The Buzz

The U.S. Navy Just Gave Us the Inside Scoop on the 'Distributed Lethality' Concept

Faced with growing challenges to its domination of the world’s oceans, the United States Navy is once again focusing its efforts on gaining and maintaining control of the seas.

Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy’s mastery of the seas has been unchallenged by any other power. Without a rival, the U.S. Navy focused the efforts of its surface fleet on power projection and defending its aircraft carriers—with the overwhelming majority of the service’s offensive firepower increasingly concentrated in the air wing. However, with great power competitors such as Russia and China increasingly developing surface warfare capabilities that might one day challenge the U.S. Navy’s dominance of the waves, the service is returning to its core mission of sea control.

“Our Navy controls the sea for the benefit of our nation and for the benefit of our allies,” Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, commander, Naval Surface Forces, told The National Interest during an Oct. 25 interview. “So how do we get after that in the surface warfare community?”

Rowden’s answer is a concept called distributed lethality, which he developed while serving as the Navy’s director of surface warfare (N96) in the Pentagon. “As I reviewed the requirements for our surface ships, we had a tendency to move away from offensive capability—or what I would refer to as sea control capability—to more defensive capability, which is defending those power projection assets. And I think that was a natural evolution that we executed in the wake of the Cold War in the wake of the wars that we were involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

However, the 21st Century is shaping up to be a much more challenging maritime security environment than the decades immediately following the Cold War. New adversaries are rising to challenge the United States on the high seas. “Pressing into the 21st Century and seeing challenges to our sea control, I had to ask myself the question: ‘If we have been concentrating by design the lethality of our Navy into the flight decks of our aircraft carriers, are we simplifying the problem for our adversaries and how do we get after that? How do we complicate the problem for our adversaries?”

The answer that Rowden and his staff developed was that the Navy should disperse the offensive capabilities of the surface fleet so that almost every vessel in the fleet contributes to the sea control mission. “What we need to do is distribute the lethality of our Navy and make all of our Navy more lethal, not just surface ships but surface ships, submarines and aircraft across the broad spectrum that we operate,” Rowden said. “We’re not going to go buy a new Navy, we have a great Navy right now, but are there things we can do with the weapons and the weapons systems in order to get offensive capability into our ships in order to hold our potential adversaries at risk at range.”

To achieve the Navy’s goals, the service will not only have to invest in upgraded hardware, but also on improved training and tactics. Additionally, the Navy will have to ensure that it attracts a bright talent pool that will be fully invested in the surface warfare mission area. One way the Navy is developing the tactics and talent necessary to execute the distributed lethality concept is to set up the surface fleet’s equivalent of naval aviation’s famed Top Gun school—the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. The new school not only trains experts in surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare, amphibious warfare and integrated and air missile defense, it also develops new tactics and helps prepare carrier strike groups for war. “That organization is off to an absolutely tremendous start,” Rowden said. “The impact they have had across the fleet in the preparation for our strike groups to sail is really phenomenal.”

But while tactics and training will help create sharp surface warfare officers who can exploit the full capabilities of the Navy’s warships, American sailors will need new tools to take on the growing threat of enemy surface forces. While the Navy is working on developing new weapons such as the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM)—which it might adopt for its warships—the service is modifying many existing armaments and ships so that they contribute to the sea control mission.