A shift is now under way within the surface force. It is not subtle, and it is not accidental. The surface force is taking the offensive, to give the operational commander options to employ naval combat power in any anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) environment. The surface fleet will always defend the high-value and mission-essential units; that is in our core doctrine. However, the emergence of sophisticated sea-denial strategies has driven a need to shift to an offensive imperative to control the seas. Increasing surface-force lethality—particularly in our offensive weapons and the concept of operations for surface action groups (SAGs)—will provide more strike options to joint-force commanders, provide another method to seize the initiative, and add battlespace complexity to an adversary’s calculus.
The objective is to cause the adversary to shift his own defenses to counter our thrusts. He will be forced to allocate critical and limited resources across a larger set of defended targets, thereby improving our operational advantage to exploit adversary forces. This shift is required for several reasons. First, when the Cold War ended, our Navy emerged unchallenged and dominant. No power could match us at sea, and that dominance allowed the Navy to focus on projecting power ashore. The balance between sea control and power projection tipped strongly in favor of the latter, and the surface force evolved accordingly. Our proficiency in land-attack and maritime-security operations reached new heights, while foundational skills in antisubmarine warfare (ASW) and antisurface warfare (ASUW) slowly began to erode. During this period, the mindset of our surface warriors slowly transformed from offensive to defensive. The surface force began to shift its expertise to launching Tomahawk missiles from uncontested sanctuaries at sea. If U.S. naval power is to reclaim maritime battlespace dominance in contemporary and future anti-A2/AD environments, the surface Navy must counter rapidly evolving missile, air, submarine, and surface threats that will challenge our ability to sail where we want, when we want.
Second, 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. This subject has been covered in this journal before, but it is important to remember that as our interests lay thousands of miles from our own coastlines, sea-based power projection is both our main competitive advantage and an absolute necessity to retain influence and to exercise global leadership. 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.
Third, the shift to offense is pivotal for the surface Navy to reinforce closer integration with the Marine Corps. A more fully integrated Marine Corps–surface force combat team will provide persistent presence that can influence and control events at sea and in the littorals, applying the right capability to the right target for the joint-force commander. Supported by other elements of the joint force, this integrated Navy–Marine Corps striking force will be increasingly called upon to tend to the nation’s security needs around the world.
Finally, the shift to offense makes the most efficient and effective use of significant investments made in surface-force lethality over the past two decades. These visionary investments were made by planners who recognized that our dominant position was not a birthright, and that challenges to our ability to control the seas were emerging. These investments in enhanced surface-ship lethality create the conditions for a renaissance in surface-force employment and a return to the core competencies of sea control when applied with bold new offensive methods.
Control ‘Can No Longer Be Assumed’
A new emphasis on sea control derives from the simple truth that navies cannot persistently project power from water space they do not control. Nor can navies guarantee the free movement of goods in the face of a power-seeking 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. Threats ranging from low-end piracy to the navies of high-end nation-states pose challenges that we must be prepared to counter—and ultimately defeat.
Sea control does not mean command of all the seas, all the time. Rather, it is the capability and capacity to impose localized sea control when and where it is required to enable other objectives to be met, holding it as long as is necessary to accomplish those objectives. We must begin to treat expanses of ocean the way we viewed islands during World War II—as areas to be seized for conducting follow-on power-projection operations. Additionally, we should recognize that the enemy gets a vote, and that all of the elements of the Navy’s Fleet architecture are unlikely to be available when the shooting starts. The day-to-day persistence of the surface force means that it must be prepared to immediately go on the offensive in order to create conditions for the success of follow-on forces.
The enablers for this shift to the offensive are an array of existing platforms and capabilities, planned capabilities in various stages of acquisition, and future capabilities resident in today’s promising research-and-development programs. Employing the concept of “distributed lethality,” the surface force—through innovation, emerging command-and-control concepts, and an increased ability to operate within an acceptable margin of risk—will flexibly adapt to future maritime operations, exploiting seized areas of localized sea control to generate larger combat effects.
Distributed lethality is the condition gained by increasing the offensive power of individual components of the surface force (cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships [LCSs], amphibious ships, and logistics ships) and then employing them in dispersed offensive formations known as “hunter-killer SAGs.” It is the motive force behind offensive sea control. Both parts of the definition are critical; raising the lethality of the force but operating it the same way sub-optimizes the investment. Operating hunter-killer SAGs without a resulting increase in offensive power creates unacceptable risk.
Hunter-killer SAGs seize maritime-operations areas for subsequent activities (including power projection), perform screening operations for larger formations, and hold adversary land targets at risk. Additionally, by distributing power across a larger number of more geographically spaced units, adversary targeting is complicated and attack density is diluted. Hunter-killer SAGS are capable of defending themselves against air and missile attack, and extend that protection to expeditionary forces conducting offensive operations of their own. These hunter-killer SAGs will be networked and integrated to support complex operations even when not supported by the carrier air wing and land-based patrol aircraft.
