A year ago in these pages, Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Commander of Naval Surface Forces, along with coauthors Rear Admiral Peter Fanta and Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, introduced the concept of “distributed lethality,” which they defined as “the condition gained by increasing the offensive power of individual components of the surface force . . . and then employing them in dispersed offensive formations known as ‘hunter-killer surface action groups.’ It is the motive force behind offensive sea control.” This was one part of an overall effort to enhance the surface fleet’s combat readiness and fulfill then-CNO Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s tenet of “Warfighting First.”
We thought this would be a good time to check in with Vice Admiral Rowden to get an update on how the “distributed lethality” initiative is working, and he generously agreed to sit down with us for an interview. As it turns out, the concept is having an impact on the entire fleet. “I think it’s important that we don’t treat this as being exclusively in the purview of surface warfare,” he tells us. “The bottom line here is, in the face of increasingly capable potential adversaries and a fiscally constrained environment, naval surface forces provide forward, visible, and ready combat power for the nation.” In the mix is a Distributed Lethality Task Force, “a group of individuals from across organizations who have an interest in understanding how we will employ naval surface forces in the future.”
That future stands on a proud history of warfighting excellence dating to the origins of the Republic. But with much of the U.S. military engaged in land and air combat for the last 15 years, the fleet must reassess its current capabilities. Captain Fred Pyle, Lieutenant Commander Mark Cochran, and Lieutenant Commander Rob McFall worry that “the modern surface Navy is outgunned and sensor-deficient compared to near-peer competitors and regional navies alike.” Although they acknowledge that “the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet is the most funded and well-trained Navy in the world,” it still finds itself at a “tactical disadvantage when toe-to-toe with foreign surface combatants.” But what exactly needs to be done—and how should we do it? The authors outline a strategy for improving the surface community’s tactical relevance in modern maritime combat.
Help is on the way. Some significant directives have recharted the course of the U.S. Navy of late. Warfare Centers of Excellence have been redesignated as Warfighting Development Centers. A lot is happening now at the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC), which stood up last June and is rapidly reshaping the surface community’s approach to “establishing and enforcing standards for tactical excellence across warfare areas.” Rear Admiral Jim Kilby, SMWDC Commander, gives us the most detailed rundown yet of the measures that are “creating the framework to enhance tactical innovation and sharpen the surface force’s warfighting edge in the 21st century.”
SMWDC’s tactics-and-training developments get to the crux of “how we fight.” Closely allied with the “how” is the “who.” Officer retention in the surface Navy is also undergoing a renaissance. Surface warfare leadership has responded to the new talent-management initiatives announced last year under “Sailor 2025” and has “made a strong commitment to embrace a career-management model that shifts away from ‘our most willing officers’ and toward retention of ‘our most talented officers,” says Captain Brad Cooper, Head Surface Warfare Officer detailer. He provides the quintessential insider’s view of the paradigm shift and how “a fresh perspective of how we recruit, develop, and retain our junior officers offers extraordinary opportunity for the future surface force.”
Cultivating and training the most highly capable generation of officers ever will only get us so far; it is imperative that the warships they command be worthy of their talents and the challenges they will face. Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger warns that the Navy’s current ship survivability standards are not sufficient and must be reevaluated. A “bombshell,” he contends, was dropped in an April 2012 report by the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation, which found that the Littoral Combat Ship “is not expected to maintain mission capability after taking a significant hit in a hostile combat environment.” This issue, he says, has been neglected “since the Navy first adopted official survivability standards in 1998, and more presciently, since the instruction was soon updated and reissued in September 2012.” He maintains that “discussions [of such standards] should have happened within these pages periodically in the years since, but they are conspicuously absent.” Citing historical examples, the author commences the debate.
Paul Merzlak, Editor-in-Chief