Asia Defense

The US Navy’s New Surface Warfare Strategy: ‘Distributed Lethality’

The U.S. Navy’s surface fleet is getting more aggressive, with new tactics and weapons.

The US Navy’s New Surface Warfare Strategy: ‘Distributed Lethality’
Credit: Official U.S. Navy Page via

The United States Navy plans to re-organize and re-equip its surface fleet by grouping ships into small surface action groups and increasing the number of anti-ship weapons on more platforms. The U.S. Navy calls this tactical shift “distributed lethality.”

Breaking Defense quotes, Rear Admiral Peter Fanta and his rough summary of the concept of “distributed lethality”: “If it floats, it fights, that’s ‘distributed lethality’ (…) Make every cruiser, destroyer, amphib, LCS, a thorn in somebody else’s side.” Fanta, the director for Surface Warfare on the Navy staff, spoke at the annual Surface Navy Association National Symposium, which took place in Arlington, Virginia this week.

Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, commander of Naval Surface Forces, further elaborated on the tactical shift at the symposium, as reports: “We’re going to up-gun as many existing platforms as we can to achieve more total lethality.” Speakers at the symposium noted that the Navy will overhaul ships in service with low-cost weapon and sensor upgrades including Aegis destroyers, cruisers, supply ships, and littoral combat ships. However, more details on the specifics of this reshuffle will only emerge when the president’s 2016 budget request comes out next month.

In 2014, the U.S. Navy had to endure politically motivated budget cuts and a hiring freeze delaying retrofits and maintenance of Navy vessels. This trend will likely continue in 2015. “Budget is coming down,” Fanta emphasized. This should be placed in perspective: In 2014, the U.S. Navy deployed tonnage equal to that of the sixteen next-largest navies combined.

The tactical “distributed lethality” shift is largely due to the increasing anti-access/area denial capabilities of the armed forces of China and Iran but also Russia.  In an article in Proceedings Magazine, published by the U.S. Naval Institute, Vice Admiral Rowden, Rear Admiral Fanta, and Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, outlined the reasons behind the re-organization of the surface fleet by arguing that, “the shift to the offensive responds to the development of increasingly capable A2/AD weapons and sensors designed specifically to deny U.S. naval forces the freedom of maneuver necessary to project power.(…) Adversaries who counter this advantage diminish the deterrent value of forward-deployed forces and negatively impact the assurances we provide to friends and allies. A shift to the offensive is necessary to ‘spread the playing field,’ providing a more complex targeting problem while creating more favorable conditions to project power where required.”

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As of now, the U.S. Navy still lacks an adequate long-range, anti-surface weapon to implement a re-organization of the surface fleet based on the “distributed lethality” idea. One possible future acquisition could be the Norwegian Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile, yet no decisions on the procurement of new weapon systems has been made as of now. The authors of the Proceeding Magazine article also outline additional requirements for their vision, such as improved intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance and data relay, low-cost medium range strike weapons, and new railguns.

This new tactical reorganization is a clear indication that the days when the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet just served as air defense elements for carrier strike groups, floating bastions for ballistic missile defense, and strike platforms for land attacks are over. It remains to be seen how the Chinese and Russian navies will respond to the shift.