A Hunter-Killer Hypothetical
As an example, let us move ahead to the late 2020s and consider a scenario that emphasizes close Navy–Marine Corps integration: A hunter-killer SAG consisting of an LCS (ASW module), a Flight III Arleigh Burke–class destroyer, and a Zumwalt-class destroyer are ordered to deploy to the vicinity of a small, abandoned island with an airfield that the joint force’s maritime-component commander plans to seize and use as a temporary expeditionary-operations base for six Marine Corps F-35Bs.
While no troops are defending the island, the adversary is expected to use a multilayered area-denial strategy with a three-ship antisurface-warfare SAG and several fast patrol vessels conducting operations approximately 80 miles north. Additionally, an enemy diesel submarine was located 24 hours ago, 120 miles north. The U.S. hunter-killer SAG’s mission is to place itself between the adversary and the island and conduct reconnaissance of the island, while also locating, targeting, and neutralizing adversary surface and subsurface forces in the area; and destroy any enemy attempt to garrison the airfield before the arrival of the Marine F-35Bs. Once those aircraft begin operations, the SAG will be required to provide for their defense from the sea.
To provide integrated air and missile defense, the Burke destroyer, employing her AMDR (air- and missile-defense radar), will conduct traditional area antiair-warfare missions against advanced manned and unmanned threats, while simultaneously providing ballistic-missile-defense support.
Quick-reaction strikes ashore in the event of adversary special-operations-forces insertion (or other forward elements of an adversary garrisoning operation) will come from the advanced gun system on the Zumwalt destroyer. Overhead sensing from organic unmanned aerial-surveillance (UAS) platforms will be crucial for maintaining situational awareness and providing island surveillance, and for over-the-horizon targeting of the adversary SAG. Additionally, the UAS can provide precise targeting to the Zumwalt destroyer to eradicate or neutralize enemy targets across the breadth of the 25-by-12-mile island.
Each of the ships in the hunter-killer SAG will employ long-range offensive ASUW missiles against the enemy SAG and fast patrol vessels, an operational necessity in dispersed operations often far from air-wing support. These missiles will represent a dramatic improvement in range, lethality, and survivability over existing Fleet assets, and they will be more broadly employed across the force.
All three ships have considerable ASW capability, with the Zumwalt’s SQQ 90 system optimized for above-the-layer active sonar operations, the LCS’a ASW mission module packing considerable capability below-the-layer, and the Burke’s sonar suite adept throughout the water column. All three combatants are capable of carrying ASW aircraft such as the MH-60R Seahwawk helicopter, and unmanned airborne systems such as the MQ-8 Fire Scout for surveillance.
The hunter-killer SAG just described is capable of the following: targeting and destroying the enemy SAG and fast patrol vessels; identifying and destroying fleeting land targets ashore; identifying and destroying air and missile threats to the expeditionary air operation; providing wide-area air surveillance; and locating and destroying enemy submarine threats. It could do this while supported by either carrier- or land-based aircraft, but it would not require this support to accomplish its mission. Every capability described is either in the force or in a budgeted acquisition program. This combination of increasingly lethal surface forces with the F-35B-configured amphibious force creates a significant threat to adversary forward-operating bases and creates additional planning and targeting problems for the adversary.
In addition to adding offensive punch to traditional cruiser/destroyer platforms, consideration should be given to applying the principles of distributed lethality and sea control to the amphibious force as well. There is a strong argument to add offensive capability to the amphibious fleet, creating within it yet another planning nightmare for an adversary, who would face expeditionary forces packing organic offensive surface-to-surface missiles and land-attack capabilities. Adding offensive firepower to the amphibious force does not relieve the surface force from its role of protection, nor does it mean that the primary mission of those ships—projecting Marine Corps power ashore—must be compromised. It does mean, however, that we should think differently about these ships and consider the power of adding additional capability to them.
Value-Adds to the Lethality Mix
The fact that the platforms and capabilities in the previous vignette are already considered does not preclude the need for additional capability. (Only three Zumwalts, for example, are slated to be constructed.) Several enablers of distributed lethality are worthwhile and should be closely analyzed and/or accelerated. These include:
Offensive surface-to-surface missile. We are working closely with naval aviation on a common approach for long-range surface-to-surface missiles for the surface fleet. We have tested a proof-of-concept for a medium-range surface-to-surface missile for employment from virtually any vessel via a “bolt-on” launcher or one that is fully integrated into the ship’s existing combat system. It is becoming increasingly obvious that we should accelerate this capability insertion.
