An Interview with Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, U.S. Navy
The commander of U.S. naval surface forces talked recently in the Pentagon with USNI News Editor Sam LaGrone about surface action groups and adaptive force packages, the two main components of the year-old concept dubbed “distributed lethality.”
Proceedings: Now a year after publication of your Proceedings article with Rear Admirals [Peter] Gumataotao and [Peter] Fanta, ‘Distributed Lethality,’ how has that concept progressed?
Rowden: We’ve been busy maturing our thoughts with respect to the organizing principle or organizing construct of distributed lethality. I think it’s important that we don’t treat this as being exclusively in the purview of surface warfare. I view it as thinking about how we employ future naval forces in potential conflicts. This concept really works at multiple levels: strategic, operational, and tactical. 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. They are ready to respond when called on in times of crisis and provide operational commanders options to control increased ocean areas and hold potential adversaries at risk, at range.
Looking to the future, we have to think about how we are prepared to execute both the power-projection and sea-control missions we have always been charged to do. In the wake of the Cold War, we had sea control. We could operate in many different ways, and in the surface Navy, we invested in building expertise in power projection. As potential adversaries position to challenge our ability to control the sea, we must think differently. People tend to settle on antisurface warfare, but I think of it in terms of the spectrum of missions required to establish sea control—at the time and place of our choosing.
Proceedings: The antisurface component has been getting the most attention. But we are beginning to hear more about undersea warfare. The acronym NIFCU [naval integrated fire control undersea] has been popping up lately. Breaking it down to maintaining the upper hand in the sea-control context, where do we need to put the muscle right now?
Rowden: One of the things I wanted to do was to understand what the potential advantages are of a more lethal and distributed surface force. I’ve done a couple of things. One was what I refer to as the Distributed Lethality Task Force, which is a group of individuals from across organizations who have an interest in understanding how we will employ naval surface forces in the future. From forward warfighters, warfare tactics instructors from the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC), naval strategists, expertise from across the research-and-development community, and wargaming and analytics from the Naval War College and Naval Postgraduate School, we have worked hard to achieve a deeper understanding and better articulate the advantages of a more distributed lethal force.
Part of my charge to the task force was to execute the analytics, looking at various tactical situations to see if we could get the wind under the wings of exactly what the advantages are in increasing the lethality of the force. I think it’s important to recognize that we have, over time, increased our ability to understand what’s out there in the environment. One of the concerns that people voiced to me early was to have the ability to execute these engagements. I think we can. Our responsibility now is to say, “Okay, how do we then develop the weapons that we can integrate in a relatively short time line, and at a relatively modest investment, in order to increase the lethality of our ships?”
We have a significant force that has significant capabilities. What can we do in the near term, with the appropriate investments, to improve the lethality of our surface ships as well as employing new tactics? That’s part of the calculus that I put to the task force.
Proceedings: So is that manifesting itself in a report, or war games? How are you taking that feedback from the task force?
Rowden: What I’ve asked the task force to do is to get people to understand exactly what it is we’re trying to achieve with a more lethal surface force. And I am very involved with these conversations. We have executed three war games at the Naval War College, where we’ve tested this organizing principle. I’ve already used these results and conducted some discussions outside the task force. Another thing that is important to realize is we’re not only talking about increasing the lethality of our surface force, but also across the entire fighting force.
For example, if you have a set of forces concentrated specifically, or exclusively, on defense (defense of the aircraft carrier, the logistics apparatus, the amphibious ready group [ARG], or whatever it is defending), then we still see that as front-and-center in our job. However, by increasing the lethality of the surface ships and distributing them across wide areas, we force potential adversaries to not only consider the threat from our carrier-based aircraft and submarines, but they now must also consider the threat from all of those surface ships. By that division, we are forcing on them a more lethal submarine force and a more lethal carrier-based aircraft force in conjunction with that more lethal surface force.
Proceedings: Is this going to be an ongoing process with surface forces? What are the next steps?
Rowden: We are going to continue to develop this construct through wargaming and analytics as well as developing weapons and tactics.
