The 2015 Proceedings article “Distributed Lethality” outlined the theory that came to define the surface Navy in the second decade of this century.1 In essence, the premise is that surface ships as individual units may engage the enemy independently of the carrier strike group. As distributed lethality took shape—the first major shift in surface tactics since the dawn of the aircraft carrier at the end of World War I—new antiair and antisurface weapons appeared, including the laser weapon system (LaWS), extended range surface missiles, and other over-the-horizon projectiles such as the railgun fires.2 This change in technology and tactics necessitates a corresponding adjustment in leadership methodology, the principle of distributed authority. The concept is simple: commanding officers (COs) must be empowered to fight their ships independently and break from the current leadership model in the carrier strike groups. Building ships that are more capable to fight surface battles will be for naught if the COs are not granted the authority to fight more autonomously. When our nation finds itself at war with a near-peer adversary, it will be the duty of all COs to fight their ships to their full potential. Not allowing them the latitude to do so would be a grave error.
Lessons from History
The Battle of Trafalgar, fought between the French and British navies in 1805, is one of the most storied naval clashes in history. Even though the British, led by Lord Horatio Nelson, faced a French force superior in numbers, Nelson’s victory was not achieved through only tactics—it was also through leadership. The inherent trust that Nelson placed in each of his subordinate leaders was demonstrated in the simplicity of his final order before the battle: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” His strategy was to rely primarily on each CO under his command. Because of this, he had no need to outline specific plans for each unit. The latitude he provided the ships under his command allowed the British more flexibility, ultimately leading to the defeat of the French force.3 This example illustrates a successful implementation of distributing authority principles in a naval force.
Another historic lesson is illustrated when authority in battle is not distributed. In the Battle of Chancellorsville, Union forces led by General Joseph Hooker outnumbered Confederate forces nearly two to one.4 General Hooker laid out a vast telegraph system through his lines, planning to communicate each move to his units as the battle progressed. History remembers Hooker’s confidence in his quote: “My plans are perfect. May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.”5 But then, early in the battle Hooker’s forces were caught off guard by an unexpected attack from rebel forces led by Stonewall Jackson.
Paralyzed while waiting for orders from Hooker on how to respond, the Union forces were defeated handily and ultimately forced to retreat. Confederate forces won the battle because they (specifically Stonewall Jackson) were given the authority to fight largely unencumbered by higher authority. On the other hand, the Union was defeated because of to the vast command infrastructure Hooker had created, resulting in a lack of autonomy among subordinate commanders. The Union subordinate commanders had little to no authority over the troops they commanded. They were merely proxies for Hooker, who commanded far from the field of battle.
Changes in the Leadership Equation
The initiative for a more lethal surface force has catalyzed change in the Navy beyond the areas of warfare and tactics. In administration, the Bureau of Personnel for Surface Warfare Officers has begun the process of completely revamping the surface officers’ career pipeline, which has been devoid of change since the 1970s.6 The aim is to retain the most talented and tactically proficient junior officers to become leaders, rather than the most willing. Successful and ambitious young officers are now offered various opportunities to attend graduate school before beginning their follow-on tours. Other initiatives include the Warfare Tactics Instructor program, developed separately by the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center to bring tactical development to the forefront of naval training.7
The distributed lethality movement should not, however, stop there. We must continue to explore how one of the biggest changes in Navy tactics will affect the Navy’s fundamental combat leadership principles. The service’s current command-and-control (C2) construct has grown upon itself for decades and has a complex hierarchical architecture about which Navy leadership frequently boasts in multi-page flow chart illustrations. For well-established carrier strike groups, this C2 model has become an effective way to fight and win conflicts. But the impact that a similar construct would have on distributed lethality units may be startling.
The administrative processes associated with the Navy’s composite warfare commander (CWC) model, which can be a combat bureaucracy, will suffocate the advances of distributed lethality. A similarly spread-out leadership style is what is needed to fully realize the benefits of a more dispersed fleet. Along with the lethal capability of each individual surface unit, leadership and authority must be more distributed. The fundamentals of distributed lethality will require COs to fight their ships without hesitation or higher approval, thereby demanding a more distributed CWC model. Rapid engagement of the enemy can only be achieved when authority is shared among individual COs and the red tape of combat bureaucracy is removed. Attempting to implement distributed lethality without considering leadership implications will result in stagnation of the positive changes that the movement has achieved.
21st Century Delegation of Authority
During a 2015 joint exercise conducted in the Philippine Sea, surface ships simulated an open-ocean battle aimed primarily at testing the effectiveness of tactics developed through distributed lethality. One of the primary methods in question involved the idea that a small group of surface ships could break from the main body and operate independently of the strike group as a hunter-killer surface action group (SAG). This became feasible only after the distributed-lethality conversation had begun and new weapons provided surface ships with more offensive capability. During the exercise, two ships broke off from the main body with very broad orders. Their mission was to inflict as much damage as possible to enemy forces before being detected and, many assumed, killed, because they would not have the air support that aircraft carriers provide.
