Is “Distributed Lethality” the Future of Naval Surface Warfare?

Media Coverage | March 15, 2016

In early 2015, U.S. Navy leaders announced a new strategic concept: “Distributed Lethality.” Often distilled to the phrase “every ship is a shooter” the concept sought to make a tactical shift which would see the surface fleet reorganized and reequipped to allow it to go on the offensive. 

The Diplomat spoke to William J Parker III, the Chief Operating Officer of the EastWest Institute and a former Surface Warfare Officer with combat experience spanning three decades. Having commanded three warships, as well as Destroyer Squadron 23, and serving as the Chief of Staff for Naval Surface Forces, Parker was one of the minds behind the Distributed Lethality concept. A year into this shift, many in the Asia‐Pacific are curious about the regional impact of this change in the character of U.S. naval strategy.

The U.S. Navy’s Distributed Lethality concept has been simply summarized as “every ship is a shooter.” Can you in your own words describe the concept to The Diplomat readers in layman terms? Is there a historic precedent for it in the history of surface naval warfare?

Distributed Lethality is about having such overwhelming offensive superiority that no potential threat would consider attacking. And if for some reason they did attack, they would lose decisively and rapidly. Distributed Lethality returns the surface navy to its most fundamental instincts as warfighters. The concept is intuitive and has a long historical precedent, dating back thousands of years to some of the earliest strategic writings. Distributed Lethality has three basic tenets.

The first involves increasing the offensive lethality of ships; that’s the “every ship is a shooter” statement that you’ve heard summarized. Simply stated, to defeat an adversary, one must take the offensive. To take the offensive against a highly capable adversary, one must consider the tools needed to fight and win. The relevance of this is engrained in modern experiences in naval warfare. For example, Captain Arleigh Burke and his famous destroyers of DESRON 23 met numerous Japanese destroyers at the Battle of Cape St. George in November 1943, sank the Japanese ships named Onami, Yuguri and Makinami, then ran off the transport destroyers and the Amigiri and finally damaged the Uzuki. It was Admiral Burke’s pre‐planned offensive doctrine that consisted of coordinated night attacks with offensive weapons while using what was at the time more advanced radar that ultimately forged decisive results in an environment wrought with risk and uncertainty. So that’s the “lethality” part.

The second part involves distributing offensive capability geographically. This is another idea that is underpinned by centuries of strategic insights. This is the idea of forcing the adversary to prepare to defend itself at several points. Intuitively, this forces an opponent to account for more lethal threats from many different directions. Every potential adversary has finite resources available to track and neutralize our forces. By distributing our offensively‐capable force, his resources are strained and his ability to target any one threat is diminished. This is how, with Distributed Lethality, we create alternative lines of influence and inject uncertainty into an adversary’s plans and operations.

The third tenet involves giving ships the right mix of resources to increase their staying time in a fight. This means enhancing the defensive capability of ships, not just to withstand multiple anti‐ship cruise missile (ASCM) attacks, but attacks in multiple salvos from many directions, and in many dimensions. In other words, we must harden the force against attacks from cyber, undersea, air, space, and in the electromagnetic spectrum. This is also drawn from even our most basic instinct as warfighters, and that is to prepare and rely on our readiness to repel and defeat the enemy.

What drove the development of Distributed Lethality? Burgeoning Iranian, Chinese, Russian A2/AD capabilities? A realization that the U.S. Navy will have to find a way to maintain its global firepower amidst growing budgetary limitations? A combination of the two? Was the growing sophistication of Chinese and Russian longrange anti-ship weapons the single most important driving force behind the development of DL?

Distributed Lethality is not reactionary to any specific nation or region. But it is important to take a look at history and how it impacted where we are today. In the years that followed the Cold War, there was no realistic blue water adversary to the United States. The peace dividend drove us towards looking at other ways to use our Navy. That “dividend” has been spent through time. Today, our conventional deterrence must be global; and the global challenges are very real. That reality is that we are witnessing improvements in capabilities that threaten naval forces at increasingly longer ranges with state of the art anti‐ship ballistic and cruise missiles, integrated and layered sensor systems and targeting networks, long range bombers, advanced fighter aircraft, submarines, mines, advanced integrated air defenses, and enhanced electronic warfare, cyber and space‐based technologies, all potentially focused to deny the United States and its allies access to the maritime domain, and the ability to project power from it. Distributing and enhancing offensive and defensive capability makes our force more resilient; provides greater options to the commanders, and it makes the adversaries’ problem more difficult to resolve.

