconds of opportunity to launch and effectively combine with the salvo. The figures below show roughly how long it takes U.S. anti-ship missiles to travel their maximum ranges at their maximum speeds, highlighting a critical factor of aggregation potential (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. A table of U.S. anti-ship missiles and their estimated maximum flight times.4 (Author graphic)
Figure 2. A map of “reverse” range rings centered on a target warship, demonstrating the relationship between range, aggregation potential, and the listed maximum flight times of U.S. anti-ship missiles. (Author graphic)

If missiles of similar speeds are to be combined to grow the volume of fire, then the weapon with the shorter range must wait for the longer-ranged weapon to close enough distance to make combination possible. When range overlaps, the time-to-target will also overlap for missiles of similar speed. Once the longer-ranged weapon aligns with the range of the shorter-ranged weapon, then the latter can be launched to combine fires. If a Harpoon salvo is to combine with a Tomahawk salvo, then the Harpoon launchers must wait for the Tomahawk salvo to be 80 miles or less away from the target to be able to combine with the salvo.

Assuming launch platforms will try to make the most of the range of their weapons, platforms firing Tomahawk will often fire first and platforms launching any other U.S. anti-ship missile will be firing much later in the firing sequence. By necessity those other platforms will have to be much closer to the target than those firing Tomahawk. They could have to wait as long as an hour or more for a Tomahawk salvo to get close enough for them to combine fires.

Combining weapons of widely differing speeds can require limiting tactical opportunities to create a viable firing sequence and achieve a larger volume of fire. The fastest weapons will often have to be fired last in sequence so they can catch up to slower weapons within the narrow timeframe of overlapping the target (Figure 3). The platforms with the fastest weapons will often have to wait the longest to fire, even though they may face the greatest pressures and opportunities to fire first. The potential of capitalizing on a faster weapon’s ability to strike a target earlier can be constrained by the need to combine with slower weapons to achieve enough volume of fire. This constraint stems from the relatively rare nature of the fastest weapons and how subsonic missiles are more common. Otherwise, firing salvos wholly composed of the most high-end and faster missiles can be especially expensive, depleting, and a less distributed form of massing firepower.

Consider how when firing an SM-6 missile in a standalone attack, a target can have as little as four or less minutes of potential warning against the incoming strike. But when SM-6 is a part of contributing fires, the missile’s launch platform will be forced to wait until the aggregated salvo is around four or less minutes away from striking before the SM-6 can be fired.

Figure 3. Click to expand. Three warships launch contributing fires of equal speed that surpass a fourth warship (USS Arleigh Burke). The fourth warship is still able to combine fires by using missiles of higher speed. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

But faster weapons offer many advantages, such as how they can help an aggregating salvo recover from failing or failed strikes. They can be quick enough to be inserted into an active firing sequence, giving commanders flexible options to augment the salvo as it is unfolding. If contributing fires are destroyed on the way to the target, high-speed weapons can be fired to recover lost volume and bolster the salvo into overwhelming dimensions (Figure 4). If a salvo is defeated by defenses, but those defenses were heavily depleted of anti-air weapons in the process, then high-speed weapons can quickly seize the opportunity to finish the target. Faster weapons can also spare commanders from the lengthier process of organizing fires from slower weapons when needed. 

Figure 4. Click to expand. Faster missiles are used to recover lost volume of fire after a set of slower contributing fires suffer attrition. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

Yet in the context of a massed firing sequence, even if a platform fields the fastest missile, it could be the last to fire. It may have to wait the longest even though it could hit the earliest. The longer a platform has to wait for its turn in the firing sequence, the more opportunity the adversary will have to preemptively attack the archer before it can contribute its fires. As commanders organize mass fires, they must be wary of the predictability of their firing sequences and the risk of suffering interruptive strikes. 

The Risks of Predictability and Interruptive Strikes

The way a distributed posture is presented to an adversary will flex and evolve during the course of a mass firing sequence. As an aggregating salvo closes in on a target, the options for growing the volume of fire will narrow, and the remaining distribution of potential launch platforms becomes increasingly concentrated. These dynamics simplify some of the adversary’s targeting challenges, where a force will strive for broad-area awareness partly to understand how an adversary’s massed fires are coming together and pinpoint opportunities to disrupt the firing sequence as it is unfolding.

The staggered nature of building an aggregated salvo from sequenced fires increases the risk to friendly platforms whose contributing fires come later in the firing sequence. If an adversary discovers that standoff fires are being launched against them from distant forces, they may view closer forces as pressing targets demanding immediate strikes. Those closer forces are potential candidates for contributing to the volume of the incoming salvo. They could be archers waiting their turn. By targeting these forces before the salvo gets close enough to be combined with, a defender can preemptively destroy platforms to restrict the growth of the salvo and kill targets with fuller magazines (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Click to expand. Sensing a mass firing sequence, an adversary launches high-speed missiles at a pair of warships it believes will soon add contributing fires. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

When a firing sequence is initiated and an aggregated salvo is born, the burden of destroying archers before they fire arrows considerably intensifies. But those distributed archers must realize that a friendly salvo fired by someone else can make them prime targets of opportunity. If a platform has to wait an hour or more to combine fires with a Tomahawk salvo, then that can offer plenty of time for them to be preemptively attacked by an adversary. The earlier a platform can launch in the firing sequence, the more it reduces its attractiveness for preemptive strikes during the course of assembling massed fires.

The process of assembling massed fires will take on a much more predictable pattern when most of a military’s anti-ship missiles have similar speeds, such as the U.S. military’s mostly subsonic arsenal. In this case an aggregated salvo can take the predictable pattern of gradually building in volume as it closes the range to the target. The outermost platforms initiate the strike by firing the longest-ranged weapons, then platforms closer to the target and with shorter-ranged missiles contribute their fires in turn. As the aggregated salvo closes the distance, each platform that becomes further away from the target than the salvo can be ruled out as a candidate for adding more contributing fires. The potential scope of remaining fires and launch platforms predictably shrinks as the aggregated salvo gets closer to the target. As the salvo closes the distance, the resulting distribution of potential contributors becomes tighter and more concentrated, making clearer to the adversary which archers may remain (Figure 6). 

Figure 6. Click to expand. A mass firing sequence takes on a predictable pattern of aggregation by using missiles of similar speed. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

This predictability can be mitigated through several measures, including by combining fires with weapons featuring widely different speeds. Platforms with faster weapons can remain a candidate for contributing fires even if they are further away from the target than the aggregated salvo, which helps preserve force distribution as the salvo closes in (Figure 7). An adversary that sees an incoming salvo of Tomahawks 100 miles away can rule out that any platform well beyond that range cannot add further Tomahawks to that salvo. But warships 150 miles away can still pose a threat by launching SM-6s that are fast enough to catch up to the Tomahawks and combine over the target in the final minutes.

Figure 7. Click to expand. A mass firing sequence takes on a less predictable form of aggregation by combining missiles of mixed speeds. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

In a similar vein, Chinese forces firing subsonic anti-ship weapons can still have ballistic and hypersonic missiles combine with their fires, despite those faster weapons being launched from positions that are potentially hundreds of miles behind the platforms firing the subsonic weapons. Weapons with a combination of extremely long range and high speed can be on call to rapidly combine with a large variety of other salvos on a theater-wide scale. Forces fielding weapons with a variety of speeds therefore present more complex forms of distribution that make it more difficult to predict how their contributing fires can come together. 

Waypointing is a critical tactic that can make aggregation less predictable and complicate an adversary’s options for preemptively striking waiting archers. Weapons with both long range and long flight times can allow commanders to program waypoints into flight paths to artificially increase the time-to-target and therefore lengthen the opportunity to combine fires. Waypointing can allow platforms closer to the target to launch their contributing fires earlier than if they had simply waited for their time-to-target to overlap with the traveling aggregated salvo.

