Since World War II, the U.S. Navy has been a critical part of ensuring stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Today, however, new challenges from peer competitors to cyber attacks are testing the USN like never before. To understand the Navy’s strategy for dealing with these issues, The Diplomat’s Franz-Stefan Gady spoke with Vice Admiral Thomas S. Rowden, commander of Naval Surface Forces.
Earlier this year you ordered a “stand down” owing to a series of equipment and human failures on board the Littoral Combat Ships. Are the critical issues behind these developments strategic or technical in nature?
There is no question that the vast majority of our LCS Sailors are doing the right thing every day, but it is crucial that every Sailor is able to follow the proper procedures, and this is why we conducted a stand down. There were a few instances of human error that contributed to engineering casualties on some littoral combat ships. The stand down focused on addressing procedural compliance issues and reminding our Sailors of the importance of operating equipment in accordance with established procedures. Given that we are operating two completely different and complex ships, along with the fact that each new ship slightly deviates from the last version of the particular variant, it was important that we took the time to review our processes, discuss various issues, and share lessons learned.
It is my responsibility to provide the time and opportunity for our Sailors to focus on identifying technical and operating procedures to ensure compliance and authoring and correcting procedures that may be missing or incorrect. Capturing and correcting those issues is a continual process. I am fully committed to ensuring that our ships and the Sailors who man them have the proper tools and training they need to safely and effectively operate these ships.
Can you briefly explain why the U.S. Navy is fielding two different variants of the Littoral Combat Ship?
By having two variants and awarding competitive fixed price construction contracts to two different shipyards, the Navy significantly reduced the overall cost of the LCS program while delivering capability to the fleet more rapidly. The dual seaframe approach has also provided benefits associated with the unique design features of each variant.
Some naval analysts are advocating for a larger contingent of warships for the US Navy. Is this a viable approach or is the adoption of greater technology the appropriate course to pursue?
A larger Navy isn’t exclusive to incorporating newer and more innovative technologies into our arsenal of options. An effective naval force needs to balance the size and number of ships with the adoption of new technology. Lines of effort outlined in the Navy’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority provide a path to incorporate new technologies, increase our training and learning, and enhance the fleet’s overall capability and lethality.
In the Surface Force we are increasing the offensive and defensive capabilities of our ships by modifying existing weapons systems as well as incorporating new technology and systems that improve our ability to control the sea – whether part of an integrated group of ships or steaming independently. In addition, we work hard to recruit and retain the best America has to offer. Furthermore, we are developing new tactics, techniques, and procedures that make our people, our ships, and the technology incorporated in these ships more effective. All of these – quantity of ships, adaptive technology, innovative tactics, and the well-trained people – enhance the Surface Navy’s ability to provide options our commanders and support the nation’s security interests.
How do cybersecurity concerns play a role in the US Navy’s strategic planning and operations?
Cybersecurity concerns are certainly shaping the Navy’s strategic planning and operations. Fleet Cyber Command is leading the Navy’s effort to provide operational commanders with assured networks. As the surface type commander, we are implementing measures designed to inculcate cybersecurity into man, train, and equip activities designed to deliver warfighting-ready surface forces to the fleet commanders. One year ago, the surface community committed to treating cyber as a warfare area. Today, we are implementing governance, enhanced cyber maintenance and modernization processes, and, most importantly, executing cyber training and certification as a warfare area, as we do all other warfare areas. We still have a lot of work to do, but we take our cyber defense as seriously as defending our warships against incoming attacks.
How does distributed lethality contribute to deterrence, and what options does it provide policymakers confronting crisis?
The goal of the Navy’s “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” is “a Naval Force that produces leaders and teams who learn and adapt to achieve maximum possible performance, and who achieve and maintain high standards to be ready for decisive operations and combat.” Distributed Lethality is not only aligned with that goal, but is one of the ways the Surface Force is supporting it. Distributed Lethality is the innovative concept that strives to adapt the lethality of a greater number of individual surface ships as efficiently and opportunistically as possible. Dispersal of this combat power requires an adversary to account for many more targets, therein diluting available weapons assignment against any one platform while also stressing the adversary’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. Simply stated, a more lethal and distributed Surface Force provides our fleet and combatant commanders more options and gives an adversary a much more difficult operational problem with which it must contend.
Where does the recently commissioned next generation guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt fit in the overall distributed lethality concept?
USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) will provide significant combat capability to control the sea and project power ashore. Operating as part of the larger, integrated fleet alongside Carrier and Expeditionary Strike Groups as well as the lead ship in a Surface Action Group, or as an independently operating warship, USS Zumwalt is perfectly situated to be a key contributor to our Navy’s ability to operate freely in the world’s oceans. Zumwalt’s stealth, size, power, survivability systems, and computing capacity will provide us with the ability to meet missions at sea now, as well as incorporating new technology to meet emerging security environments. These ships have inherent characteristics like increased range, concealment, and deception capabilities, and advanced systems integration that mesh well with other distributed units. This class is on the leading edge of interoperability we need. It has a multitude of current mission capabilities that provide advantages for the Navy, while allowing emerging technologies to be quickly incorporated into the ships’ overall combat capability.
Do you see a future for large surface warships given that naval warfare will likely be dominated by drones, missiles, and manned/unmanned submarines in the years to come? (Do you agree with this statement?)
To say that naval warfare will be dominated by any one thing in the future would be overlooking all the exciting new – not to mention the tried and true – options available to our commanders.
We are a maritime nation, and our security and prosperity are tied to our ability to operate freely in the maritime environment. In the Navy’s “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority”, Adm. Richardson highlights our nation’s growing reliance on its Navy. The Surface Navy, in upholding support of this need, is focused on controlling the sea. Sea control derives from the simple truth that navies cannot persistently project power from water space they do not control, nor they guarantee the unobstructed movement of goods in the face of an adversary whose objective is to limit the freedom of the maritime commons within their sphere of influence. Sea control is the necessary precondition for virtually everything else the Navy does, and its provision can no longer be assumed.
As threats around the world have evolved, sea control to support power projection must be taken into consideration. This notion again supports “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” which, among other things, charges us to “strengthen naval power at and from the sea.” To do this, we must control the sea in order to project power or conduct any of the other missions our Surface Force may be assigned. Distributed Lethality is a concept that helps us control the sea. Its 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 limit an adversary’s options by enhancing conventional deterrence postures in concert with emerging technologies.
Given the United States Navy has not fought a major naval engagement in over 70 years, how sure are you about the U.S. Navy’s ability to successfully defeat a peer competitor?
I am absolutely confident in the U. S. Navy’s capabilities to meet any mission required by our leadership and that our nation may call upon us to accomplish. Our Surface Forces are indeed forward, they are visible, and they are ready. My main job as the Surface Forces Commander is to ensure all our surface warships are ready to meet the challenges of today and defeat the threats of tomorrow. Today, we operate some of the most advanced ships in the world and we have the best Sailors on the planet. Naval Surface Forces provide the nation with credible combat power in the maritime domain and I am deeply confident in our Navy’s and our Nation’s future.