Commentary - Sea Control First

By Vice Admiral Thomas A. Rowden, U.S. Navy

“Sea control,” on the other hand, denotes a condition that is both temporally and geographically constrained. When a navy has established sea control, it can exercise the full range of operations of which it is capable within and from that area. In exercising sea control, a navy (or a portion thereof) dominates in all domains essential to its operations—undersea, surface, air, and electronic.

The challenge when using “sea control” with a modern audience is the degree to which the listener believes it is a term germane only to naval conflict—that the standard condition of the seas is to be uncontrolled and that control must be established, either by asserting dominance over a previously uncontrolled area or by displacing another naval force from a position of control through combat.

In contrast, I offer that sea control is a condition that exists when a naval force is capable of mounting the full range of combat operations within acceptable levels of risk given the threat and the desired combat objectives. Sea control can be either actual—in which case combat operations have occurred and maritime territory has been seized; or assumed—in which case a preponderant naval force reasonably can expect to be able to exercise the full range of combat operations should they become necessary.

The Decline of U.S. Sea Control

Sea control was a point of contention between the U.S. Navy and the Soviets during the Cold War. Each side contended with the other to be able to establish sea control where and when it was needed. When the Soviet Union fell, there were no remaining impediments to the U.S. Navy and its quest for sea control. No nation could mount a serious threat to U.S. ability to dominate the seas and the skies above them.

From this position of maritime dominance, the U.S. Navy evolved into a power-projection force without equal. Aircraft carriers could cozy up to the shorelines of nations without sophisticated air defense networks and generate massive numbers of strike sorties with impunity. Air and missile defense of the carrier went from an intricate and layered model during the Cold War to a simpler, more concentrated notion that relied heavily on a sophisticated Aegis destroyer or cruiser “riding shotgun” with the carrier to defend it. Over-the-horizon antisurface warfare (ASUW) migrated from the surface force to the air wing as the Flight IIA Arleigh Burke destroyers hit the fleet without ASUW missiles and sonar technicians became more proficient in manning .50-caliber machine guns and serving on boarding teams than in identifying a submarine turbine-generator line on a passive acoustic display. In other words, the major mission areas that comprise the surface force’s participation in sea control—integrated air and missile defense and antisurface and antisubmarine warfare—were lower priorities than maritime security and precision strike.

When the Cold War ended, more risk could be assumed, concentration of force could be accommodated, the fleet could get smaller, and operational redundancy (multiple methods of servicing targets) could be eliminated. But times have changed. The global security environment demands that the surface Navy rededicate itself to sea control, as a new group of potential adversaries is working to deny us command of the seas.

The Imperative for Sea Control

The nation’s theory of conventional naval deterrence since the end of the Cold War has been one of compellence, aimed largely at middling powers prone to disturbing regional peace. Under this theory, there has been comfort that there would be sufficient time to meet regional aggression from deployed forces, and saving that, that the Navy could summon a great deal of force to reverse whatever gains were made. Deterrence was less concerned with denial and punishment and more attuned to the threat of what would follow. This approach, however, is unlikely to be effective against peer and near-peer competitors, as well as regional threats enjoying favorable geography. Some nations are capable of launching operations in their near-abroad in which considerable combat power can be brought to bear in support of fairly narrow and limited objectives. These kinds of short, sharp operations become increasingly more dangerous as the balance of power among forces in some regions alters. These circumstances could pose significant challenges to our ability to protect U.S. interests, but we are moving forward to address them.

Impact of Distributed Lethality

The force we send forward to control the seas must be powerful, hard to find, hard to kill, and lethal. These are the bedrock tenets of distributed lethality, a concept introduced in “Distributed Lethality” in the January 2015 Proceedings. Distributed lethality looks at each unit of the surface force as an offensive machine, and then drives the force to increase that offensive capability through modifications to existing weapons and sensors. By being in place, lethal, and resilient, more heavily armed surface ships can stand and fight, denying aggressors their immediate and limited objectives and raising the cost of such aggression in the first place.

We have made great progress in implementing distributed lethality in the past two years, to include deployment of the first Navy Integrated Fire Control Counter-Air Strike Group that is pressing our antiair warfare (AAW) prowess into the outer-air battle again by networking sensors and weapons in a lethal integrated fire control loop. This capability will give us the option of shooting down bombers before they release their weapons, turning what has become a largely defensive mission (AAW) once again into an offensive one.

We are extending the reach of our ship-killing weapons with the funding of an antisurface variant of the Tomahawk missile and the successful test of the SM6 antiair missile in a surface engagement. The longer ranges of these weapons are important because our ability to provide high-quality targeting data at greater ranges has improved dramatically. And because high-quality tracks sometimes can be held for only a few minutes, it is essential that we are able to get a weapon moving downrange when actionable targeting is attained.