Consider a warship that is waiting to contribute fires to a salvo that is 30 minutes further away from striking a target than the warship’s own fires. Waypointing can allow that warship to fire immediately and make up the time difference through nonlinear flight paths (Figure 8). This tactic of waypointing contributing fires can allow warships to deprive adversaries of the opportunity to destroy archers before they fire arrows, even if those archers can have a shorter time-to-target than the salvos they are aggregating with.

Figure 8. Click to expand. A pair of warships much closer to the target than distant platforms uses waypointing to launch early in the firing sequence while still aligning the time-to-target with the other contributing fires. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

When contributing fires consist of weapons with similar speeds, the methods of waypointing and in-flight retargeting can allow those salvos to not only combine over the target, but to also merge together on the way to the target. By selectively merging contributing fires and creating more distinct masses earlier in the firing sequence, an attacker can manipulate an adversary’s perceptions and lure defensive airpower toward certain directions. Merging contributing fires can make an adversary falsely perceive that a given formation fired a larger salvo than is actually the case, which can create illusions of greater force concentration and magazine depletion (Figure 9). An adversary may believe a formation is more heavily armed and concentrated than previously believed and redirect more attention toward it. Or the adversary could believe the formation has diminished its value as a potential target by assuming it depleted much of its offensive firepower, and redirect attention away from it.

Figure 9. Click to expand. Two naval formations of several warships use waypointing to give the impression that a large standalone salvo was fired from the vicinity of a single warship (USS Mustin). (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

By offering the ability to artificially increase the time-to-target, waypointing allows a force to make its firing sequences much more unpredictable in how they unfold. The path a waypointed salvo can take to the target is not linear, making it unclear to the adversary when exactly the salvo may arrive, what it is targeting, and what other contributing fires it may combine with. A sequence of waypointed fires may not predictably grow an aggregated salvo from the outside in. Rather, each platform uses waypointing to align its contributing fires with the time-to-target of other salvos that are being fired from a variety of ranges and are taking a variety of paths to the target. Through waypointing, the order of the firing sequence is no longer purely defined by who is farther or closer to a target, complicating the adversary’s ability to set priorities for interruptive strikes. This method is potentially one of waypointing’s most powerful force multipliers for enhancing distribution.

Figure 10. Click to expand. Distributed forces launch a mass firing sequence that consists entirely of waypointed salvos. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

Creative methods of assembling massed fires are not only useful for producing overwhelming firepower, but for manipulating the adversary’s interpretations of massed fires for tactical effect. In line with the fundamental tenets of distributed warfighting, missile waypointing is a valuable means of challenging an adversary through complex threat presentations.

Distributing Volume of Fire Across Time

At what point in the firing sequence will the aggregated salvo take on enough volume to be overwhelming? As various contributing fires are launched during the course of massed fires, tactical advantage and disadvantage will come into play depending on when exactly the salvo reaches overwhelming volume on its way to the target. Preserving distribution is not only a matter of managing the physical locations of platforms and contributing fires, it is also a matter of distributing launches across points in time within a firing sequence. Well-distributed launch timing can allow a volume of fire to grow robustly yet unpredictably. Understanding the distribution of launches across time is central toward knowing how to disrupt a massed firing sequence through interruptive strikes and to secure tactical advantage.

A backloaded firing sequence depends on contributing fires to push the aggregate salvo into overwhelming dimensions near the end of the firing sequence. If an aggregated salvo does not reach overwhelming volume until the firing sequence is almost over, then the attack is more fragile and easily disrupted by attacking the contributing fires and waiting archers. A long-range Tomahawk salvo that heavily depends on combining with Harpoon salvos launched by an air wing would take the form of a backloaded firing sequence.

A frontloaded scheme achieves overwhelming volume of fire early in the firing sequence. A large amount of contributing fires are launched early on, but the salvo receives few if any contributing fires for the rest of the firing sequence. The adversary can focus more of their attention and command and control on managing defenses, because a frontloaded firing sequence can spare the adversary the pressure of having to rapidly initiate their own firing sequence in pursuit of interruptive strikes. Multiple warships firing large Tomahawk salvos in tandem and from distant standoff ranges would take the form of a frontloaded firing sequence.

These two schemes of firing sequences frontloaded and backloaded are disadvantaged forms of concentration with respect to timing. Various drawbacks are incurred by concentrating the growth of the volume of fire toward the frontend or backend of a firing sequence. If an adversary confronts a distributed force that repeatedly uses concentrated firing sequences, then distribution is diminished and massed fires become more predictable.

A well-distributed firing sequence makes the growth of the volume of fire less predictable and combines the advantages of frontloaded and backloaded schemes. By achieving high volume of fire early in the sequence like a frontloaded scheme, more contributing fires can be added later to increase the margin of overmatch and ensure the salvo can remain overwhelming. There will be more opportunity for new launches to join the active firing sequence, especially to recover volume of fire if it is lost to attrition or if friendly platforms are preemptively destroyed before they can contribute fires.

By also featuring a meaningful number of launches later in the firing sequence, distributed launch timing can make an adversary believe that both offensive and defensive actions are necessary to restrict the growth of the salvo. They may believe they must preemptively attack waiting archers to interrupt the firing sequence and inhibit the growing volume of fire. Adversaries would feel pressed to defend against missiles while also interrupting an active firing sequence through striking waiting platforms, stretching their decision-making across both offensive and defensive efforts.

A well-distributed firing sequence may be more logistically intensive, where a force would expend enough munitions to achieve overwhelming volume of fire early in the sequence, and still have plenty more launches occur later. This sort of firing pattern is more depleting, but it achieves the critical aim of reducing dependence on launches later in the firing sequence while still leveraging them to enhance distribution and further grow the volume of fire. Ideally an aggregated salvo has enough volume of fire to not only remain overwhelming against enemy defenses, but to also remain overwhelming when multiple friendly archers have been destroyed before they could contribute their planned fires. Launching enough volume of fire to withstand disrupted firing sequences will add to the extreme expense and potential for overkill that characterizes this form of warfare.

The pressure to interrupt an active firing sequence can force commanders to expend more of their fastest and most high-end weapons in interruptive strikes. These weapons can have low enough flight times that they can be fired after an adversary initiates massed fires and still reach targets in time to disrupt the firing sequence. Subsonic salvos by comparison will have far less potential for interruptive strikes. There may be significant opportunity to disrupt the massed fires of the U.S. Navy when its principal land-attack and anti-ship cruise missile will be a weapon that can take almost two hours to travel to the limits of its range, and when China fields anti-ship ballistic missiles of similar range that can reach targets within 15 minutes.5

The distribution of maximum flight times across U.S. anti-ship missiles will make for a more backloaded firing sequence when more weapons have to combine with Tomahawk fires (Figure 11). If Tomahawk is to be fired from near the limits of its range yet still combine with other types of anti-ship weapons, then the launch platforms firing those other weapons will have to wait around an hour before they reach their turn in the firing sequence. A shorter overall firing sequence can be achieved by foregoing Tomahawks and using the other U.S. anti-ship weapons, but those weapons require much denser platform concentration to mass enough fires, especially for air wings. The U.S. can accomplish a well-distributed firing sequence mainly by having enough Tomahawk shooters throughout the battlespace and at widely different ranges from targets, while also leveraging the missile’s potent waypointing and retargeting capabilities. The figures below illustrate different forms of distribution and concentration across firing sequence timelines (Figures 12-14).

