Capitol Hill is integral to the continued success of U.S. naval forces. Yet most people outside the Washington, D.C. area have experienced the intricacies of how that institution goes about resourcing the military.
Join Sea Control: North America for an interview with
Katie Burkhart, a former Navy Surface Warfare Officer who now works in the office of Senator John Thune (R-SD). During the discussion we examine the role of the Hill in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the effect of the legislative process on defense policy, and the contributions of veterans on the Hill in guiding that policy.
For those interested in further resources: you can track the status of legislation, including the NDAA and defense appropriations bills, on www.Congress.gov. To continue learning about the legislative process, start with the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report “Introduction to the Legislative Process in the U.S. Congress” (link: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42843.pdf).
This episode of Sea Control: North America was hosted and produced by Matthew Merighi, Executive Director of Blue Water Metrics and a researcher for the Maritime Studies Program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
The views express on the podcast do not reflect those of the United States Government, the office of Senator John Thune, or those of the United States Navy.
Distributed Lethality is a concept announced by U.S. Navy leadership in January 2015 to explore the warfighting benefits of dispersing surface combatants. CIMSEC launched a topic week in July 2015 to focus analysis on this new concept. This compendium consists of the articles that featured in the topic week.
Authors: James Davenport Chris O’Connor Eric Gomez John Salak Michael Glynn Steven Wills Ryan Kuhns Jimmy Drennan Majorie Greene Thomas Rowden
Editors: Sally DeBoer Jimmy Drennan Dmitry Filipoff Matt Hipple Matthew Merighi
“One must be ready to change his line sharply and suddenly, with no concern for the prejudices and memories of what was yesterday. To rest upon formula is a slumber that, prolonged, means death.”-Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.1
Distributed lethality is a concept that was officially launched a year ago by Navy leadership to explore how dispersing forces would enhance warfighting. Traditionally, dispersion has been a cardinal sin in the highly decisive nature of naval warfare, but new threats and capabilities may have changed this principle that has long guided the employment of warships. This analysis aims to show how distributed lethality can offer versatile means for achieving political and military objectives in an era of lean budgets and evolving threats.
Navy leaders assert that distributed lethality will “add battlespace complexity”3 and “complicate the calculus” of an adversary. How will dispersed surface action groups (SAG) accomplish this compared to traditional carrier strike groups (CSG), and how will dispersion affect operations in the electromagnetic (EM) domain?
Distributed lethality attacks left on the kill chain, meaning it intends to influence the earlier phases of the process by which targets are located, identified, targeted, engaged, and effects are assessed. Aside from increasing search volume, dispersion challenges intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) through modularity. In a CSG centric navy,the detection of a large surface combatant increases the probability of learning the disposition of other warships, including valuable capital ships, and of knowing the operational unit they are arrayed in. The modularity offered by dispersed SAGs exacerbates the ISR challenge by reducing the certainty of what kinds of forces may be acting in concert with a potential contact, and what their capabilities and missions are. This will complicate prioritization of ISR and firepower, and increase the probability of expending precision guided munitions (PGM) due to forced error.4
However, distributed lethality will induce friction on the dispersed force. It is presumed that naval forces will employ emissions control (EMCON) techniques to frustrate the adversary in the EM domain. But EMCON exacerbates the challenges inherent to coordinating a dispersed force. Prior Navy experimentation discovered these challenges. Operations Haystack and Uptiderevealed thatdispersed operations under EMCON dramatically increase carrier survivability against submarines and land based bombers but at the expense of lengthened decision cycles.5 Under electromagnetic opposition, the degradation of confidence in the networking of a distributed force is easier because of additional variables to be accounted for and that can be influenced by enemy action. Aggregated forces can also more easily employ alternative means of communication compared to distributed forces.
Lengthened decision cycles for dispersed forces causes handicaps and presents dilemmas. Operations whose success is contingent upon careful coordination are less likely to succeed. The ability to mass capability on short notice amidst determined opposition is impaired. Planners must consider the extent that a SAG may be tied down by enemy action and its own tasking, and the resulting impact on total force flexibility. Operations must have built in flexibility and consider myriad contingencies. Scenarios where SAGs may be called upon to support one another will pose a challenge given how the Navy’s offensive firepower may soon outstick its defensive firepower. These realities will place a premium on inclusive planning and the Navy’s command by negation tradition.
