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Distributed Lethality and Beyond: The U.S. Navy's Surface Fleet Is Evolving Right Before Our Eyes

In addition to directed energy weapons, Rowden said he sees the potential benefits of railgun technology for both defensive and offensive applications. “I’ve seen the work that we have done in developing our railguns, I certainly think it has capability,” Rowden said. “We have to look at what opportunity that technology presents in order to be able to execute not only the defensive mission but also the offensive capabilities as well.”

However, the challenge the Navy faces with directed energy weapons and railguns is not one of power generation, rather the problem is storing energy. “Your magazine almost becomes your ability to store power,” Rowden said. “However you generate that power—via fossil fuel, nuclear or whatever the case maybe—I think it’s a balance between the ability to generate it and the ability to store it. And there has been some pretty significant strides made in trying to reduce the size and weight of power storage.”

The Navy’s “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” outlines the service’s plans for its future fleet—a key component of which is “distributed lethality.” The concept—which Rowden developed at the Pentagon—calls for almost every Navy surface vessel to have a role in gaining and maintaining sea control.

“The Surface Force is supporting and aligned with the Navy's ‘A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,’” the Navy said in a statement issued to The National Interest. “Consistent with this direction and the mandate to ‘Strengthen Naval Power at and From the Sea,’ Distributed Lethality’s core concept is that more lethal and distributed surface forces increase the offensive options available to fleet and joint commanders.  Equally important is the ability to enhance conventional deterrence postures that limit an adversary's option and even keep them at bay.”

But while the Distributed Lethality concept calls for almost every vessel to have a combat role—dispersing the Navy’s offensive firepower—that does not mean future warships will be smaller than current vessels. In fact, the opposite might be true.

“I think that quantity is a quality on its own, clearly I think that in building quantity, that drives you to look at smaller ships that can be produced faster by the industrial base,” Rowden said. “But I think to say that we would be able to go away from the capital ships that we are currently steaming—not only to project power but also to defend our power projection assets, whether its the amphibious readiness group or logistics train or carrier strike groups—I think we’re still going to need those capital ships in order to be able to execute the mission.”

Rowden said that unmanned warships are a possibility in addition to large next-generation surface combatants. “I think there is opportunity to not only continue to focus on them but also to look at things like unmanned and how we would go leverage that capability,” Rowden said. “I’m not sure it’s a size piece, I think it’s all sorta on the table. We’ve got to be thinking differently about how we get after this.”

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image Credit: Creative Commons Image/Flickr User SurfaceWarriors.