Figure 11. Click to expand. A firing sequence timeline depicting the maximum flight times of all U.S. anti-ship missiles, and the earliest each weapon could be fired in a sequence featuring all listed missile types. (Author graphic)
Figure 12. Click to expand. A frontloaded firing sequence achieves an overwhelming volume of fire early in the sequence, but features few if any launches toward the end of the sequence. (Author graphic)
Figure 13. Click to expand. A backloaded firing sequence achieves overwhelming volume of fire only toward the end of the firing sequence. This is more typical of firing sequences that rely more heavily on combining faster weapons with slower weapons, or many short-ranged weapons with fewer long-ranged weapons. (Author graphic)
Figure 14. Click to expand. A well-distributed and robust firing sequence achieves an overwhelming volume of fire early in the sequence. It also continues to add contributing fires throughout the sequence to further reinforce the volume of fire against attrition and sustain distributed firings to further complicate the adversary’s challenge. (Author graphic)

These dynamics create a conundrum for using higher-end weapons. These weapons typically feature very low flight times by virtue of their especially high speed. Their speed will often place them later in the firing sequence where they can combine with more common weapons over the target. Using higher-end weapons is therefore more likely to backload the firing sequence of a mixed salvo. Since the weapons that could contribute the most to a salvo’s lethality would often be fired last, this creates more dependence on ensuring those forces and their kill chains survive until the final minutes of a firing sequence. If those platforms are destroyed or suppressed, or if the handful of high-end missiles are shot down by defenses, then the rest of the aggregated salvo may be at risk of failing and with virtually no time left to add more contributing fires. Counting on higher-end missiles to push a mixed salvo into overwhelming dimensions near the very end of a firing sequence leaves little room to recover lost volume during the course of the attack.

Commanders may not want to risk these dependencies. Therefore they may opt to shorten the overall length of the firing sequence, such as by firing salvos that mainly consist of higher-end weapons. Firing salvos primarily of the fastest weapons will shorten the decision cycle considerably compared to having to wait tens of minutes or longer for more common weapons to form massed fires. A greater number of firing sequences and mass firings could take place within the same span of time it takes to launch a single slower salvo. More than 20 consecutive SM-6 strikes or seven DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile strikes could be conducted within the time it takes a single Tomahawk salvo to travel the limits of its range (Figure 15). This assumes of course that enough SM-6 and DF-21 inventory is available, targeted, and ready to fire.

Figure 15. Click to expand. Weapons with shorter flight times can cycle through multiple engagements within the same period of time it takes a weapon with a longer flight time to conduct a single engagement. (Author graphic)

Faster weapons can result in a faster kill chain and increase decision-making advantage. A faster kill chain creates more opportunity to launch more attacks, adjust volumes of fire as needed, improve understanding of adversary defenses, and move on to new targets. These advantages may come at a steeper logistical price by depleting high-end inventory at a faster rate. Yet distributed forces that heavily depend on more common weapons with long flight times, like the Tomahawk, may suffer considerable disadvantage in the speed of their decision cycle.

Massing Fires with Aviation

These frameworks for assembling massed fires presume a relatively static laydown of forces from the start to finish of a firing sequence. This is a fairly reasonable assumption when missiles can travel hundreds and even thousands of miles within timeframes that a ship or land vehicle can travel only tens of miles. Most launch platforms will have to rely on the speed and range of their missiles to compensate for their platform’s lack of near-term maneuver in a missile exchange.

Aviation is a critical exception to this. Aviation is the only launch asset whose speed can approach and even exceed that of cruise missiles. The scope of a weapon’s reach can be greatly enhanced by the speed and range of aerial launch platforms, where aviation can put fires in many more places than warships can with similar-ranged weapons in similar timeframes. Through speed and maneuver, aviation can be dynamically repositioned to bolster aggregated salvos in tactically meaningful timeframes. This ability to add flexible on-demand fires makes aviation an especially potent force multiplier for distribution and aggregation. But leveraging aviation poses challenges for assembling massed fires.

First, an important contrast has to be drawn between the availability of fires from carrier air wings, warships, and bombers. One critical advantage carrier aviation has over warships in launching anti-ship strikes is logistics. Carriers have especially deep magazines, and air wings can be rearmed in a matter of hours compared to the days or weeks it can take to rearm warships exiting the theater. But it is quite possible that air wings cannot be armed and sortied quickly enough to satisfy pressing operational demands in a shorter timeframe, such as fitting into a tight firing sequence. It can take a considerable amount of time to finalize mission planning for a large airborne strike, arm dozens of aircraft with specific weapon loadouts, launch those aircraft, assemble the air wing in flight, and then prosecute the strike.7 Aviation-based fires cannot be contributed until planes are loaded and made airborne.

While warships cannot rearm cruise missiles at sea like an air wing can, aviation cannot always match the promptness of warship-launched fires. By fielding weapons within launch cells, warships can fire salvos relatively soon after the decision is made to strike, essentially bypassing some of the steps it would take to deliver similar firepower through aviation.8 Commanders attempting to combine fires from carrier aviation and warships may find the near-term time demands of setting up aviation are constraining quicker options for massing fires. Commanders in need of rapidly deployed firepower may very well opt for warship-based fires over aviation-based ones, and be willing to pay the steeper logistical price of depleting warships in exchange for the earlier application of firepower.

It may be too logistically taxing to keep most of a carrier air wing airborne and on station for the sake of maintaining quicker options for fires. Instead, it is more likely that a carrier air wing would be armed and launched once targets have been definitively selected and the strikes ordered. If enough anti-ship firepower is widely fielded to the point that entire air wings are not necessary to achieve volume of fire, then smaller numbers of carrier aircraft can contribute a fraction of the contributing fires and reduce the time required to prepare aerial strikes. But compared to carrier aircraft, bombers offer a much more stable and enduring source of on-station aerial firepower by virtue of their longer endurance. This on-station endurance can allow bombers to provide options for fires that are more quickly deployed than air wings that need time to prepare and get airborne for massed strikes. The following schemes of assembling massed fires with aviation are more feasible with heavy bombers than full carrier air wings.

Combining fires between ships and aircraft will often depend on how much repositioning aviation needs to set up its contributing fires. But repositioning costs time, where taking advantage of aviation’s high speed to bolster salvos on demand will cost the time it takes to use that speed. That time is also needed to use speed to compensate for how U.S. aircraft are often limited to carrying smaller and shorter-ranged cruise missiles than the ship-launched weapons they can be combining fires with.

The time it costs to reposition aviation can delay massed fires, put aviation later in the firing sequence, and force other platforms to wait on aircraft to move. Flexible repositioning is one of aviation’s greatest potential contributions to massed fires, yet the time it costs to reposition can complicate aggregation and firing sequences. A critical question is how to position aviation in advance to create options for quick and flexible fires.

The extent to which warships are forced to wait on aviation depends on aviation’s position relative to the target and to the friendly warships they are combining fires with. The extent to which aviation will need to reposition after warships initiate the firing sequence mainly depends on aviation’s proximity to the target. Simply put, how do things change if aviation is kept on station in the space between opposing fleets, or when aviation is kept behind friendly fleets?

If aviation is kept behind friendly warships, then warships will often have to wait until enough aviation is assembled and then maneuvered across lines of departure before the warships can initiate the firing sequence with their longer-ranged weapons. Those aircraft may then have much of their ability to maneuver on the way to the target tightly constrained by the need to adhere to the timing of the firing sequence while still having to travel hundreds of miles forward to their launch points.

If aviation is maintained in the space between opposing fleets, then warships can initiate massed fires without having to wait as much for aviation to reposition. In this scheme, the need to reposition aviation can be deferred to the point of it not being a hard prerequisite for initiating the firing sequence. Aviation would have more flexibility to maneuver as needed while the firing sequence is in progress, rather than be locked into a more constrained flight path from the outset and across a longer distance.

Maintaining aviation in the space between opposing fleets will allow massed fires to be initiated earlier. But aviation positioned in this space may be deprived of the valuable air defense and sensing support that friendly warships can provide. It can also be more risky to maintain an aloft presence with aerial tanking in such a forward position, and protecting strike aircraft in a forward position could create substantial air defense requirements for carrier air wings and other aircraft. But unless aviation has missiles with similar ranges and flight times as the larger warship-based weapons, a force that wants quicker options for massing firepower will accept more risk to aviation by maintaining aerial presence in the space between opposing fleets.

Regardless of where they are maintained in the battlespace, once strikes are ordered, aviation will often need to go far beyond the protections of friendly warships that can fire from much longer standoff ranges. If a bomber with LRASM needs to combine fires with a nearby warship’s 800-mile-long Tomahawk strike, that bomber could have to travel 500 or more miles deeper into the contested battlespace before it can launch its own weapons. While other contributing salvos are in flight, aviation will have to be traveling deeper into the battlespace until the necessary time factors overlap so they can add their own fires. This challenge can be greatly mitigated by fielding larger or more capable cruise missiles that can shift more burden of maneuver from the platform to the payload, such as by equipping bombers with Tomahawks or extreme-range JASSMs. This would allow aviation to fire from more flexible standoffs ranges that are comparable to that of warships.

December 6, 1979 – A left side view of a B-52 bomber releasing an AGM-109 Tomahawk air-launched cruise missile. (Photo via U.S. National Archives)

The disposition of aviation would be constrained by the relationship between the speed of the aircraft and the speed of the missiles they are combining fires with. In the U.S. military, many of the bombers and cruise missiles have similar subsonic speeds. Subsonic bombers like the B-52, B-2, and B-21 have fewer options for aggregating with subsonic salvos than faster aircraft. Aircraft that can outpace subsonic missiles, such as strike fighters and B-1 bombers, could be held further back and across wider distributions. If commanders are willing to pay the logistical price, they can use supersonic flight to surge these aircraft forward in time to combine fires with slower subsonic salvos.


Assembling massed fires from distributed forces will be a complicated challenge. It will involve mixing and harmonizing the kill chains of different payloads, platforms, communities, and services. Each of these factors comes with a variety of its own dependencies and pitfalls. As the services look to operationalize mass fires, they must be mindful of how too much complexity and too much sensitivity to tight coordination can threaten to yield brittle operational designs.

Part 4 will focus on weapons depletion and the last-ditch salvo dynamic.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content and Community Manager of its naval professional society, the Flotilla. He is the author of the How the Fleet Forgot to Fight” series and coauthor of “Learning to Win: Using Operational Innovation to Regain the Advantage at Sea against China.” Contact him at


1. The full quote is as follows: “At sea better scouting – more than maneuver, as much as weapon range, and oftentimes as much as anything else – has determined who would attack not merely effectively, but who would attack decisively first.” 


Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, Naval Institute Press, pg. 173, 1986.

2. For an example on the need of very close timing for a mass firing sequence of anti-ship missiles, see:

Maksim Y. Tokarov, “Kamikazes: The Soviet Legacy,” U.S. Naval War College Review, Volume 1, 67, 2014, pg. 17,

3. This flight time is derived from an estimate of a maximum missile speed of 550mph, or about 9.16 miles per minute, and applying this speed to a maximum missile range of 350 miles.

4. For weapon range, see:

“Options for Fielding Ground-Launched Long-Range Missiles,” Congressional Budget Office, pg. 24, 2020,

For 550mph subsonic speed of Tomahawk, see:

“Beyond the Speed of Sound,” pg. 158 (PDF page 166), Arnold Engineering Development Center’s contributions to America’s Air and Space Superiority, United States Air Force,

5. This estimate is based on the typical flight times of similar intermediate range ballistic missiles. See:

Bruce G. Blair, Harold A. Feiveson and Frank N. von Hippel, “Taking Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert,” Scientific American, November 1997, 

Dr. Jamie Shea, “1979: The Soviet Union deploys its SS20 missiles and NATO responds,” NATO, March 4, 2009,

Charles Maynes, “Demise of US-Russian Nuclear Treaty Triggers Warnings,” Voice of America, July 31, 2019,

6. This estimate is derived from the flight times listed in Figure 1, where SM-6 has four minutes of flight time, and a Tomahawk missile has a maximum flight time of 110 minutes.

7. For comparisons of times to plan and launch Tomahawk versus carrier air wing strikes, see:

General Accounting Office, “Cruise Missiles: Proven Capability Should Affect Aircraft and Force Structure Requirements,” GAO/NSIAD-95-116, April 1995, pg. 35-36,

8. General Accounting Office, “Cruise Missiles: Proven Capability Should Affect Aircraft and Force Structure Requirements,” GAO/NSIAD-95-116, April 1995, pg. 35-36,

Newer Tomahawk variants than those discussed above have considerably shorter launch preparation times. See:

“Tomahawk,” Missile Threat CSIS Missile Defense Project, last updated February 23, 2023, 


Rear Admiral Edward Masso (ret.), “On The Tomahawk Missile, Congress Must Save The Day,” Forbes, June 10, 2015,

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (August 17, 2018) The guided missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) conducts a tomahawk missile flight test while underway in the western Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin M. Langer)

Fighting DMO, Pt. 1: Defining Distributed Maritime Operations and the Future of Naval Warfare

By Dmitry Filipoff

Series Introduction

“Why study tactics? It is the sum of the art and science of the actual application of combat power. It is the soul of our profession.” –Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski, foreword to the second edition of Fleet Tactics by Captain Wayne P. Hughes, Jr.

In the Western Pacific, the U.S. Navy is facing one of the most powerful arrays of anti-ship firepower ever assembled.1 The Navy is attempting to evolve its capabilities and doctrine to meet this challenge and transform the future of naval warfare. In this pursuit, the U.S. Navy has made the Distributed Maritime Operations concept (DMO) central to its evolution and relevance, with DMO being described by the Chief of Naval Operations as “the Navy’s foundational operating concept.”2 DMO can serve a defining role in guiding the development of the U.S. Navy and how it will fight for years to come.

But while DMO has lasted longer than other recent Navy warfighting concepts, it is still relatively new and much work remains to be done on its practical implementation.3 What exactly does DMO mean for the Navy, how is it different than current naval operations, and how could a distributed force fight a war at sea? This series focuses on these questions as it lays out an operational warfighting vision for how DMO can transform the U.S. Navy and be applied in modern naval warfare.

Part 1 will focus on defining the DMO concept and illustrating core frameworks of distributed warfighting.

Part 2 will focus on the U.S. Navy’s anti-ship missile shortfall and the implications for massing fires.

Part 3 will focus on assembling massed fires and modern fleet tactics.

Part 4 will focus on weapons depletion and the last-ditch salvo dynamic.

Part 5 will focus on missile salvo patterns and their tactical implications.

Part 6 will focus on the strengths and weaknesses of platform types in distributed warfighting.

Part 7 will focus on revamping the role of the aircraft carrier for distributed warfighting.

Part 8 will focus on China’s ability to mass fires against distributed naval forces.

Part 9 will focus on the force structure implications of DMO.

Part 10 will focus on force development focus areas for manifesting DMO.

This series will mainly focus on how the U.S. Navy can apply DMO and mass fires, but important fundamentals of the concept apply to other services and militaries as well. In crucial respects, China’s military is far closer to realizing the potential of DMO and mass fires than the U.S. Navy. What will be analyzed does not only apply to how the U.S. Navy can use DMO to fight adversaries, but how adversaries can use DMO to defeat the U.S. Navy.

Why Define a Warfighting Concept?

Warfighting concepts can mean many things. They can espouse lofty operational goals, cutting edge capabilities, and extraordinarily complex tactics. Public definitions can feature broad principles and vague points but little substance. Meaningful specifics can be relegated to the labyrinth of the classified world, which is hardly a guarantee of actual utility or force-wide understanding. An official concept can suggest more organizational and intellectual coherence on future warfighting than what may actually be the case.

