Home » News & Analysis » A Year Into Distributed Lethality, Navy Nears Fielding Improved Weapons, Deploying Surface Action Group


A Year Into Distributed Lethality, Navy Nears Fielding Improved Weapons, Deploying Surface Action Group

USS Preble (DDG-88) conduct an operational tomahawk missile launch while underway in a training area off the coast of California in 2010. US Navy photo.

USS Preble (DDG-88) conduct an operational tomahawk missile launch while underway in a training area off the coast of California in 2010. US Navy photo.

One year ago, Navy surface warfare leaders announced a new concept, distributed lethality, that promised to add more fire power to all manner of Navy vessels and operate them in a way that would spread thin enemy defenses.

Now, those officers can report a great deal of analysis and work to improve the usefulness of weapons, and they promise even greater advances in 2016.

The Navy in June stood up a Distributed Lethality Task Force to “operationalize the concept of a distributed, more lethal force, and … synchronize and lead a transformation across the surface community to focus on warfighting—in short, to increase the combat capability of naval surface forces,” Commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Tom Rowden told Proceedings last month. “One of the things the team has been deeply involved in is devising and implementing a rigorous program of analytics and wargaming efforts designed to give us a sense of how much distributed lethality can contribute, and how much lethality can be attained within anticipated resource levels.”

Rowden spoke about the task force on Tuesday at the annual Surface Navy Association national symposium, assuring the crowd of Navy and industry personnel that early analysis shows that distributed lethality as a concept “works, it delivers value.”

The Navy has conducted 10 wargames in the last 12 months to understand that value, Rowden said, and the service has already begun making changes to increase that value. The Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) was stood up in June to help advance surface warfare tactics, and the Navy is looking at adding a surface warfare advanced tactical training event during the pre-deployment workup cycle – between the basic training phase under the type commander and integrated training under the operational commander – “to ensure those ships are fully prepared and ready to go.”

Director of surface warfare Rear Adm. Peter Fanta told USNI News in a Jan. 7 interview that the analysis Rowden described would help guide his investments going forward.

“We’ve done a lot of analysis and wargaming to see which weapons are probably going to be the most effective and where we should put the next dime that we have. As you know, our budget continues to come down, so making sure we don’t waste money at the same time and get at that rapid movement out is just as important,” he said. “At this point, we’re testing, experimenting, putting together the same weapons with new technology and seeing where we’ll go in the next couple of years. Our idea is, instead of coming up with a single bright shiny object, add a little bit of technology to each weapon – whether that’s hardware, software, whether that’s the platform or the weapon, or maybe just a different way of doing things, a different way of gluing together the sensors and weapons we have.”

Missile Improvements

A Tomahawk cruise missile hits a moving maritime target Jan. 27 after being launched from the USS Kidd (DDG-100) near San Nicolas Island in California. US Navy Photo

A Tomahawk cruise missile hits a moving maritime target Jan. 27 after being launched from the USS Kidd (DDG-100) near San Nicolas Island in California. US Navy Photo

One example of this technique is using the Tomahawk land attack missile as a surface-to-surface missile, Fanta said at the SNA symposium. If the missile can hit small targets on land, it should be able to hit a warship at sea with minimal investment in upgrading the weapon.

“It flies a real long distance. I got it, it’s not perfect, it may not be the ideal, it doesn’t move at Mach 1 million, okay, I got it – but I’ve got 3,500 of them. It’s an incredible truck – let’s change the payloads, let’s change the sensors, let’s move it forward,” he said. “We’ve done this already, this is not aspirational, this is operational.”

Fanta said the Navy would conduct one more test this year and then be able to field the new capability.

“Last year we told you we were going to try it. This year we’re doing it,” he added. “This is not business as usual, this is not taking seven years to 10 years to make this work.”

Fanta told USNI News that he hoped to have the Tomahawk and other new combinations of existing missiles and trackers out “in reasonable numbers” by the mid- to late-2010s.

“We are looking at every different way of using every different existing sensor, weapon and ship type and proving it,” he said.

The Navy will also look at about five over-the-horizon missiles that may fit on the current Littoral Combat Ship, ideally testing them all at sea and determining which would be the best fit and could be fielded the quickest, Fanta said during his presentation. He told USNI News last week he hoped to have a missile on the LCS, at least in demonstration form, by the end of the year.

The overall impact to fleet operations will be tangible, both Fanta and Rowden said. In a new video Rowden played during his presentation, “by taking advantage of the over 8,000 [vertical launching system] cells in our fleet, we look to opportunistically fit ships with additional capability. By modifying existing weapons, we can empower ships currently without surface-to-surface missiles to engage surface contacts using a layered range approach in order to hold potential adversaries at risk and at range.”

Put more practically by Fanta: a destroyer sitting off the coast of Virginia last year could only hit another ship off the coast of Virginia. By the end of this year, that destroyer could hit a ship sitting in the Boston Harbor.

Distributed Operations

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS McFaul (DDG-74), right, USS Laboon (DDG-58), left and USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG-81) conduct a simulated strait transit exercise on Jan. 22, 2015. US Navy Photo

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS McFaul (DDG-74), right, USS Laboon (DDG-58), left and USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG-81) conduct a simulated strait transit exercise on Jan. 22, 2015. US Navy Photo

The Navy will also send out a three-destroyer Surface Action Group to re-learn how to command and control a group less complex than a carrier strike group but more complex than three independent deployers operating in the same vicinity.

Fanta told USNI News there have been some concerns that deploying guided-missile destroyers in this manner would take away from protecting aircraft carriers.

“We have to disabuse people of the idea that we’re taking current combatants away from the carrier strike group to do something with. We’re not,” he said. “Any high-value unit needs the same amount or more protection. Those guys will still be there. The question is how to take pressure off of those groups by offering up surface combatants or submarines or other things with advanced weapon systems, so now they provide another angle of attack or axis of attack that the potential adversary has to look for.”

Rowden said at the conference that Destroyer Squadron 31 would oversee the SAG deployment and would be responsible for developing new training programs to help get the most out of future SAG – which could eventually include foreign destroyers, LCS, amphibious ships or other assets assembled outside of the normal Carrier Strike Group or Amphibious Ready Group construct to achieve a specific purpose.

Future Investments

One of the two electromagnetic railgun prototypes on display aboard the joint high speed vessel USS Millinocket (JHSV 3) in port at Naval Station San Diego, Calif. US Navy Photo

One of the two electromagnetic railgun prototypes on display aboard the joint high speed vessel USS Millinocket (JHSV 3) in port at Naval Station San Diego, Calif. US Navy Photo

A little farther out, the Navy is hoping to bring in new technologies – guided munitions, unmanned vehicles in multiple domains – to further advance the distributed lethality concept.

The service is working on developing a guided 57mm round for its Mk 110 guns on the LCS and other Navy and Coast Guard ships, Surface Ship Weapons Office Program Manager Capt. Michael Ladner told USNI News last month. Fanta said at the SNA symposium that the project, which is funded and working its way through the development process now, was important because it would leverage research already being done for the guided Hypervelocity Projectile for the Electromagnetic Railgun.

“We’re learning a great deal from how we’re operating, how we’re testing and how we’re developing those capabilities in railgun, and we’re expanding that to the rest of the fleet,” he said. “It would be a shame if we took all that science and all that engineering and just left it for a science project that will become operational in the future, instead of backfitting as much as we can on the current weapons.”

As for unmanned systems, Fanta told USNI News that aerial, surface and subsurface systems would be an important part of distributed lethality in the future. With so many organizations already investing in unmanned technologies – the Office of Naval Research, DARPA, industry – the new OPNAV N99 unmanned warfare directorate is helping Fanta identify which systems would best support the Navy’s new way of operating.

“Essentially what we do is, I tell them I have a requirement to do over-the-horizon targeting, or underwater surveillance, or something like that, and they go off and as fast as possible – as long as they have an agreement from us that I’m going to buy it when we move down the road – I need this, and they go find it,” he told USNI News.

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  • @USS_Fallujah

    If leveraged properly “Distributed Lethality” could alleviate the loss of the SSGN’s missile tubes as well as decreasing the reliance on sub launched LACMs & ASCMs to degrade enemy A2/AD capability and clear enemy surface forces from areas within that A2/AD umbrella that cannot be reached by CVW without putting the CSG in undue risk.
    It’s a valuable capability for the USN to be able to put at risk any enemy ship at sea from a position of safety, for instance – a tomahawk ASCM can be fired from Subic Bay and hit a ship off the coast of Hainan Island or from Osaka to Dalian. Tomahawks are not an ideal ASCM by modern standards, but to survive a strike an enemy surface group will need to have radars operating 24/7 since they lack AEW, this makes tracking much easier for USN which in turn makes that surface group much more vulnerable to attacks from subs or aircraft.

  • RobM1981

    TASM is already a real thing. Converting TLAM’s to TASM’s should be pretty well documented at this point, so I’m at a loss to understand why he’s trumpeting this. “If it can hit a small target on land…” Well, yeah, but there’s already an ASM version of the same “truck.” I’m glad to see that he gets it, but let’s not get too excited about being able to build old technology.

    More importantly, why did we design and deploy not one but *two* LCS designs that could not field these old technologies? Never mind TASM, what about Harpoon? Who in their right mind deployed a Surface Warfare ship that couldn’t field even a few encapsulated Harpoon’s?