Dispersion will complicate the enemy’s ISR at the expense of reducing one’s own C2 agility. It is important to note that C2 is not just further left in the kill chain than ISR and targeting, but threads the entire process together. These realities may make distributed lethality inflexible under certain circumstances, and result in a higher echelon commander’s intent being articulated in broader terms and with more modest aims. Vice Adm. Ted N. Branch, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance, pointedly reminded that “the assured C2 pillar touches almost everything we do.”6 The nature of modern conventional warfare has made the EM domain the battleground for superior decision making, and distributed lethality affects the kill chain of all parties.
Distributed Lethality versus Anti-Access/Area Denial
The Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) environment is the threat environment dominating the thinking of senior Navy leaders. What advantages does distributed lethality offer in meeting the A2/AD challenge?
Combating an A2/AD adversary could involve operations spanning multiple areas including blue water sea control, power projection into the littoral and across land. While the CSG is a formidable asset against the warships of a near peer adversary, a salvo competition between a CSG and A2/AD forces, especially land based forces, would be suicidal. The A2/AD model is attrition based. Its predominant advantage over expeditionary forces is the logistical sustainment of PGM, ensuring victory in a salvo competition if accurate targeting is sustained. By denying commons, A2/AD reduces freedom of maneuver and raises the probability of attrition based operations, forcing expeditionary forces into the A2/AD’s strength.
Distributed lethality counters A2/AD’s attrition model through maneuver warfare’s intent to probe for weakness and influence psychology. Dispersion facilitates multiple points of entry into theater, allowing for more sea control and maneuver. This in turn strains the anti-access mission and forces the adversary into executing area denial simultaneously. Distributed forces can probe more areas of the A2/AD envelope to gain intelligence on the opponent’s ISR capabilities and discover the true extent of their maritime domain awareness (MDA), setting the stage for follow on operations. Complicating ISR and targeting offsets logistical superiority by injecting uncertainty.
Distributed lethality will benefit from the numerous capabilities the Navy is developing to maintain its edge. The concept seeks to employ platforms in different ways, and promote versatility to make the most of limited resources. How could the Navy employ its warships differently and which capabilities should be prioritized?
In a 2014 CIMSEC article Admiral Tom Rowden, then director of Surface Warfare Directorate OPNAV N96, articulated a concept of dispersed lethality andasserted a distributed force will not be dependent on the air wing.9 While distributed lethality deemphasizes carrier strike missions, the air wing will be a critical enabler for the distributed force. A distributed air wing can provide rapid response anti-submarine warfare capability and function as communications relays for maintaining a responsive decision cycle while the dispersed force operates under EMCON. The air wing’s screening and early warning functionswill be indispensable for enabling commanders on the scene to exercise initiative and engage on their own terms. The air wing will refocus from the right side to the left on the kill chain.
Much has been made of a recent memo issued by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus on the Navy’s programs. The most significant directives include cutting procurement of the littoral combat ship (LCS) from 52 hulls to 40, and procuring 31 additional F-35C aircraft.10 It is important to note that distributed lethality was born from a wargame at the Naval War College where a LCS equipped with a long range surface to surface missile “added stress and complexity to the red force commander, who had to spend precious ISR resources trying to find these upgunned ships.”11 If aircraft and fast frigates/LCS are mutually exclusive investments in the near term, the Navy should explore whether it needs more shooters in the form of additional warships or air wing enablers performing the aforementioned missions.
A payload that has been wisely distributed across the Navy’s warships is the AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare (EW) system. The Block III increment of the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) will provide common electronic attack capability to surface combatants.12 Not only does the CSG focus large surface combatants on the defensive application of anti-air warfare (AAW), it does the same for EW. A distributed force equipped with an offensive EW capability could cause great disruption to an adversary’s ISR picture, reinforcing distributed lethality’s intent to attack left on the kill chain. As a part of a proposed acquisition fastlane, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has singled out EW capabilities as “candidates for this kind of rapid acquisition, rapid prototyping”13 which will benefit distributed lethality enormously.
Distributed lethality aims to add more firepower to the fleet, potentially even equipping logistics vessels with missiles as a part of the maxim “if it floats, it fights” issued by OPNAV N96 chief Rear Adm. Peter Fanta.14 However, the Navy should reexamine prioritizing anti-surface warfare (ASuW) capability and consider focusing on land attack. While putting modern anti-ship missiles on more surface combatants would reinvigorate the Navy’s ASuW capability, enhanced power projection across land holds greater deterrence value. The Navy’s land attack proficiency is well honed and proven through recent experience. Thankfully the versatility of the tomahawk missile can enhance both mission sets, but presents the technical challenge of installing vertical launch cells on ships that may have little space and weight to spare.
Arguably no set of capabilities stand to enhance distributed lethality more so than Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) and Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA). These capabilities allow one platform’s sensors to provide a targeting solution to another platform’s weapons. This will multiply the lethality of a distributed force across vast areas of influence by allowing for the massing of payloads but not platforms. Distributed forces will be able to mitigate risk by mixing and matching whatever combination of sensors and shooters best fits an engagement while ensuring survivability.
An operational concept’s warfighting advantages are linked to its deterrence value. How does distributed lethality contribute to deterrence, and what options does it provide policymakers confronting crisis?
Distributed lethality enhances deterrence by influencing psychology through more than just kinetic means. It aims to degrade an adversary’s confidence in their weapons rather than through the threat of overwhelming force, a threat that is not as credible against an A2/AD adversary. Dispersion better allows for demonstrations within the EM domain, which may prove a less escalatory form of conveying resolve than deploying a CSG to a hotspot. The enormous creativity allowed by electromagnetic maritime deception allows for a more nuanced and flexible escalatory dynamic. Demonstration options range from temporarily confusing sensors tosimulating strikes against strategic forces with impunity as the Navy did in NORPAC 82.16 Not only does threatening the destruction of networks constitute escalation, it attacks the channels by which deception conveys deterrence.17 During crisis, distributed lethality’s modularity allows for more options in terms of what and how many assets are committed to posturing, giving policymakers a more flexible means for adjusting the “temperature.” Distributed lethality not only has more to offer for maneuver in the military sense, but also politically.
As the threat environment evolves, reassessing the CSG’s deterrence value should occur in tandem with reevaluating its warfighting applications. Captain Robert C. Rubel (ret.) makes the excellent point that “If a lucrative target loaded with potent geopolitical symbolism is on scene, with more on the way, it could precipitate a dangerous “window-of-opportunity” mindset in the opposing government.”18 Sending a CSG to a hotspot could “catalyze as deter” and threaten nightmarish devastation or monumental loss of face as carriers are hurriedly withdrawn for the sake of preservation at the outbreak of war. During the initial phases of conflict, failing to deceive ISR through nonkinetic means could quickly escalate into attempting their physical destruction, up to and including strikes on mainland installations, which is more likely if a carrier’s survival is at stake.
Distributing forces will lower a first strike’s potential for success, which is especially important for deterring an adversary employing A2/AD. Jon Solomon points out an adversary’s maritime domain awareness “will never be as accurate and comprehensive at any later point in a conflict as it is during peacetime’s waning moments.”19 A patrolling, dispersed force would provide a more complex targeting picture, and would reveal more indicators and warning of an impending attack across a larger geographical area. These advantages would be realized by having forward deployed forces already operating in a dispersed manner at Phase 0, or otherwise face the uncomfortable process of transitioning into a dispersed force in the midst of crisis or at the onset of conflict.
“It will be orange and it may look kind of odd put together and won’t have the nice slick red/gray paint and it won’t be totally tested and it might fail, but we’ve got to get it out there and see what we can do with that.”-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert.20
There are additional lines of inquiry that must be explored in order to flesh out distributed lethality. For example, what does it entail for amphibious forces? These forces are more likely to face the littoral arena, and their objectives are set upon fixed geography which limits their freedom of maneuver. The history of naval warfare has shown time and time again that key naval engagements precipitated in relation to developments and objectives on land. Scenarios commonly envisioned today such as a Taiwan contingency or a defense of the Strait of Hormuz demand that the Navy examine distributed lethality in a fixed geographical context. The concept will also challenge the ability to wage coalition warfare, as the careful planning and execution demanded by dispersed operations under EMCON will require ample cooperation and true interoperability.