Warfighting concepts can be abused, acting as little more than bumper stickers attached to initiatives in service of preconceived interests.4 Some concepts can be more politics and marketing than real change agents, such as by serving as budget battle weapons rather than drivers of genuine reform or operational innovation. The rapid rise and fall of various naval net-centric warfighting concepts in recent decades suggests a lack of clarity on what is desired or sustainable. This regular procession of short-lived concepts has taken a genre of thinking that once seemingly sparkled with transformational promise and often relegated it into stale generics.

Yet warfighting concepts are absolutely necessary. Militaries must have a vision for the overarching frameworks of how they intend to fight and compete. Concepts are needed to combine various capabilities and tactics into a conscious integrated whole, rather than letting individual elements yield disjointed operational designs. Concepts offer holistic frameworks for valuing the combat power of force structure, and evolve analysis beyond more superficial measures of capability such as hull counts, launch cell quantity, or reputation. Concepts serve critical functions in guiding force development toward earning distinct advantages, and providing a common point of departure for how operational commanders can tailor the employment of forces.

To provide clarity and to prevent misuse, warfighting concepts require careful definitions and measured expectations. Actionable coherence requires specificity. Concepts require that key effects and capabilities be defined as priorities to organize focus. They must have specifically defined features that distinguish them as unique and evolutionary. Warfighting concepts demand discipline of vision, pinning success more on plausible attainability rather than breathtaking transformation. A critical part of examining the promise of DMO is considering whether it may be too good to be true.

The way the Navy has defined DMO deserves careful assessment. Core tenets of DMO and distributed warfighting need to be described and evaluated through the fundamentals of modern naval warfare. How exactly do these concepts expect to create advantage? Central terms need to be established to create consistent understanding of how to define warfighting success and how it can be achieved. All beliefs about future conflict reflect implicit assumptions on the theory and practice of war, and what theory of victory is superior. These underlying assumptions need to be made explicit to acknowledge limits and respect much of warfighting’s fundamental unpredictability.

Ultimately, achieving sharper clarity will give more shape and form to this warfighting concept that could define the future of naval warfare for years to come.

Defining DMO and Core Warfighting Lexicon

DMO is happening for several reasons, where the drive toward distributed warfighting is part defensive reaction and part offensive evolution. The considerable missile firepower fielded by China especially has encouraged distribution for the sake of survivability. But offensive developments on the part of U.S. services are also driving distribution. DMO is poised to harness a major transformation in the anti-ship firepower of the services, with each service now beginning to procure weapons that will bring substantial anti-ship missile firepower to U.S. communities that have never fielded it before, including surface warships, submarines, and land-based aviation and launchers.5 Fielding this major expansion of anti-ship firepower across the fleet and the other services will significantly elevate the maritime threat posed by a broad swath of force structure, and allow far more forces to disperse across greater distances and still combine fires. In this sense, DMO and the overarching Joint Warfighting Concept are an attempt to manage a defensive problem while seizing an offensive opportunity.6 The problem is the considerable missile firepower of competitors, and the opportunity is the major expansion of anti-ship missile firepower across U.S. force structure.

In this context, Navy leadership has communicated central tenets of the DMO concept with some consistency. These definitions provide a helpful point of departure in understanding the concept and going from theoretical understanding to practical implication. These definitions also suggest how Navy leadership believes that realizing the DMO concept is critical to securing the Navy’s future. CNO Admiral Gilday captured defining features of DMO in testimony before Congress:

“Using concepts such as the Joint Warfighting Concept and Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), we will mass sea- and shore-based fires from distributed forces. By maneuvering distributed forces across all domains, we will complicate adversary targeting, exploit uncertainty, and achieve surprise…Navy submarines, aircraft, and surface ships will launch massed volleys of networked weapons to overwhelm adversary defenses…Delivering an all-domain fleet that is capable of effectively executing these concepts is vital to maintaining a credible conventional deterrent with respect to the PRC and Russia.”7

In the tri-service maritime strategy Advantage at Sea, DMO is defined as:

“[a concept] that combine[s] the effects of sea-based and land-based fires…[and] leverages the principles of distribution, integration, and maneuver to mass overwhelming combat power and effects at the time and place of our choosing.”8

The concept has featured some consistency across Navy leadership turnover. CNO Gilday’s predecessor Adm. Richardson stated in A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority (2019):

“We will fully realize the inherent flexibility of DMO when we provide the capability to mass fires and effects from distributed and networked assets.”9

These explanations of DMO contain several defining traits that have consistently featured in the Navy’s public definitions of the concept. They include the massing and convergence of fires from distributed forces, complicating adversary targeting and decision-making, and networking effects across platforms and domains.

These elements of DMO encompass a broad multitude of naval tactics and capabilities. This series will anchor its focus on one of the defining features of DMO – massing anti-ship missile firepower from across distributed forces. It will concentrate on this core tactic of massing fires as an organizing framework for analyzing DMO. Developing the ability to execute this tactic has profound implications for the transformation of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. military writ large. It is one of the most critical features that distinguishes the evolutionary character of DMO from what the U.S. military is capable of today. By focusing on this central tactic, this series hopes to give more concrete precision and practical clarity for how this concept can work in practice.

Concepts of massing fires strongly apply to how forces can threaten well-defended land targets as well. Whether the targets or the attacking forces are on land or sea, a central operational challenge of high-end warfare is how to mass enough missile firepower to break through strong air defenses and achieve effects. Using distributed forces to launch massed fires against land targets is also a far more developed capability for the U.S. military and U.S. Navy than anti-ship fires.

The terms used to describe these fires can include massed, combined, or aggregated. Distributed forces are looking to combine their missile salvos to build massed fires. These salvos are combining and aggregating with one another into a larger salvo, where the term aggregating means “to collect or gather into a mass or whole.”10 Contributing fires are individual missiles and salvos that aim to increase the overall volume of the primary aggregated salvo. Aggregation is the main term used here to frame how fires can be combined, and aggregation potential is the ability of different types of platforms and payloads to offer contributing fires.

As opposed to massed fires, standalone fires describe independent salvos that are launched from an individual unit, force package, or force concentration. Standalone fires can still feature considerable mass and volume of fire. But standalone fires have no expectation or intention of combining with the fires of outside, non-organic forces.

Overwhelming fire is the goal of aggregation, and it achieves this through mustering enough volume. Contributing fires come together through aggregation to increase the volume of fire until it is enough to be overwhelming. Forces are attempting to mass enough missile firepower to break through strong missile defenses, and once broken through, score enough hits to achieve the desired effect.

The term “overwhelming” can still describe volumes of fire that go far beyond what is necessary. Therefore the specific goal of overwhelming a target is understood as massing the minimum amount of firepower required to confidently surpass a defensive threshold and then score enough hits. Overwhelming fires that go well beyond these thresholds are termed overkill, which can be difficult to predict and is highly likely given the natural combat dynamics involved, such as how only one missile hit can easily be enough to put a warship out of action.11

The ability to overwhelm a target with missiles will be described as mainly a function of achieving enough volume of fire. This is a central assumption because defenses can be overwhelmed not so much by pure volume, but by advanced capability. Specific capabilities can improve the ability of a missile to find and discriminate targets while enhancing the ability to penetrate defenses. Hypersonic weapons are more difficult to defend against by virtue of their speed and flight profiles. Outside capabilities and tactics such as jamming and deception can also serve as force multipliers to a missile salvo. But even though high-end weapons and force multiplying tactics can lower defensive effectiveness, these weapons may be fired in salvos because some level of payload attrition is still expected. Modern warship defenses are relatively dense and consist of multiple layers and varieties of capability, suggesting there is still a role for volume of fire even for higher-end weapons and tactics.