As an example of this concept, we are deploying a surface action group or, as I’ve begun to think about it, an Adaptive Force Package (AFP) in 2016. Our first operational deployment of this concept will be centered around three guided-missile destroyers and a destroyer squadron command element. These AFP’s, similar to the Marine Corps model, will make us more agile by matching weapons, sensors, and platforms to mission requirements. This will demonstrate the surface force’s ability to execute conventional deterrence, power projection, sea control, and maritime security.
It’s also important to recognize the contributions that we not only are seeing, but will see, out of SMWDC, which stood up this past June under the leadership of Rear Admiral Jim Kilby (see “‘Tactical Excellence By Design,’” beginning on page 24). I saw this as a seminal moment in building surface warfare expertise in our operators and getting to where we need to be for the future. With this new center, we are investing in expertise with an organization focused on tactical proficiency, tactical development, and tactical professionalism within our force.
This will determine how best to take what we have and make it as lethal and as good as it can possibly be. We’re also focusing on the individuals who are going to bring this to bear: more tactics experts and those who can instill interest in our young junior officers to gain this expertise. As I go out into the fleet and into the wardrooms and on the mess decks, I see a lot of enthusiasm for the direction we are going and the amount of emphasis and energy we are putting into building this capability.
Proceedings: One thing that appears to have been missing from the surface forces is an antiship weapon. What are you considering in that regard?
Rowden: One of the real advantages of the task force discussing distributed lethality was the realization that by modifying existing systems we could dramatically increase the lethality of surface warships. Warships that allow us to hold potential adversary forces at risk, at range, are the foundation, regardless of where they operate. These systems run the gamut. The art of the possible is not only from a fiscal perspective but from a rapid-fielding perspective. That is one of the things I’m interested in. If you’re going to incorporate this lethality into the warships we have now, you must have compatibility with the weapon system or a stand-alone capability.
Proceedings: Is there a “for instance” that sticks out in your mind?
Rowden: I go back to a war game we did with the littoral combat ships. And we were kind of driving toward a medium-range antisurface missile, something in excess of the range we’re seeing on the Harpoons we have now, and it made a difference. Distributed lethality really kind of grew out of that discussion—using current ships differently. I think knowing that, we’ve got to continue to find rapid and affordable solutions.
Proceedings: When would you like to see something deployed?
Rowden: As the community lead, my job is to ensure our warships are ready to answer the call—today. I also understand that fiscal and other realities drive that. What I am looking at is what we would be able to execute in the near (between now and 2020), mid (2020–2025), and far range (2025 and beyond). I think we’re seeing some positive movement, and I’m excited about where we’re going. Now we have to execute.
Proceedings: You mentioned the three-ship deployment.
Rowden: I wanted to look at the value of taking this AFP and understand how much more we could get out of the warships by using them differently. Our tactics developers are working with the forward warfighters to understand how we might employ this type of force. The next step is, if we increase the lethality of this group of warships, what is the value to the forward warfighter?
Proceedings: How are your people in distributed lethality seeing this concept as it has moved across the force doing a better job of specifically satiating combatant-commander demand for surface forces?
Rowden: Our naval forces are ready to respond when called on in times of crisis. They provide combatant commanders power-projection and sea-control options.
Looking at the fiscal constraints we could be living under, are there more tools in the toolbox? You can never replace the capability that a carrier strike group delivers. But I do think it’s important to understand what other tools may exist in the form AFPs—like the three-ship AFP I mentioned, or imagine an AFP centered around an ARG.
With the ARG’s current capabilities—including what’s flying off the decks of the ships, the Marines on board, and also the combat systems that are significant in our LDP-17s and our large-deck amphibs—we also have to think ahead as we start to bring the F-35B into the force and understand what contributions it might bring to an adaptive force package that could perhaps be augmented by some of our guided-missile destroyers. It’s our responsibility to understand how we might put the different packages together and then be able to articulate what capability each can deliver to the combatant commanders so they have more options or tools. Again, the idea is never to replace or supplant the firepower that a carrier strike group brings but to be able to articulate other options.
Proceedings: Describe the distributed lethality task force you stood up in June 2015.
Rowden: The task force is important. One of its tasks is to operationalize the concept of a distributed, more lethal force, and another is to synchronize and lead a transformation across the surface community to focus on warfighting—in short, to increase the combat capability of naval surface forces.