But when the wargame dust had settled, it became clear that the carrier air wing fighter jets had not inflicted the most damage to the enemy. Instead, the two-ship SAG had eliminated more enemy units from the battle than all the other elements combined. As much as the warfare tactics of individual ships were under assessment, so too—perhaps unknowingly—was the replacement of the CWC infrastructure with distributed authority. Rather than inhibiting the SAG from being successful, the lack of combat bureaucracy associated with the carrier strike group actually facilitated more effective engagements. The equipment and weapons on board came about directly as a result of distributed lethality, but without implementing the leadership principles of distributed authority, the SAG would certainly not have been as successful at employing those weapons.
How to Proceed
The march toward a more lethally distributed Navy will continue. If we are to make the most of this progression, we must begin to change our way of thinking about leadership in combat at the highest levels of the service. From a junior officer perspective, implementation of distributed authority appears to break down into three steps:
• Stop the culture of micromanagement. This environment breeds a sense of distrust among subordinate leaders. Gallup found that disengagement among employees, as a direct cause of micromanagement, cost the average 10,000-person company more than $600,000 annually in salary for days during which no work was performed.8 In the military sphere, the monetary effects of micromanagement translate to battles won and lost. The effects of micromanagement can trickle from the highest levels of leadership down to the deckplates. Micromanagement breeds more micromanagement, and its presence is the absence of distributed authority—which cannot thrive in cultures that foster micromanagement and develop distrust.
In today’s combat arena, operating in a communications-denied or -degraded environment is almost a certainty. Our CWC structure is sure to crumble when its crutch of perfect information is removed. We must pull out this crutch in day-to-day training. With more distributed authority comes greater ability to operate in communications-degraded environments as specific orders directed down the chain and permission to execute orders directed up the chain become less necessary. Absolute implicit trust of COs is a prerequisite for distributed authority to proceed.
• Empower ship COs with greater individual authority. Once we start to eliminate the imperious-management aspect of the military chain of command, we can begin to work toward a more truly shared form of leadership. In peacetime it is difficult to discuss with specificity how this can take form, because most of the examples have occurred during wartime. One of the best ways to implement this step is to allow experimentation during scenarios, exercises, and simulations of combat. Implicit trust cannot and should not just be granted. Rather, COs should be given the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to fight independently in a distributed authority model during simulations of battle. The frequency with which we simulate conflicts provides us ample opportunity to allow COs to test theories and tactics against one another and begin to develop distributed lethality tactics as well as sharpening them against one another.
• Implement distributed authority. Distributed lethality has begun. The distributed authority leadership model has some catching up to do. Once this ball begins to roll, we must ensure we do not allow it to stop. As swiftly as the tactics of distributed lethality have been brought to the forefront, so too should the principles of distributed authority be implemented throughout the fleet. Ship COs prove again and again that they are ready. Will we give them the chance?
The distributed lethality movement is the single greatest push the U.S. surface Navy has undertaken in more than 70 years to improve its tactics. It must not fail if we are to meet the CNO’s objectives for 21st-century sea power; however, we must also realize the implications that this change will have for the surface fleet’s leadership. In this regard, we have yet to grapple with and address the complexities involved if the concept of distributed lethality is to succeed. We must embrace distributed authority.
From the Battle of Trafalgar to the Battle of Chancellorsville, history begs us to not forget lessons learned. Micromanaging in combat leads to lost battles and wars. Decisions are best made by the men and women leading from the front line. We must lead like Lord Nelson to preserve U.S. sea power throughout this century.
1. Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, and Rear Admmiral Peter Fanta, U.S. Navy, “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 141, no. 1 (January 2015): 18–23.
2. Kris Osborn, “U.S. Navy Develops Laser Weapon Prototypes for Destroyers, Cruisers (and Maybe Carriers),” The National Interest, 14 September 2016.
3. Andrew Lambert, “The Battle of Trafalgar,” British History, History, BBC, 17 February 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/trafalgar_01.shtml.
4. “Chancellorsville,” Civil War Trust, http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/chancellorsville.html?tab=facts.
5. Joseph Cullen, Battle of Chancellorsville (Lakeville, CT: Grey Castle Press, 1989), 14.
6. “SWO Career Planner,” Navy Personnel Command, http://www.public.navy.mil/BUPERS-NPC/OFFICER/DETAILING/SURFACEWARFARE/CAREERINFO/Pages/SWOCareerPlanner.aspx.
7. “Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center Established at Naval Base San Diego,” Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center Public Affairs, Navy.mil, 10 June 2015, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=87578.
8. Rodd Wagner and James K. Hartner, 12: The Elements of Great Managing (New York: Gallup Press, 2006).