Home » Aviation » Opinion: U.S. Surface Warfare’s Distributed Lethality Imperative


Opinion: U.S. Surface Warfare’s Distributed Lethality Imperative

The guided-missile destroyers USS Russel (DDG-59), USS Chung Hoon (DDG-93) and the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay (CG-53) on Aug. 11, 2015.

The guided-missile destroyers USS Russel (DDG-59), USS Chung Hoon (DDG-93) and the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay (CG-53) on Aug. 11, 2015.

This year, the U.S. Navy’s surface force is busily war-gaming and analyzing its distributed lethality concept in order to fairly evaluate its potential benefits, risks and costs.

In seeking to increase the unit lethality of as many surface ships as is practicable, and then operating them in surface action groups (SAGs) —among other innovative adaptive force packages—more widely dispersed from other concentrations of naval power, the surface force aims to provide combatant commanders with an array of options for Phase 0 and 1 responses against high-end opponents, and options for Phase 3 operations geared toward conflict termination.

Those options, which preserve other elements of the force for other demanding tasks while laying before an adversary numerous operational targeting and surveillance challenges, force that adversary to devote resources to a naval force that is in totality, more powerful, from more attack angles than today’s force.

In addition to complicating an adversary’s operational problem, the imperative for distributed lethality rests on at least three other assumptions.

The first imperative for distributed lethality concerns Phase 0 (shaping)/1 (deterrence) operations, and that is the deterrent value of a more powerful surface force capable of holding more and more diverse adversary targets at risk.

In an approach reminiscent of the conclusion of the 1983 thriller War Games—in which the anthropomorphic computer concedes that the “only way to win is not to play”—deterring conflict with a great power should be considered the one of the most important—if not the most important—goal of conventional naval forces. By arraying more powerful surface forces and operating them as part of a multinational deterrence posture, the opportunity for maintaining conflict at Phase 1 increases, creating decision space for national leadership by delaying or negating the transition to what could be a ruinous war.

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Obviously, surface forces would be part of a larger joint deterrence campaign, but as it is, the lethality gaps in the force result in considerably less combat power than could relatively easily be gained by an opportunistic pursuit of the instruments of distributed lethality.

The second imperative follows from the first, and that is, if deterrence fails, forward deployed surface forces must be capable of “fighting their way out” of a demanding anti-access area denial (A2/AD) environment. An element of this imperative is resident in the common refrain of critics that the surface force is not “survivable” in this element, a charge which, while generally fair, ignores the fact that virtually everything else in that element is also not survivable. Additionally, the fact that well-intentioned post-Cold War fleet architectural planning devalued the very weapons and sensors that previously buttressed surface force lethality, offers the path and opportunity to mitigate this vulnerability through additional Surface Force hardening.

Simply put, if conflict with a high-end adversary commenced with little warning, much of the deployed joint force—not just surface forces–would initially be at risk. The mobility of surface forces provides them with a measure of safety and survivability, and it is reasonable to assume that standing toe to toe with an A2/AD adversary in an unattrited information surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) environment would be unwise. These surface forces would in all likelihood, sortie to areas of less dense weapon and sensor coverage, out of effective range of the opponent’s striking force, there to await the follow-on campaign to reverse the aggression already under way.

Yet if those forward deployed U.S. forces were under active surveillance by the adversary’s fleet at conflict start, their largely unarmed (with effective anti-surface weapons (ASuW)) condition renders them especially vulnerable. Shift ahead ten years from now, to a surface force in which forward deployed combatants (both small and large) field a range of both supersonic and subsonic ASuW missiles capable of targeting opponents out to 1,000 nautical miles, investing that force with the ability to destroy elements of the adversary fleet and valuable land targets while redeploying for follow-on tasking.

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG-89) fires two SM-2 missiles during a sinking exercise as part of Valiant Shield 2014. US Navy Photo

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG-89) fires two SM-2 missiles during a sinking exercise as part of Valiant Shield 2014. US Navy Photo

The final imperative for Distributed Lethality is the impact that a more lethal and distributed surface force would have on conflict termination. Actual high-end warfare with a peer competitor is likely to be nasty business, and a good bit of that combat—while combatant forces remain generally well matched—will be conducted by the Navy’s submarine force (as part of a joint campaign).

Once the tide has turned and the adversary’s ISR complex is attrited to the point that a broader, combined arms naval campaign can be waged, lethal and dispersed surface forces – along with carrier strike groups—will play a tremendous role in taking the fight to the adversary, enabling joint operational access, tightening the noose of distant blockade, and generally accelerating the prospects for victory. Again—seizing this advantage requires a sea-change in thinking, one in which empowered (by doctrine and capability) commanding officers and crews, given broad mission type orders, exploit opportunities gained earlier in the campaign.