It is true that large anti-ship missile salvos have never featured in the modern history of naval warfare, despite the capability existing for more than half a century and numerous sunk warships.12 The history of warships being struck by anti-ship missiles, whether they be the Moskva, the Sheffield, or the Stark, is mainly a history of poor situational awareness and woefully unprepared crews.13 The naval missile duels of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war featured decently ready warships, but were primarily small salvos exchanged between small combatants.14 Salvos fired at warships that resulted in no hits, such as in Operation Desert Storm or in the Red Sea in 2016, also consisted of very few missiles.15

A port quarter view of the guided missile frigate USS Stark (FFG-31) listing to port after being struck by an Iraqi-launched Exocet missile, May 17, 1987. (U.S. Navy photograph)

All of the historical experience to date of warships being attacked by missiles, successfully or not, consists of extraordinarily small volumes of fire. Despite this being the case, for decades the design of high-end naval capability has long been predicated on launching and defeating volumes of missile firepower that are far larger than the historical experience so far. This is not to suggest that naval capability design could be deeply misguided. Rather, the historical circumstances that yield large naval missile exchanges have yet to manifest. But the contours of those capabilities and circumstances are plainly visible today. Therefore this series assumes that much of the combat effectiveness of modern naval forces in high-end warfighting will continue to be predicated on their ability to launch and defeat large volumes of missile firepower. It also assumes that crews, platforms, and capabilities will mostly function as intended, a core assumption that cannot be made lightly.

In terms of force packages and geographic dispositions, the term distributed forces is not used here to describe the disaggregated U.S. naval formations of the past few decades. A distributed naval force is not envisioned here as a force where each element is almost completely independent, and operational effectiveness is mainly a function of accumulating individual, unit-level victories. Rather, a distributed force is a collection of forces that are widely separated yet generally still acting in concert in key respects. Unity of action is still a fundamental requirement for critical warfighting functions, especially for massing fires. As Vice Admiral Jim Kilby described it:

“Distributed Maritime Operations is fleet commanders controlling ESGs, CSGs, SAGs, individual units, that’s a little different for us…At a very simple level [DMO] is many units in a distributed fashion, concentrating their fires and their effects.”16

This complements guidance published by the previous Chief of Naval Operations on the need to “master fleet-level warfare” and that “Our fleet design and operating concepts demand that fleets be the operational center of warfare.”17 The current CNO has continued to emphasize the fleet-level imperative, stating that “If we’re going to fight as a fleet – and we moved away from fighting just as singular ARGs, as singular strike groups, to fighting as a fleet under a fleet commander as the lead – we have to be able to train that way.”18

DMO is a form of fleet-level warfare, and it is closely connected to the U.S. Navy’s push toward wielding larger-scale naval formations. A distributed naval force is a coordinated fleet, and a fleet is something larger in scale than the typical naval formations of the past few decades, such as carrier strike groups.

A carrier strike group can still be an appropriate formation to use in a distributed force if it is a component of a larger fleet. Distribution can be achieved not only by spreading formations, but also by increasing the overall number of forces within a theater of operations. This series envisions a distributed force as mostly consisting of large numbers of surface action groups, naval aviation, bombers, and land-based forces acting together to mass fires, with other formations and platforms featuring as well. Many of this series’ concepts are also ungirded by the critical assumption that the U.S. can surge enough forces to field enough platforms and firepower to pose a distributed threat and mass fires. 

Central Frameworks of Distributed Naval Warfighting

DMO marks a departure in being a network-centric warfighting concept instead of a platform-centric concept. The latter requires that platforms be closely co-located in order to mass their firepower, which is concentrated, not distributed, warfighting. In network-centric warfare, firepower can be massed without co-locating the launch platforms themselves. This capability is a product of increased weapons range and the networks that allow widely separated forces to coordinate their fires across great distances. Massing firepower in this way can be described as an attempt to earn the benefits of concentration without incurring its liabilities. Distributed warfare is therefore distinct from what could be termed as concentrated warfare. Distributed warfare is now being regarded as the superior method by the U.S. Navy, which is a marked departure from millennia of high-end naval battles often characterized by decisive clashes between heavily concentrated main battle fleets. A framework is needed to differentiate what is distributed from what is concentrated, and how these different configurations affect advantage.

The question of what is distributed or concentrated is often centered on how to arrange the density of capability. This can include the density of capability in individual payloads, platforms and force packages, and how the density of capability is spread across an entire force structure or theater. At first, the definition of distribution may be interpreted as lessening density, where distribution is seen as the act of spreading capability outward and more broadly. But distribution does not inherently imply a stretching or dispersal of capability. Rather, this perception is often based on the traditional force employment and force design of a service, and what direction it must take to achieve better distribution. A force that is stretched thin could certainly achieve a better state of distribution by slightly concentrating itself.

Distribution is better defined as an ideal balance in the spread of capability. In this sense, distribution is at the center of a spectrum (Figure 1). On one end of the spectrum is the concentrated force, in the center is the distributed force, and at the other end is the force that is stretched thin. Being stretched thin can be defined as the spread of capability being too wide to be mutually combined and reinforcing, when those capabilities were meant to be combinable. Being concentrated can be defined as the spread of capability being so dense that it incurs more liability than benefit. Distribution implies an ideal balance in the spread of capability, a happy medium between the two extremes of overconcentration and being stretched thin.

Figure 1. A spectrum of the spread of capability. (Author graphic)

As will be demonstrated throughout, the core aspect of being distributed, concentrated, or stretched thin applies to many realms of naval capability besides spatial and material factors. These aspects can apply to firepower, timing, and other elements. Each can describe a separate manner of configuring missile loadouts, of sequencing fires in time, or of spreading weapons depletion across a force during mass fires. These recurring themes will provide a common frame of reference for describing the configuration of various operational elements and their state of advantage.

Spatial factors can help with distinguishing these configurations. In spatial terms, concentration means the area of overlapping capability and influence between assets is nearly one and the same. Distribution means there is still a substantial area of capability overlap between assets, but also a substantial separate area of influence (Figure 2). These two areas can complicate an adversary’s decision-making because these distributed assets maintain options for combining their fires, but also options for exercising initiative independently of one another in distinct areas. The geographic space between distributed units can blur the perception of which forces constitute distinct force packages. This makes it less clear to the adversary how distributed forces will behave and support one another operationally, and can obscure which assets are the leading elements or the supporting elements. This overlap of distributed capability creates more vectors of attack, and the more viable options that are available to a commander, the less clear the next moves will be to the adversary.

Figure 2. Click to expand. The spectrum of the spread of capability represented spatially, with each warship fielding a weapon of similar range, denoted by range rings. (Author graphic)

Distribution is distinct from being stretched thin, which is a vulnerability that is incurred when the spreading of capability is taken to an extreme. Being stretched thin suggests that weakness can be exploited at the capability gaps between forces. Stretched forces struggle to support one another and combine their effects. Commanders must use discretion to limit distribution so that widely spaced forces are still able to support one another or combine effects to support an overall operational design.

Offensively, the amount of maneuver that is required for distributed forces to initiate massed fires against a shared target can represent how stretched these forces are. A force with long-range weapons would require less preparatory maneuver than a force with short-ranged weapons. It takes far less space to stretch thin a force trying to combine Harpoon missiles compared to longer-ranged Tomahawks. With respect to offense, forces are more stretched the more they must maneuver to create overlapping fires, with weapons range being a key limiting factor in identifying the gaps.

This spectrum highlights a central paradox of distributed warfighting and the arguments that are often made in favor of it.19 Why is it favorable for a force to proactively distribute its own assets and platforms, but unfavorable to cause an adversary to do the same? The answer may lie in the distinctions that occur on the ends of this spectrum, that one force’s distribution can cause its adversary’s to become stretched thin. This paradox also applies to the decision-making advantage that is central to success in distributed warfighting. Concentration simplifies command and control, but distribution complicates it. Some of distribution’s effectiveness is therefore predicated on the belief that the command-and-control burden of wielding a distributed force can be more manageable than the C2 burden of targeting that force.