Nonetheless, distributed lethality offers numerous benefits. It will make the most of what the Navy has today, while maximizing the value of investments that will achieve fruition both in the short and long term. It provides means for confronting the A2/AD challenge, and fulfills Air-Sea Battle’s intent to ensure U.S. forces can “assure access, maintain freedom of action, conduct a show of force, or conduct limited strikes.”21 Ultimately, it provides political and military leadership more flexibility to maneuver within crisis and conflict. The Navy must call upon its rich history of innovation and experimentation to turn distributed lethality into a credible warfighting construct that will deter foes, reassure allies, and make the greatest Navy the world has yet seen greater still.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. He can be contacted at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
 Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. US Naval Postgraduate School address (16 March 1954).
CIMSEC Topic Weeks have always been an excellent way to engage our community of defense and foreign policy professionals and academics to highlight issues that deserve greater attention. CIMSEC’s upcoming topic weeks will be listed well in advance in this post to give our prospective authors more lead time to develop their ideas and contribute superb publications. Expect subsequent announcements at the beginning of each month listing specific dates and deadlines for individual topic weeks.
Note: The schedule has been amended to accommodate the Distributed Lethality topic week in February.
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January: The Littoral Arena
Submissions due by Thursday, January 21. Topic Week runs from Monday, January 25 to Sunday, January 31.
The littorals only constitute around 15 percent of the world’s oceanic expanse, yet 60 percent of the world’s urbanized populations are located within sixty miles of the coast, including 80 percent of the world’s capitals. The U.S. Navy has only recently drawn attention to the littoral domain after decades of emphasizing blue water sea control. What are the unique warfighting challenges posed by the littorals? What capabilities and operating concepts best enable power projection in this complex environment? Can navies optimized for blue water operations effectively translate their experience into the littorals?
February: Distributed Lethality
Submissions due by Sunday February 21 Topic Week runs from February 22-February 28.
The Distributed Lethality Task Force partnered with CIMSEC to launch a topic week exploring the concept and outlined various lines of inquiry the task force is interested in pursuing. Distributed Lethality is an initiative launched by Navy leadership to explore the warfighting benefits offered by dispersing surface combatants, employing them in new roles, and adding more firepower across the fleet.
Time and time again, naval forces have performed admirably as first responders to devastating natural disasters. Naval forces can rapidly maneuver to disaster struck areas and facilitate the transfer of millions of pounds of critical supplies in a matter of weeks. The Asia-Pacific is especially prone, with over half a million lives lost and $500 billion in damages incurred within the last decade due to natural disasters. Can HA/DR operations refine warfighting skills? What are the political challenges and benefits of deploying naval forces in support of humanitarian operations? Could demand for naval aid increase as sea levels risen and climate change progresses?
April: Sino-Indo Strategic Rivalry
Much has been made of great power competition in the Asia-Pacific, with the U.S. and China considered the main actors, but India is a powerhouse in the making. India’s rapidly growing economy and modernizing armed forces ensures its relevance in the Asia-Pacific. Prime Minister Modi aligned India with U.S. policy towards South China Sea maritime disputes with a joint statement stating “We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region…” Additionally, the Indian peninsula juts 1000 km into the Indian ocean, providing India’s carrier equipped navy superb positioning to affect sea lines of communication flowing towards the straits of Malacca.How might this strategic rivalry evolve, and is there precedent and potential for conflict?
Authors can send get in touch with the editorial team and send their submissions to Nextwar@cimsec.org. Topic weeks are competitive and not all submissions may be accepted, so we encourage thoroughly researched contributions. CIMSEC topic weeks are our opportunity to make our mark as a community on the big discussions, and we look forward to promoting your insights.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Follow us @CIMSEC.
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