One of the things the team has been deeply involved in is devising and implementing a rigorous program of analytics and wargaming efforts designed to give us a sense of how much distributed lethality can contribute, and how much lethality can be attained within anticipated resource levels.
The task force is focused on several lines of effort to increase the combat capability of naval surface forces. The doctrine and training line is led by the SMWDC. We are engaged with the OPNAV staff across office codes to improve our weapons and sensors on amphibs, surface combatants, logistics, and manned and unmanned aircraft. The Surface Warfare Officer School is focused on leadership and training. PERS 41 [surface warfare personnel] folks, our officer-distribution people, are working hard with respect to developing the talent we are going to need for the future. Again, building the tactical proficiency of the force means we need to work hard to make sure we retain our most talented people. Some of the things we have been working on now are springboarding off the Secretary of the Navy’s [Ray Mabus’] 2025 initiative. He has given us tremendous latitude and support in the efforts we have been undertaking.
Innovation is a vital piece of all of this. The Naval War College and Naval Postgraduate School are engaged and thinking differently about the problem. We were able to go to the NPS and, with a couple of discussions with the students, were able to garner some funding to support their research. Students there have shown a significant amount of interest in thesis work expanding the distributed-lethality concept.
Proceedings: Do you have a milestone coming up as far as this concept goes?
Rowden: One of the things I caution myself against is being impatient. As I mentioned at the Surface Navy Association conference a year ago, this is a generational change. I’ve seen a lot of shift in the enthusiasm and the desire to understand how to more effectively employ our ships. If I’m having a day when I need a boost, all I have to do is go to the deckplates or into the wardrooms of any of the ships, and all I get is excitement and enthusiasm for what we are doing in surface warfare. I am pleased with the progress we are making and the interest being generated not only within the surface warfare community but also on the part of the leadership of the Navy and beyond. We are headed in the right direction.
Proceedings: It sounds as though a great deal of intellectual effort is being exerted into ideas related to surface warfare. How will that translate into discussions over what the next large surface combatant will be?
Rowden: Certainly, it’s something I’m very interested in. As a matter of fact, there’s a war game going on as we speak that will add to that discussion. Getting the next large surface combatant right is critical to the nation. The reps and sets we are doing now in the task force will be critical in informing the future surface combatant.
Proceedings: It’s not a new story. The surface fleet, in particular, is strained under the demand that it has seen in the last 15–20 years—the idea of using this distributed lethality template to generate surface action groups and adaptive force packages and to start thinking about how to increase the lethal efficacy of these ships.
Rowden: I think it’s about sea control. Distributing the lethality of the force allows you not only to continue to win today, but well into the future. It ensures that our adversaries and potential adversaries understand that we have a Navy that can execute sea control well. To be able to do that and do it effectively, you have to be able to execute not only the defensive operations but also significant offensive operations. That’s really where we are going.
Proceedings: In thinking about potential adversaries, can you give us an idea of the types of systems that concern you?
Rowden: I think we need to worry about anything that challenges the peaceful use of the oceans. People want to use the ocean for a lot of different things. We are anchored in using it for peaceful purposes.
One of the things I’ve spent quite a bit of time on is ensuring that we in the surface force are doing everything we can to ensure we assist the Marine Corps in doing what it does. Former CNO [Admiral Jonathan] Greenert talked frequently about the U.S. Navy being the number-one joint warfighting partner of the U.S. Marine Corps. I would take that one step further to say that I believe, given that amphibious ships are in our bailiwick, the Marine Corps is certainly the number-one joint warfighting partner of the surface warfare and the surface mine community. I spend a lot of time not only on the manning, training, and equipping of our amphibious ships but also in ensuring that we are doing everything we can to properly support the Marines, a tremendous fighting force and partner.
It is a high honor to be the commander of the surface forces. The men and women we have serving today are the finest I’ve ever worked with. Their enthusiasm, spirit, and desire to always do the right thing buoys me up every single day. I am so proud of them and their contributions to our Navy and to our nation. Anybody who is feeling a little bit down should spend some time on our surface ships. You cannot help but walk away impressed with our men and women who are serving today.