The nature of being concentrated, distributed, or stretched thin does not hold evenly across functions, especially offensive and defensive warfare. A configuration that appears distributed for one way of combining capability can be stretched thin for another. When forces are to mutually support one another, it is far easier in naval warfare to be distributed and combine offensive missile firepower than it is to combine defensive firepower. In the case of defense, even naval formations that seem heavily concentrated can have their defenses stretched thin by the fundamental dynamics of naval warfare.

Since many radar systems cannot see through the curvature of the Earth, the radar horizon limit has an intensely isolating effect on naval defense. The low-altitude, sea-skimming flight profiles of many anti-ship missiles take advantage of these radar horizon limits to tightly compress the amount of time and space warships have to defend themselves. Much of the advantage offered by long-range sensing and defensive weaponry is negated by sea-skimming flight profiles that force defensive engagements to begin mere miles away from warships (Figure 3).

Given how the limits of the radar horizon can typically be as little as 20 miles away, warships will have their mutual defenses stretched thin by the radar horizon dynamic unless proximity and concentration is taken to extreme lengths.20 Ships that are close enough to help defend one another against sea-skimming threats are likely to be concentrated enough that they can be threatened by the same individual salvo, removing distribution’s key advantage of diluting fires. Networking capabilities like the Navy’s Cooperative Engagement Capability will only marginally increase the potential for defensive concentration, given how incoming missiles can still be tens of seconds away from impacting the warship illuminating the missiles for outside defensive fires.21 While some environmental conditions can allow radar to bend around the horizon, this adds more complexity to the engagement and is not a panacea for mitigating sea-skimming threats.22 When sea-skimming salvos break over the horizon and are only tens of seconds away from impact, warships are more likely to fight alone. 

Visualization of the radar horizon limitation. (Source: Aircraft 101 Radar Fundamentals Part 1)
Figure 3. Click to expand. A visualization of three layers of ship self-defense capability: The outer ring of radar range, the middle ring of air defense weaponry range, and the innermost ring of the radar horizon limit.23 (Author graphic.)

Even if missiles attack from higher altitudes that give warships more scope for mutual defense, the act of combining defensive fires from multiple warships can incur major inefficiencies in weapons depletion. If incoming missiles penetrate into the overlapping air defense zones of a fleet, the pre-programmed doctrines of heavily automated combat systems could easily generate defensive overkill. If multiple Aegis warships reflexively execute the standard “shoot-shoot-look-shoot” doctrine against the same missile, far more anti-air weapons than necessary could be wasted against individual targets.24 The fleet’s magazines would be depleting at a disproportionate rate relative to the number of missiles being shot down, and the attackers would be operating at a more favorable exchange ratio. Simply depleting magazines of anti-air weapons can be more than enough to put commanders in untenable positions and force ships out of the fight as they retreat on a long journey home to rearm. Tightly coordinated networking and automation would be required to efficiently expend defensive fires across multiple platforms, especially for a concentrated fleet. Yet there would also be an especially strong incentive to do everything possible to preserve a concentrated fleet, since it likely represents a major center of gravity whose loss cannot be afforded.

Click to expand. Three warships, each using a firing doctrine of two interceptors per incoming missile, defeat a small salvo with highly inefficient expenditure. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

Concentration does offer several advantages in naval warfare compared to distribution. One of the hallmark advantages of concentration is simpler command and control, which could prove invaluable in a heavily contested electromagnetic environment. Concentration allows for offensive fires to be launched with less networking and communication demands compared to distribution. The contributing fires of a concentrated force can also become aggregated and massed shortly after launch, where the salvo takes on overwhelming volume early in its creation. Because there is less need for follow-on salvos to grow the volume of fire, the adversary’s options for preemptively destroying follow-on shooters is diminished. However, a salvo that combines into an overwhelming mass early in its creation can also present a distinct center of gravity. This creates clearer and more timely opportunities for an adversary to apply defensive countermeasures against the salvo, such as airpower.

By comparison, a distributed force is more challenged to ensure its various contributing fires combine over the target. This can require sequencing launches, which creates opportunities for adversary preemption during the course of building an aggregated salvo from contributing fires. But by combining fires from distributed forces, the aggregated salvo does not necessarily combine into a distinct mass until it is near the target, which complicates the defender’s options. The visuals below show the difference in how the salvos of concentrated and distributed fleets can develop overwhelming mass.

Click to expand. A concentrated fleet launches a large salvo, which develops into a distinct mass shortly after being fired. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

Click to expand. A distributed fleet launches an aggregated salvo through a firing sequence, where the contributing fires coalesce into an overwhelming mass shortly before reaching the target. (Author graphic via Nebulous Fleet Command)

Distribution and Decision-Making Advantage

When it comes to massing fires, distribution offers many more options for combining offensive capability than defensive capability. Distribution reaps defensive benefits not by facilitating mutual kinetic support between warships, but by complicating the adversary’s decision to strike.

As a force surveils a large ocean space, it must find opposing naval forces and then develop targeting information that enables effective fires. The force must also decide whether the target is worth striking and worth the weapons depletion. A large concentration of naval forces that takes the form of a single force package, such as a main battle fleet, reduces uncertainty by clearly presenting a distinct center of gravity. An adversary would then feel much more comfortable investing a large number of limited munitions in attacking such a distinct center of gravity.

A distributed force complicates this calculus by presenting multiple groupings of contacts across the battlespace rather than a distinct main body. An adversary scouting an ocean could discover some individual elements of a distributed fleet much sooner than a concentrated fleet. But finding those elements may not create enough clarity to warrant a prompt attack because they represent only a portion of the force, and other unseen forces are at large. A distributed force poses a larger number of force packages than a concentrated force, and having more force packages imposes more kill chains for the adversary to manage. Adversaries would have their scouting assets stretched and tied down by these distributed force packages, since discovered forces can require regular tracking and updating of targeting information to ensure offensive options remain timely and viable. While developing a growing menu of targeting options, the adversary may feel tempted to prolong the search for information to build enough confidence to set priorities for expending limited numbers of munitions. But there is an inherent tension between taking the time to gain more information and ceding the initiative to the opponent, allowing a distributed force to pressurize the adversary’s tempo of decision-making.

While stealth enhances distribution, distribution can still act as a force multiplier even when the distributed force is in plain sight of the adversary. If an adversary has complete awareness of every distributed asset’s location, that can still not be enough to clarify intent and clearly define priorities for action. As Vice Admiral Phil Sawyer stated, DMO “will generate opportunities for naval forces to achieve surprise…it will impose operational dilemmas on the adversary.”25 What a distinct main body of forces can disclose to an adversary is the crucial insight that this main body is likely the primary element through which commanders will exercise their intent. This creates more opportunity and temptation for firing first and preempting the actions of the main body.

What a distributed force poses is a vast array of interlocking firepower, making it less clear to an adversary which elements of the distributed force could be the first to initiate massed fires, or which forces pose the most pressing threat. Distribution also makes it more difficult to ascertain which forces are peripheral to main lines of effort, since forces in peripheral positions or secondary theaters can still bolster main efforts through contributing long-range fires. When deciding what distributed targets are to be fired upon first, it can be hard to know where to begin.

