After nearly two and a half decades, the United States is facing a return to great competition from near-peer adversaries with advanced military technologies. While our forces are rising to the challenge, the extensive investment in military capability by our potential enemies requires our naval leaders to revisit our tactics and doctrine to prepare for the fight of tomorrow. As information-age technologies find their way into weapon systems and greatly expand the battlefield, our surface Navy must be capable of meeting the enemy and executing a strategy based not primarily on carrier operations, but on the dispersal of our forces. This will require a culture shift within leadership to place more trust in, and provide more training opportunities for, those in command at sea to carry out commander’s intent.
To this end, the Navy’s Distributed Lethality Task Force (DLTF) held a summit and tabletop exercise in May 2016 that brought together warfighters, scholars, and industry representatives for a series of discussions on innovative tactics development. DLTF director Captain Joe Cahill charged participants with looking to the future to consider how we would fight with a more offensive mind-set, leveraging current and future technologies. The evaluation required a significant change from the current warfighting mentality in the surface fleet, as we largely have trained with a defensive posture since the fall of the Soviet Union. Our core competencies today revolve around protecting a high-value unit and surviving waves of small boat attacks or missile raids. The underlying assumption has been that we would be operating in a reactionary manner, and, as a result, our forces rarely practice large-scale blue-water battles. More frequently, we train to small war-at-sea exercises in the littoral environment against two or three ships, with limited targeting and deception options at our disposal. This is not our warfighting future.
DLTF is looking to revolutionize the offensive fight through three tenets: deceive, target, and destroy. While these may seem obvious, rarely do end-user tacticians put a high level of thought into the first two principles. For example, we rely heavily on organic sensors for targeting when it comes to surface action group tactics. Until recently, we rarely practiced complete or lengthy emissions control (EMCON) because of the significant challenges it presented to our command-and-control (C2) construct. Our future with distributed lethality will give us more options to remain at EMCON even in an antiship cruise missile threat environment.
Distributed lethality is a new approach to fighting and winning in the maritime domain, and DLTF is looking at how we leverage technologies to deceive and target without leaving ourselves vulnerable to counterdetection. What if we could wage an offensive campaign without our emissions leaving us vulnerable to targeting? What if we could fight from a standoff range outside our enemy’s weapon release capability that allowed us to concentrate effort on destroying the enemy and not just on self-defense? Consider projecting sea power without the aircraft carrier and air wing. What about missiles on amphibious ships or other platforms that previously had no antisurface offensive capability? As more lethal forces are added and dispersed, countering becomes a nightmare for an adversary. This is the essence of distributed lethality—wage a naval campaign with a dispersed force by arming our commanding officers with lethal deception, targeting, and destruction capabilities and clear commander’s guidance.
The path to true distributed lethality depends greatly on a commanding officer’s ability to execute commander’s intent. To achieve large disaggregated operations in an antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) environment, we must start to rely on autonomy as a strategy. A commanding officer must be empowered to make the decisions necessary to command his or her ship with little or no guidance from higher headquarters prior to, and especially upon, the commencement of hostilities. Our C2 and composite warfare concept (CWC) doctrine was developed to allow for command by negation, but it is not executed to the extent possible because of intrusive oversight and control from the chain of command. One might think this is a recent concern brought on by information-sharing technologies like chat or video teleconference. However, micromanagement has existed for years. Admiral Ernest King addressed this concern in CINCLANT Serial 053 in 1941: “I have been concerned for many years over the increasing tendency—now grown almost to ‘standard practice’—of flag officers and other group commanders to issue orders and instruction in which their subordinates are told ‘how’ as well as ‘what’ to do to such extent and in such detail that the ‘Custom of service’ has virtually become the antithesis of that essential element of command—‘initiative of the subordinate.’”
In World War II, the learning curve for commanding officers was steep and attrition was accepted, but so was independence of action. In the fight of tomorrow, as distributed lethality is implemented, our commanding officers will be expected to be able to carry out a mission simply by understanding commander’s intent and the desired end-state. We should expect to have the ability to wage a strike from an EMCON posture where we may not have been able to before. Commander, Naval Surface Forces, the Chief of Naval Operations Surface Warfare Directorate (OPNAV N96), and DLTF are working to ensure the capabilities will be there; now we need to enable our commanders to carry out the mission with those tools.
The question we must ask ourselves is whether today’s commanding officers are prepared to operate outside the umbrella of a commodore and destroyer squadron staff. There is no formal training to lead a surface action group. Have commanding officers been imbued with the necessary skills, independent thought, and toughness to operate under the distributed lethality construct? The answer from many commanding officers may be a resounding yes! However, rarely are those executing the mission also the primary planners. While they may have the toughness and the skills, tactical-level use of the Navy planning process has never been required. Perhaps the better question now will be whether our staffs will be able to convey the necessary information for proper mission analysis and then have the discipline and trust to allow a subordinate to carry out the mission without close control.
We need to inculcate our tactical leaders with an ethos where mission control rather than close control is the norm and ensure this notion is accepted by our operational-level leaders. This is a move outside our comfort zone. Nonetheless, this culture shift is vital to facilitate our ability to fight from a distributed lethality posture.
During the DLTF summit there were many discussions about the employment of current and future technologies and how we can be better warfighters, tacticians, and leaders. One issue that arose repeatedly was the lack of autonomy; it became a sticking point as we looked to how we would leverage new technologies. One of the most interesting portions of the summit was a question-and-answer session with a panel of experts speaking on distributed lethality concepts and future challenges. One member of the audience asked how we could possibly execute such a concept if staffs were operating with such a detailed level of control that they were issuing rudder and engine orders over chat. When the audience was asked if anyone else had experienced a similar level of control, an eye-opening number of hands flew up. It seems this level of micromanagement has been a commonplace across the fleet for some time. The question is why? Some might say we have a zero-defect mentality in the surface community and everyone is afraid of being fired. Some might say our juniors lack the experience to operate without the oversight. While the cause is beyond the scope of this piece, its effects have an incredible impact. We fear what we cannot control, and it will limit our ability to maintain a key advantage in a distributed fight.
The capabilities that will be delivered to the fleet in the near future are sensational. The list of technologies discussed at the DLTF summit was extensive and included the introduction of long-range surface strike weapons and targeting assets. So why does more autonomy matter now? We have to ask ourselves how we would fight in a blue-water engagement with a near-peer adversary once these capabilities are delivered to the fleet. It is unlikely a task force commander would choose to remain aggregated if there were a high likelihood of remaining undetected and untargeted by diffusing the force.
There always has been risk in keeping a task force consolidated as an engagement by one ship generally reveals the location of the larger screening force. By dispersing the ships in smaller groups, we increase our ability to deceive the enemy and force him to dispatch search assets in a veritable game of Battleship to attempt to find every shooter. According to Captain Scott Robertson, commanding officer of the USS Normandy (CG-60) and a recently deployed air and missile defense commander, “While distributed lethality may remove some of the traditional layered defense surrounding a high-value unit, the gain is huge for deceiving potential adversaries and stressing their ability to target. Now add better means to target passively and longer range, smart weapons on this widespread force and the result is a new level of power projection and sea control.”
Doing this, however, requires clearly delineating the commander’s intent at the lowest level and the freedom to carry out that mission without the need or requirement to receive specific direction. Our joint professional military education courses, tabletop exercises, and the military planning process indoctrinate us with this concept and its importance, but in reality, rarely do we allow our subordinate commanders to carry out the tasks without an approved detailed concept of operations or an execution brief to the staff. This applies to many levels and subjects—not just operational tasking. Neither the time nor the means to communicate those briefs may be available in a large-scale campaign as the plan changes based on enemy reactions, and we don’t train on executing the mission absent detailed direction. The responsibility for operational planning when outside tactical control of the destroyer squadron or strike group will fall on a surface action group commander (a ship’s commanding officer), operations officer, and/or the newly introduced plans and tactics officer. Robertson adds, “The ability to take commander’s intent, which could be just a few words in some cases, and translate it into mission action takes skill . . . practiced skill.”
So how do we build a means to train to this level? A continued investment in high-end training simulators and the introduction of realistic training scenarios similar to what prospective submarine commanding officers encounter during the submarine commander’s course may be the first step to instilling the experience and decision-making skills in tactical-level commanders. Achieving high-velocity learning will be critical to success. Being thrust into challenging tactical scenarios, where the captain is told what needs to be accomplished and then charged to plan and execute the mission, will spark a new level of thinking essential for success in distributed operations. As lower-level tactical watchstanders become more involved with the planning process on a unit level, they will better understand the mission and be able to more aptly fight the ship absent detailed direction. Notionally, once ships are trained to operate with more autonomy, leaders up the chain will have more trust in those assets to carry out the mission, and the hesitation that might initially have hindered the shift in culture will be overcome. Competence begets confidence, and tougher, more frequent training will be paramount to both ends.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson recently released Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority. It echoes most of the sentiments one would expect from overarching fighting guidance, with one addition: toughness. This notion of toughness plays into the concept of distributed lethality; we may take the first hit, but our enemy will pay for taking that shot. The countersalvo will be swift, devastating, and from every direction. The concept alone creates a new age of conventional strategic deterrence whereby our enemies will fear striking first. They will know, even in an A2/AD environment, not only that they are being targeted constantly, but also that our commanders have the authority to fight the campaign when the time comes. It is an operating posture that will wreak havoc on the decision-making loop of our adversaries. A2/AD will become somewhat obsolete because its effects essentially will be overcome by targeting through other means—smart weapons that can discriminate targets despite jamming or uplink/downlink, and an acceptable latency with communications to higher headquarters. Warriors who are empowered to engage and have the capability to do so when required will be inherently tougher and able to meet the CNO’s vision.
As the tactics to use emerging technologies morph over the coming years, there are bound to be growing pains and uncertainty as we rediscover our roots in decentralized command and control. The takeaway as we move forward, however, is that distributed lethality cannot exist without distributed authority. This will be an uncomfortable culture change for some and in contrast to the new norm of instant information sharing. It means empowering naval officers to lead in the truest sense, revitalizing one of the proudest precepts of the burden of command at sea through greater autonomy. Increased lethality is on the horizon; commander’s intent has never been more critical, and finding a higher level of toughness in our sailors is a leadership priority.
Get excited about distributed lethality and be prepared for a shift in culture and tactics to accompany the newest technology over the next decade. These will keep the Navy the most capable and deadly force the world has ever seen.
Commander’s intent: Go seek the enemy and destroy the same.