    The fact is, *any* warship we build today should not only be able to deploy the current arms in the inventory, but should be “future proofed” to ensure that tomorrow’s missiles can be deployed.

    We got neither.

    This is where the public discontentment comes from. There were already arrows in the quiver – these missiles have been around for decades. We seriously designed a brand new “shiny thing” that doesn’t even use them?

    In a time where money is tight, and the Admiral is obedient to DoD leadership in reminding us just how austere things are… perhaps he could comment on the billions our Navy wasted on building two different ships to do the same thing? Perhaps he could comment on how the missions that they do isn’t very well defined, but we built them anyhow? Perhaps he could comment on how, no matter how you define the mission, they don’t do it well because they don’t do *anything* well? And finally perhaps he could comment on how when the Navy had lots of time and money it didn’t provision *any* of our new designs to field our existing AAW/ASuW weapons?

    I’m glad, Admiral, that “you get it.” Now, can you explain it to the rest of us? Can you answer these questions? Perhaps you can provide a path forward, like “we’ll save money by relegating beam weapons to ‘prototype only,’ where they belong, and redirect those funds to building a new SSM – like our potential foes are doing…”???

    In 1935 our potential foes were building a fleet of modern ships that proved to be tough to destroy. Both Germany and Japan proved that they could, indeed, field battleships, destroyers, torpedoes, naval aircraft, etc. that were sometimes better than what we were building.

    We are spending the money – why aren’t we getting the results?

    LCS can’t deploy anything more than a Hellfire. An anti tank weapon. Someone should be jailed for that, Admiral. Who is being held accountable, Admiral, for this gross incompetence? Where is the committee that said “yeah, that will be enough. Put a few helicopter missiles on a man’o’war and claim it is properly armed…”

    A single Apache helicopter deploys as many hellfire’s as an LCS. And somebody said “that’s a good design.”

    The Zumwalt cannot deploy all of the Standards? Really? How is that possible? The one missile that the USN is truly maintaining as “best in class,” and our newest “shiny thing” can’t deploy it? Who is being held accountable for that, Admiral? Who is going to give us our money back on that one?

    I’m glad to see networking come to the Navy.

    Now what do we do if our foes can shoot down our slow missiles? What do we do if they jam our wireless network?

    Where is the cool, clear analysis of what the mission is, paired to a platform design that exceeds it?

  • LewCypher

    All knee-jerk.
    Part of the problem is politicians that care more about getting re-elected through frivolous defense contracts at the expense of meaningful capability. Another factor is not enough prior or active military embedded with DARPA, ONR, NRL and NAVSEA to look at these pet projects and have the balls to stand up and say, “That’s a stupid idea!”

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  • Marjus

    Jesus Christ, the ships, weapons and sensors have never been more technologically advanced and yet the human skill (operating/commanding) necessary in the Navy to make it all work seems to be worse than its ever been. We need war gaming and modeling and trials to figure out how to assemble and deploy a freaking SAG? Talk about atrophy in skills and capability over the last 20 years. Let’s hope we never have a shooting war with a near peer.

    • IronmanG

      The war gaming aspects are already included and functional. They’ve been in place for a good amount of time. I believe, as a retired U.S. Navy Enlisted Man as of 12 yrs. ago…(served over 20 yrs. and not like a football or baseball player that retires at 15 yrs.) I’ve seen where as to deploy/station/activate specific aspects, or platforms in a battlegroup…the problem that appeared when I was active duty was something that I called “Battlespace Etiquette!”
      Whether in a Carrier Strike Group, Expeditionary Strike Groups, or a Surface Action Group there are commanding officers, Commodores and the like, that sometimes cannot and sometimes definitely will not confide with one another about specific tactical , or strategic options that each may be thinking about in order to “fight-the-ship” and egos are basically out of the window. Enlisted personnel, with, or without a B.A., M.A. MBA have as much and/or more knowledge that the officers have, respectfully. I had the unexpected graces , along with several other “sailors” to get a brief synopsis of Network Centric with the late Vadm. Arthur Cebrowski, when he was the President of the U.S. Naval War College and when I was a staff member in War Gaming Dept. and there’s a lot of basic concepts he mentioned that boils down to “common sense” as far as warfighting in any theater. Listen to the enlisted men and women sometimes,….we are all on the same team!

      • Marjus

        Hey, I appreciate your insight and history. It isn’t really reassuring because it sort of makes more real the concerns that human egos and errors can more than outweigh the latest gear and weapons. Hopefully you would think in a real crisis and threat scenario everyone would do their utmost to work together and survive, but who knows.

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