Distribution allows a force to better compete for the initiative and for options to fire effectively first, which is especially crucial to succeeding in naval combat. The 2016 Surface Force strategy expressed similar advantages of distribution, in that it can “influence an adversary’s decision-making calculus” and “spreads the playing field for our surface forces at sea [and] provides a more complex targeting problem.”26

A major driver of distribution is the growing capability of powerful land-based anti-ship forces designed to counter expeditionary fleets. These forces can include anti-ship ballistic missiles, coastal defense cruise missiles, and land-based bombers and air forces, which can produce especially large volumes of standoff fires. By virtue of operating from their homeland, these forces can enjoy far quicker logistical rearming compared to expeditionary naval forces. Land-based missile forces are especially threatening by fielding some of the most powerful and long-range missiles, requiring virtually no maneuver to keep their weapons within range of targets on a theater-wide scale, and employing highly survivable launch platforms. The experience of scud-hunting in Desert Storm was instructive in showing how extremely difficult it is to target land-based missile launchers, even with exhaustive effort, highly favorable terrain, and total air supremacy.27 This makes it much more difficult to execute the favorable tactic of destroying the archer before the arrow is fired. When a fleet cannot meaningfully threaten a large scope of land-based firepower with attrition, distribution offers a way to circumvent this firepower by complicating the adversary’s decision to strike.

A Vision of Future War at Sea

Distributed Maritime Operations can provide a framework for understanding modern naval warfare and illuminate its future. While plenty of unknowns remain, the DMO concept offers an important opportunity to foster debate on how to adapt naval warfighting and translate theory into practice. Great power navies will be able to secure their relevance in a time of rapid change by establishing a clearer vision of war at sea. Those who better articulate and manifest their vision can earn the decisive edge. The U.S. Navy has no time to waste, for its competitors are already ahead of the curve.

Part 2 will focus on the U.S. Navy’s anti-ship missile shortfall and the implications for massing fires.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content and Community Manager of its naval professional society, the Flotilla. He is the author of the “How the Fleet Forgot to Fight” series and coauthor of “Learning to Win: Using Operational Innovation to Regain the Advantage at Sea against China.” Contact him at


1. For Chinese Navy vertical launch cell count and anti-ship missile capabilities, see:

Toshi Yoshihara, “Dragon Against the Sun: Chinese Views of Japanese Seapower,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, pg. 15-19, 2020,

For a broad overview of Chinese naval capability and its trajectory, see:

“Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2022,” U.S. Department of Defense, pg. 50-65, 2022,

2. “Chief of Naval Operations’ Navigation Plan 2022,” Department of the Navy, pg. 8, 2022,

3. AirSea Battle was publicly promulgated in 2013 and was later incorporated into the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC) in 2015. JAM-GC featured in the discourse for several years afterward but appears to have been subsumed under other efforts. The ForceNet concept was promulgated in the early 2000s but appeared to lose steam or was subsumed under efforts. Warfighting concepts often seem to lack definitive or declared ends.

4. The earlier era of Network-Centric Warfare (NCW) and Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) featured robust discourse on the future of warfare but also tautological discourse that affixed itself to these concepts while lacking in substance. The Distributed Lethality concept was adopted by industry to describe various efforts broadly relating to surface warfare. For a recent example on the potential abuse and buzzwording of concept language, see:

Colin Demarest, “What JADC2 is, and what it is not, according to a US Navy admiral,” C4ISRNet, February 16, 2023,

5. Relatively new anti-ship missiles include: Maritime Strike Tomahawk (MST), Long-range Anti-Surface Missile (LRASM), Naval Strike Missile (NSM), and Standard Missile 6 (SM-6). The Army, Air Force, and Marines are procuring some of these weapon types.

6. David Vergun, “DOD Focuses on Aspirational Challenges in Future Warfighting,” DoD News, July 26, 2021,

7. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday, “Statement Of Admiral Michael M. Gilday, Chief Of Naval Operations On The Posture Of The United States Navy Before The House Armed Services Committee,” U.S. House Armed Services Committee, pg. 7, June 15, 2021,

8. Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power, U.S. Department of Defense, pg. 7 and 25, December 2020,

9. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, “FRAGO 01/2019: A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” U.S. Department of the Navy, pg. 7, December 2019,

10. Merriam Webster definition of “aggregate”:

11. Captain Wayne P. Hughs Jr. and RADM Robert P. Girrier, “Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, Third Edition,” U.S. Naval Institute Press, pg. 157-159, 2019.

12. John C. Schulte, “An Analysis of the Historical Effectiveness of Antiship Cruise missiles in Littoral Warfare,” Naval Postgraduate School, September 1994,

13. Steve Wills, “40 Years of Missile Warfare: What the losses of HMS Sheffield and RFS Moskva Tell Us about War at Sea,” Center for International Maritime Security, June 29, 2022,

14. Abraham Rabinovic, The Boats of Cherbourg: The Navy That Stole Its Own Boats and Revolutionized Naval Warfare, revised edition, independently published, 2019.

15. For Desert Storm attack, see:

Captain Wayne P. Hughs Jr. and RADM Robert P. Girrier, “Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, Third Edition,” U.S. Naval Institute Press, pg. 147-148, 2019.

For 2016 attack, see:

Sam LaGrone, “USS Mason Fired 3 Missiles to Defend From Yemen Cruise Missiles Attack,” USNI News, October 11, 2016,

16. Sam LaGrone, “Large Scale Exercise 2021 Tests How Navy, Marines Could Fight a Future Global Battle,” August 9, 2021,

17. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, “FRAGO 01/2019: A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” U.S. Department of the Navy, pg. 3, December 2019,

18. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday, “CNO Speaks to Students at the Naval War College,” August 31, 2022,

19. On arguments that argue in favor of spreading the adversary’s sensing more broadly, see:

Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, and Rear Admiral Peter Fanta, “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2015,

20. For radar horizon distance, see: Lee O. Upton and Lewis A. Thurman, “Radars for the Detection and Tracking of Cruise Missiles,” Lincoln Laboratory Journal, Volume 12, Number 2, pg. 365, 2000,

For radar horizon combat dynamics, see: Conrad J. Crane, “CEC: Sensor Netting with Integrated Fire Control,” Johns Hopkins Apl Technical Digest, Volume 23, Numbers 2 And 3 (2002), pg. 152,

21. For CEC capabilities as they relate to radar horizon combat dynamics, see: Conrad J. Crane, “CEC: Sensor Netting with Integrated Fire Control,” Johns Hopkins Apl Technical Digest, Volume 23, Numbers 2 And 3 (2002), pg. 152-153,

22. Donna W. Blake et. al, “Uncertainty Results for the Probability of Raid Annihilation Measure,” 2006,

See also: Dmitry Filipoff, “How the Fleet Forgot to Fight, Pt. 4: Technical Standards,” Center for International Maritime Security, October 8, 2018,

23. For SPY radar range estimate, see: “AN/SPY-1 Radar,” MissileThreat Center for International and Strategic Studies Missile Defense Project, last updated June 23, 2021,

For radar horizon range limit, see: Lee O. Upton and Lewis A. Thurman, “Radars for the Detection and Tracking of Cruise Missiles,” Lincoln Laboratory Journal, Volume 12, Number 2, pg. 365, 2000,

For SM-2 range, see:

“SM-2 Missile,” Raytheon Missiles and Defense,


“SM-2 Standard Missile,” Royal Australian Navy,

24. Bryan Clark, “Commanding The Seas The U.S. Navy And The Future Of Surface Warfare,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, pg. 17, 2017,

25. Edward Lundquist, “DMO is Navy’s Operational Approach to Winning the High-End Fight at Sea,” Seapower, February 2, 2021,

26. “Surface Force Strategy Return to Sea Control,” U.S. Department of the Navy, pg. 19, 2016,

27. Colonel Mark E. Kipphutt, “Crossbow and Gulf War Counter-Scud Efforts: Lessons from History,” The Counterproliferation Papers Future Warfare Series No. 15 USAF Counterproliferation Center Air University, pg. 18-20, February 2003,

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Aug. 16, 2022) Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) ships JS Yamagiri (DD 152) and JS Ohnami (DD 111) break formation in the Philippine Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Scott Taylor/Released)