Distributed Lethality: The Navy’s Fix for Anti-Access?

OTL, operational tomahawk launch

Disperse, disperse, and disperse again. Disperse firepower among surface warships, making every vessel a combatant. Disperse the fleet into compact surface action groups. Disperse surface action groups across embattled theaters. That’s how you cope with contested waters and skies, the offshore zone where anti-access forces roam. In the bargain, you compel opponents to disperse as well—thinning them out and dizzying them while limiting the damage they can do to the fleet’s aggregate striking power. If successful, you confound their efforts to compile a complete picture of what’s happening and to find, target, and pummel U.S. naval forces prowling nearby.

Disorienting and riding out anti-access measures are critical to prying control of embattled seas and skies from a local adversary—and thus to projecting power onto foreign shores from the sea.

Or that seems to be the message emanating from U.S. Navy surface-warfare potentates, who explain their concept of “distributed lethality” in the Naval Institute Proceedings this month. The conceit is that shipbuilders will spread firepower and reconnaissance assets throughout the surface navy rather than concentrating them in a few top-end combatants such as guided-missile cruisers and destroyers—ships that can be singled out, targeted, and overwhelmed with barrages of anti-ship missiles, torpedoes, what have you. Put the fleet’s “shotguns” out of action, and you cripple its defenses—balking American operations while exposing the remainder of the fleet to destruction.

That’s the logic of anti-access. Defeat one ship, or a few, and you defeat them all. And indeed, U.S. commanders stay awake nights worrying about “saturation” missile attacks of this type. But if every surface ship—not just cruisers and destroyers but littoral combat ships or even amphibious transports—boasts offensive firepower, manifest in anti-ship and land-attack missiles, then local defenders will confront a dilemma: what to attack? They can take out segments of the fleet without disabling the organism as a whole. Individual ships may die, yet the fleet lives—and may accomplish its goals even in fiercely contested expanses.

It’s hard to gainsay the logic of distributed lethality. Putting it into practice, however, is another story. Strategic concentration and dispersal also count. The Navy and the Pentagon must exercise the strategic wisdom to concentrate the fleet close to likely scenes of action in troubled times, rather than scattering it across the map as they customarily do. Surface action groups will take casualties, no matter how dispersed their armaments and no matter how cunning their tactics and operations. With only 288 ships—about a third of which are undergoing upkeep at any time, with another third working up for overseas duty and not fully combat-ready—the U.S. Navy’s margin to take a punch and keep fighting is dubious. It’s doubtful the fleet possesses enough assets to overpower, say, a China without concentrating resources in likely theaters of action.

Yet shifting assets to one region may mean leaving commitments elsewhere unmet. No seafaring power can do everything, everywhere. But it takes gumption, and discipline, to pronounce one region more important than another—and to siphon resources from less important regions to protect U.S. interests where it counts most. Washington must summon up that self-discipline, allocating forces where needed most while making shift elsewhere. Whether it will remains a matter of conjecture. The sea services are poised to release a revised maritime strategy. Parsing its language will furnish clues about the leadership’s attitude toward the fleet’s disposition on the map.

So we’ll see. The other caveat is technological. The Proceedings authors list six pieces of kit—weapon systems, sensors, capabilities—the fleet needs to make distributed lethality a concrete reality. These include extended-range anti-ship missiles—the navy is outranged after failing to field a new anti-ship missile for twenty-plus years—a standoff anti-submarine weapon, electromagnetic railguns, and surveillance and command-and-control assets of various sorts. Fair enough. Except none of these systems is ready for sea. These are implements of the future—and it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. A railgun exists in experimental form, as do unmanned vehicles suitable for reconnaissance. The rest remain at the conceptual stage.

Which means developing them will consume time—and have uncertain prospects for success. Concepts must be vetted and approved; defense manufacturers must draw up designs and win contracts; prototypes must be developed and tested; and working models must be built and deployed. The defense sector’s and the Pentagon’s capacity to develop and deploy the requisite hardware swiftly appears doubtful. For instance, the progress toward fielding a new long-range anti-ship missile, or LRASM, has proved fitful. Not until 2019 will an air-launched LRASM go to sea aboard F-18E/F fighter/attack jets. Competition has yet to begin for a ship-launched missile. New weaponry typically has a long gestation period—and that will postpone efforts to make distributed lethality a working concept, not just something that makes sense in the abstract.

In short, no tactical or operational idea succeeds absent strategic wisdom and the technological wizardry needed to execute it. Sea-service leaders may muster the former, but the latter remains years off in the best of circumstances. Bad things, like a maritime war, may happen in the interim, leaving U.S. Navy surface action groups at a marked disadvantage. What happens then? One hopes the service is drawing up interim measures to span the danger zone when antagonists—mindful that new U.S. Navy weaponry and assets are in the pipeline—find themselves tempted to act before distributed lethality is a fact.

The authors invoke a football analogy to illustrate distributed lethality. They enjoin commanders to “spread the playing field.” But if you want to run a spread offense, you have to do more than just disperse. Such offenses are founded not just on spreading out to overextend defenders but on fooling them through speed, deception, and misdirection. Executing the spread offense demands a number of things. For one, coaches need outstanding players at the skill positions: quarterback, running back, and receiver. People execute strategy and, to a great extent, are strategy. For another, mass counts. Recruit a deep roster to beat an opponent on his home field. And an offense needs blockers to protect the quarterback and create holes in the defense through which runners can flit. An enterprising offense, then, must feature a stout defense.

And when running the offense, you’d better cultivate numerous options. Run the ball, and toss the short pass, sure. But if a coach relies solely on the short game, the defense will concentrate players in space to stop it. If offensive threats are few and short-range, that is, the defense will stack up near the line of scrimmage in order to stuff the run and the passing game. Progress downfield slows or stops altogether. An effective offense, consequently, can also throw the long ball. That deep threat stretches out the defense while confronting defenders with more challenges than they can handle. Prospects of victory brighten.

You get the analogy. To absorb combat losses while outmatching opponents on their home fields, assemble a deep roster of ships in the theater. To block out the defense, protect the fleet against anti-access measures. To go long, equip as many surface ships as possible with long-range missiles, augmenting the short-range “birds” that now constitute the main battery. Only then can surface action groups lurk off enemy shores with impunity.

Great concept, kid. Don’t get cocky.


James Holmes is professor of strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery