The U.S. Navy’s Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group recently conducted “live-fire” exercises in the Indian Ocean in what could easily be described as a deterrence exercise intended to send a message of preparedness or resolve to China. This included firing Mark 45 deck-mounted five-inch guns, using MH-60S helicopters to shoot crew-served weapons, and dropping Mark 76 inert bombs from F/A-18 Super Hornets in the Pacific Ocean.
While seemingly routine, standard or expected in many respects, this kind of war preparation exercise training Navy ships for massive, blue-water maritime warfare on the open ocean against a technologically advanced adversary, represents vital elements within a broader Navy strategic and tactical shift toward great power warfare preparations.
This strategic approach, brought to life in large measure through the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) philosophy, has been many years in the making. For nearly ten years now, the Navy has been vigorous with efforts to solidify a transition away from more than a decade of counterinsurgency, anti-piracy and counterterrorism operations. Instead of conducting Visit Board Search and Seizure missions, the Navy is pivoting to an era defined by the looming prospect of massive great power maritime warfare. The origins of Distributed Maritime Warfare, a tactical approach based upon the reality that newer kinds of threat dynamics from enemy weapons, coupled with the emergence of promising and impactful new networking technologies, is among many things intended to effectively leverage the advantages offered by longer-range sensors and precision-guided weaponry. More dispersed combat operations naturally reduces vulnerability to incoming enemy fire by having the Navy’s warships more spread out, a strategy greatly improved through the successful use of unmanned surface, air and undersea drones.
DMO could easily be described as a byproduct of the ongoing maturation of weapons and technology introduced as far back as 2015 with the Navy’s Distributed Lethality strategy. This effort, which has already been quite successful to a large extent, was intended to better arm the surface fleet with new weapons for the specific purpose getting ready for major power warfare. Elements of Distributed Lethality, which now inform and strengthen the now-evolving DMO, include the debut of drone-killing, ship-fired laser weapons, the addition of long-range, precision-guided “over-the-horizon” strike weapons on platforms such as the Littoral Combat Ship. This strategy shift also includes upgrades to the range, lethality and guidance systems of a number of vital ship-based weapons such as the SeaRAM, SM-6 and Rolling AirFrame Missiles. Part of Distributed Lethality also pioneered the exploration of various kinds of precision-guided weapons technology for the Navy’s famous deck-fired five-inch guns. Historically thought of as a dumb “area weapon” to blanket enemies with fire to enable maneuver and attack enemy ships and close range, five-inch guns are now being engineered for much greater ranges and much greater levels of precision.
Distributed Maritime Operations, in part due to its emphasis upon networking and disaggregated warfare formations, is naturally intended to expand into a multi-domain operations paradigm. For example, the Carrier Strike Group Live Fire Exercise in the Indian Ocean can complement ongoing B-1 bomber missions have also been operating in India. Together these operations create a circumstance wherein maritime offensive maneuvers could be preceded or followed up with specifically tailored B-1 bombing missions against China during a theoretical future war. For example, B-1s could help soften the battlefield for carrier-launched F/A-18s conducting high-speed hit and run attacks from the sea.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.