How is Distributed Lethality affecting the development of new weapons technology in the U.S. Navy?

Distributed Lethality is as much an organizing concept as it is an operational one. It doesn’t just align and guide the development of the right weapons, sensors and platforms, but also guides the development of the right talent, right training and the right tactics for our warfighters.

What are likely Chinese and Russian countermoves to offset Distributed Lethality?

This is not about any specific nation or threat. Distributed lethality is about U.S interests and ensuring that our Navy will never leave a doubt in the minds of Americans, and in the minds of our friends and allies that we can and will operate to maintain freedom of maneuver and access, uphold internationally accepted laws and norms, deter conflict and if that fails, to fight and win in any environment.

Is the Distributed Lethality concept further contributing to an already growing naval arms race, particularly in the AsiaPacific?

I don’t think so. We must try to avoid oversimplifying the challenging dynamics in those regions. What I see with Distributed Lethality is an organizing and operational warfighting concept that has positive benefits to deter any future aggressor from perceiving that its higher order objectives can be achieved through force. I believe the tenets of Distributed Lethality apply friction against belligerent aggression or coercion on the seas, which are the lifeblood of the global economy and paramount to the core interests of the United States. Distributed Lethality doesn’t perpetuate a zero‐sum game. In fact, I see it as a reassurance to friends and allies and as a means to discourage nations that use intimidation on the seas to attempt to assert their influence over others.

Will Distributed Lethality detrimentally affect military to military relations with the Chinese and Russian navies?

Again, Distributed Lethality is not about defeating any particular nation or potential threat. It’s not a zero sum game. Engagement, interaction and deterrence should all be part of a holistic scheme for stability. Continued engagement to promote security and the continued prosperity in these regions will improve communication and build a stronger enterprise for preventing tactical miscalculations that could have strategic impacts. It is imperative that there be mechanisms to deter conflict. Miscalculations are more likely if one nation does not understand the capability or intent of another. Strong and obvious capabilities make the potential for miscalculations less likely.

Is Distributed Lethality also partially influenced by the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet desire to showcase its continuing relevance as a warfighting tool, rather than a mere auxiliary for aircraft carrier and amphibious assault operations?

That is an interesting question. When we go to sea (above, below or on the water) we do it as a team. This individuality stuff of SWOs, Aviators and Submariners being at odds with one another may be fun for outsiders to dream about or write movies about—but it stops there. For those of us who have gone to sea together to fight and win America’s wars, it’s not about the designator on your uniform or even the flag on your sleeve (for our friends and allies who we stand alongside). It is about winning!

Distributed Lethality is about the realities of today and tomorrow. It’s about countering potential adversary’s anti‐access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies by holding his forces at risk‐at range, and limiting their options for escalating conflict, while simultaneously making our Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs), Amphibious Ready Groups (ARGs) and Surface Action Groups (SAGs) harder to find, harder to kill, and more lethal. It’s about learning faster. Ultimately, Distributed Lethality is about sea power and power projection and how we operate. I don’t buy in to any assertion that this is anything other than that.

Distributed Lethality is about the surface force responding to a changed security environment and getting a jump on the threat. It’s about making the best use of the ship‐based real‐estate in which the people of the United States invest handsomely and the surface force providing a more powerful element of the total Navy conventional deterrent. Distributed Lethality is about adding to the effectiveness of the premier power projection platform in the U.S. Military—the aircraft carrier—by reducing its vulnerability by diluting and spreading an adversary’s ability to track and locate it. No—this isn’t an ego thing. This is about a group of people who realize that the long strategic pause is over; and that it is time to get serious about flexible, lethal, distributed power projection again.

Click here to read this piece on The Diplomat (paywall).