It is essential that defense planners thoroughly evaluate the imperative for distributed lethality and ensure that programs and budget submissions are consonant with these imperatives. Warfighters and planning staffs at the Naval Component Commands need to begin to think differently about how surface forces can and should be employed, and how hardening surface forces can gain valuable time early in a conflict while providing for effective conflict termination later in the fight.

  • Curtis Conway

    Distributed Lethality is a great concept if one does it. What was it a recent fleet commander said . . .”if it floats it shoots” . . . “everyone’s a shooter”. With the proliferation of SSDS, more modular and expandable bolt-on weapons elements need to be purchased and interfaced on the amphibious ships to expand capability, not to mention survivability. Get those systems on a single baseline for support, and move forward. That little SSDS system should be the core of the next Small Surface Combatant.

  • Tony

    In what way is a SAG an ” innovative force package”? Have we really forgotten that much since the end of the Cold War?

    • Jon

      How far we’ve regressed, when putting offensive weapons on naval warships and coordinated action is new, novel, and buzzword worthy.

      What next, they’ll discover the reciprocating steam engine? Breechloaders?

  • MikeJones

    Great article!

  • Curtis Conway

    …….“only way to win is not to play” . . . the struggle is eternal and the mission came from the Most High!

    It has been stated that the United States never wants to send our forces into a fair fight. Unfortunately the current administration is not familiar with this concept (e.g., force levels today across the board, not just in this Maritime Nation’s fleet). Superior weapons systems are good, but one must ‘be there’ (presence) before one can make a difference. Once the damage is done, one can only be REACTIVE instead of PROACTIVE, which would have prevented the damage and loss of life, property, etc., in the first place. At this point a lot of hate, discontent, loss of life, and irreplaceable damage has taken place. One is left to wonder what world, and mindset, these current leaders of our country have grown up with.

    In the Phasing Model, if one is not to maintain PROACTIVE PRESENCE, then one must have sufficient forces to dislodge those that possess the (euphemistic) high ground for they are on defense, as offensive operations begin. For Phase II and Phase III must be swift, decisive, and unquestioned, otherwise Phase IV will never arrive.

    Although this is a fairly good analysis and model, once again those who are ‘In Power’ have squandered our previous superior position through lack of PROACTIVE PRESENCE, reduced us to near irrelevancy via ROE and failed Foreign Policy, and permitted Evil to fill the vacuums we created in our absence. It will be a tough fight taking it all back, and Freedom & Liberty can only be regained through sacrifice. Let’s hope that the shedding of our most precious blood is not forgotten . . . AGAIN!

    Learn from HiStory or you are bound to repeat it.

  • RobM1981

    The dive bombers are supposed to be diving at the same time that the torpedo planes are making their runs.

    The torpedo planes are supposed to attack from two different vectors, typically 90 degrees offset, to deny the target with a satisfactory angle to escape.

    In this way the enemy is “pinched” and his defenses are severely split across several threats.

    That is a tactic that is at least 70 years old, and likely quite a bit older.

    Doing it 70 years ago was all a matter of training and coordination, long before modern communications and computers. But the idea was sound then, and it’s sound now.

    Saturate them from every point of the compass, and you will succeed…

    • Secundius

      @ RobM1981.

      The Problem with WW2, Dive Bomber were the Mechanical Altimeters couldn’t Keep-Up with the Rate of Descent. You had to be able to Pull-Out-Of-A-Dive at 1,500-feet, or your “Riding-the-Bomb”. All WW2 Dive Bomber Pilots, I’ve Talked-Too, said a GOOD Indicator of when to Pull-Out-Of-A-Dive” was when the Aluminium Skin on the Wings started to “Ripple”. Which usually meant your Plane was exceeding 320mph in the dive, or ~470-ft/sec…

      • Vitonio

        Very interesting, I never new that.

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  • Eagle115

    Distributed Lethality should mean that all of the Navy’s ships are armed and ready to strike. Not just all combatants, but any auxiliary should have SSM’s bolted on to the deck somewhere with the ability to fire on some other platform’s target solutions.
    Eagle115

  • Sinclair M Harris

    The article is great in that it has stimulated a discussion that needs to be had regarding the future of surface warfare in its critical role in the Joint Force. We have far more to do as a nation than we have the assets. Thus, we need every part of the Joint Force to be more capable if we desire to continue in our role as the super power that maintains stability and underwrites global prosperity in the maritime commons. No, much of this is not new but we learn a lot by rereading old books.