Low-cost medium-range strike weapon. Considering the Zumwalt and her ability to strike targets ashore, we are left with an option that extends to the vicinity of 60 nautical miles (the advanced gun system) or an option that extends to nearly 1,000 nm (the Tomahawk and its eventual replacement). We must be able to rapidly engage targets ashore with a medium-range, economical strike weapon that can be employed from existing launchers and be backfit throughout the Fleet, especially into the amphibious force.
Long-range ASW weapon. Our hunter-killer SAGs must be equipped with a weapon that can help mitigate the advantage a cruise missile–equipped submarine could have against our forces. While air-dropped torpedoes from organic LAMPS helicopters are the high-probability-of-kill weapon in the SAG, a weapon that can put the submarine on the defensive from ranges of approximately 50 nm or greater would be crucial to SAG survivability during helicopter’s transit to datum (or when organic air isn’t available). Therefore, we are looking at alternative ways to fire a torpedo from a launcher similar to legacy ASROC Mk-116 or using current MK-41 launchers.
Railgun. The 78 megawatts of power created in the Zumwalt plant create the perfect home for the railgun, a capability that will not only increase lethality against shore targets but will also present a game-changing, cost-effective ballistic- and cruise-missile defense weapon. Operating in tandem with a Flight III Burke, a railgun-equipped Zumwalt could hurl fragmenting rounds into the path of incoming missiles, creating a “wall of flak” into which the missile would fly, destroying or disabling it. Such a fragmenting round would be considerably less expensive than large guided missiles that currently comprise our kinetic response to missile attacks.
Persistent organic airborne intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance and data relay. An important aspect of distributed lethality is the ability to confidently conduct dispersed operations apart from centralized command-and-control networks. Local combat-information networks are essential to achieving localized battlespace awareness. Those networks need to be more capable than those existing today and must be persistent in a satellite-denied or jamming-intensive environment. Whether current vertical-takeoff unmanned aerial systems have the persistence necessary to support dispersed offensive operations remains to be seen, but the potential for them to augment networking and information-sharing should be examined. The ability of hunter-killer SAGs to launch and recover fixed-wing or partially fixed-wing UAVs will be pivotal to employing UAVs in this role.
Command and control. Our hunter-killer SAGs must be equipped with detect-to-engage sensors, electronic-emission systems, and communications and networked systems that assure the passage of critical friendly force, battlespace shipping, and combat orders as part of the larger role of building battlespace awareness and achieving the effects of distributed lethality. We anticipate the electromagnetic spectrum to be challenged as a part of an adversary’s A2/AD tactics. Where we do not have equipment to counter and continue networking in such an environment, we must field such as part of the development of our next generation of ships and backfit that capability to existing ships. In a similar vein, of course, is the cyber realm, emerging as the newest and, in many ways most dynamic and daunting, levels of the battlespace—one that the surface Navy, not to mention the U.S. military at large—must get out in front of, as our potential adversaries are most certainly trying to do.
When discussing all these various new platforms and distributed-lethality delivery systems, one rightly asks: What about the training that must arise concomitantly with the new hardware? The answer should be self-evident: With each add-on to the surface force’s distributed-lethality mix, manning and training issues will be a factor; without due diligence and requisite outlay in the training component, up front and at the outset, the most powerful innovations would be rendered moot.
‘The Most Effective and Efficient Method’
Distributed lethality combines more powerful ships with innovative methods of employing them. It capitalizes on the inherent advantages of surface forces (mobility and persistence) to provide meaningful deterrents to adversary aggression and immediately available warfighting options should deterrence fail. The more capable platforms the adversary has to account for, the more thinly distributed his surveillance assets will be and the more diluted will his attack densities become. The more distributed our combat power becomes, the more targets we hold at risk and the higher the costs of defense to the adversary.
This is a relatively simple, yet powerful idea. By applying the principles of distributed lethality, the surface force can help sustain and extend America’s competitive advantage in power projection against a growing set of sea-denial capabilities. Distributed lethality is the most effective and efficient method of capitalizing on the Fleet we have today and the one planned for the immediate future. There are no leaps of technology required, no massive funding increases necessary, and no increase in the number of ships needed to implement it. We simply need to make better use of the ships we have today, and think differently about how we equip and employ them.
What is needed is will—the fortitude to recognize that we have to change the way we currently operate. We must display the courage necessary to move forward, to question established concepts and methods, to take risks, and to learn from our mistakes. We will have to experiment with and refine emerging concepts, and we will have to become more comfortable with autonomous operations across vast distances. The risks are worth it, however. A more widely postured and more uniformly lethal surface force will play a significant role in maintaining the United States’ position as the dominant naval power, something from which the world has benefited handsomely for more than seven decades.
Vice Admiral Rowden is Commander, Naval Surface Forces.
Rear Admiral Gumataotao is Commander, Naval Surface Force Atlantic.
Rear Admiral Fanta is Director, Surface Warfare (N96).