In antisubmarine warfare (ASW), our ships equipped with the AN/SQQ-89(A) V15 signal processing system are continuing to generate contact on real-world targets at ranges that would have made our Cold War sub hunters’ eyes water. In addition, the proliferation of multifunction towed arrays creates the conditions for networked and cooperative ASW, in which active emitters can be dislocated from the receiving array, providing a means of distributing targeting data and allowing our ships to remain undetected.

Although our efforts to increase the offensive lethality of our ships get the most attention, defensive resiliency—the ability to stand toe-to-toe with an adversary in a contested environment—is an important part of distributed lethality. Two systems in particular are moving us in this direction. The first is Sea-RAM, which combines the proven Phalanx system with a lethal close-in antiair missile. This system was fielded speedily on our Mediterranean destroyers to counter upgraded threats in the region. Second, we shortly will begin fielding the ESSM Block II, an antiair missile with an active seeker that can launch from a variety of systems, including a quad-pack vertical launch system (VLS) variant. The point of these measures is to force an adversary to reckon with both our ships’ offensive might and the added difficulty (measured in weapons necessary to achieve a hit) of achieving a mission kill. Both are necessary to institute a more effective brand of conventional deterrence.

Closing the Sea Control Gap

The “gap” in our sea control capabilities is between those we have today and those we need for the future. The good news is we know where these gaps lie and have a plan (along with the U.S. defense industry) to address them. Some areas where we are working hardest include:

Cruiser Modernization and Long-Term Air Defense Commander Capabilities. Ensuring the surface force provides unmatched air and missile defense command-and-control capabilities remains a crucial emphasis. We are upgrading cruisers and extending their service lives, even as we consider how to replace this foundational capability.

Offensive Surface Warfare (SUW). Our surface ships must be able to actively target and engage other surface ships over the horizon (OTH). We are applying this approach with the LCS OTH missile program, even as we look to upgrade selected amphibious warfare ships.

F-35/Surface Force Integration. The F-35Bs and Cs will provide the fleet with target-quality tracks on air and surface targets. Off-porting those targets from the aircraft in tactically relevant ways to enable other platforms—including surface ships—to engage them is a key enabler of a more distributed and lethal force.

Organic Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). The surface force requires organic, medium-altitude/long endurance unmanned vehicles. In addition, unmanned surface vessels networked into the ISR picture and under the command and control of surface units can significantly extend force ISR, providing both active and passive electronic warfare and acoustic data. The ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel program offers real promise on this front.

Battle Management. We must fully integrate our combat systems at the platform, surface action group, strike group, and fleet levels. Modern warfare against peer and near-peer competitors will require us to conserve weapons and ensure they are employed wisely against the attacks of nations with deep magazines. A networked, scalable battle management function that determines the best combinations of hard and soft kill with the highest probability of efficient success is required. This function must be able to support a single ship in harm’s way and then scale up to support coordinated operations of surface action groups, strike groups, and even to the point of guiding the actions of an entire fleet.

Next Generation ASW. Submarine-launched antiship missiles are becoming the likely weapon of choice from adversary undersea forces, as the ability to get in close and target with torpedoes will be hotly contested. Given the great strides in theater ASW the surface force requires a weapon that enables us to act on solid but fleeting targeting data to get a weapon headed downrange quickly, with a payload that immediately puts the submarine on the defensive before it can obtain targeting data on the fleet.

Low-Cost/High-Capacity Munitions. It is imperative that we move toward low(er) cost/high(er) capacity munitions to meet two challenges—(1) high-end opponents able to devote more of their industrial base to producing weapon stockpiles, and (2) the need to better align a weapon’s cost with the target against which it is employed. Laser weapons offer the promise of meeting both these challenges for selected targets, and rail-gun technology offers promise in matching relatively low-cost projectiles against far more expensive missiles. In addition, a low-cost “quick-strike” land-attack weapon suitable for employment from VLS cells would give us the ability to destroy lightly defended land targets with lower cost weapons. When the USS Nitze (DDG-94) targeted Houthi radar sites in Yemen in October 2016, she did so with TLAM missiles from relatively short range. A more modestly priced weapon suitable for modestly defended targets would have been useful.

Investment in Manpower and Training. We must continue to invest in retaining our best and brightest people and fund individual and unit training with realistic training systems. These systems must be capable of simulating complex operating environments. Our people—the center of our universe—deserve the best, and we need to deliver the resources that will prepare them for success if they are called to go in harm’s way.


Distributed lethality increases the U.S. Navy’s sea control capability and expands U.S. conventional deterrence. Funding the tactics, talent, training, and tools to field a more lethal and distributed force will enable us to establish sea control where it is needed for other naval operations, even as we contest opponents’ ability to deny us the use of the sea.

Vice Admiral Rowden is Commander, Naval Surface Forces/Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet.


Conferences and Events

WEST 2017

Tue, 2017-02-21 - Thu, 2017-02-23

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Tuesday, 21 February - Thursday, 23 February 2017 Co-Sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute. Registration...

2017 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

Guest Speaker & Book Signing

Wed, 2017-01-25

Dwight Sturtevant Hughes

Guest Lecturer & Book Signing

Wed, 2017-01-25

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership