Navy Leaders Prioritize Lethality for Surface Fleet

By Valerie Insinna

The Navy wants its surface ships to pack more of an offensive punch and aims to add more weapons, surveillance and targeting capabilities across the fleet, senior leaders said Jan. 13.

Every ship in the fleet needs to be able to engage adversaries when needed, and perhaps without the air protection provided by a carrier strike group, said Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander of naval surface forces and U.S. Pacific Fleet. This new concept, called “distributed lethality," is vital for a service that may be spread thin across various areas of responsibility such as the Asia-Pacific and Middle East.

“We're looking closely at the fleet as a system and identifying where the fruit is, low hanging or otherwise, so we can harvest it irrespective of ship size and type by adding weapons and sensors,” he said in a speech at the Surface Navy Association national symposium. "This is a smart play irrespective of the level of resourcing we receive, but [is] especially important against the vast backdrop of flat defense budgets.”

Rear Adm. Peter Fanta, director of the Navy’s surface warfare division, summarized the concept as “taking the budget we have and making everything out there that floats more lethal.”

The Navy does not have the time or money to greatly increase the size of its fleet or to wait for developmental technologies to emerge, he said. However, it can close existing capability gaps by buying off-the-shelf products and integrating them on platforms the Navy has, from surface ships to unmanned aircraft.

Distributed lethality contains both an architectural and operational element, Rowden said.  From an architecture standpoint, the Navy needs to “upgun” as many ships as possible. Then, it must operate those ships in new, complex ways that target enemies afloat and ashore.

For instance, the Navy plans to acquire a long-range anti-ship weapon that could be integrated on various classes, from destroyers to the littoral combat ship, he said.

"We need to think about this weapon as something we can backfit throughout the DDG fleet,” he said. “Perhaps this weapon, or one similar, can be both forward fit and backfit on our small surface combatants including the LCS.”

“But why stop there?" he asked. Perhaps amphibious and logistics ships could also benefit from a boost to their offensive capabilities. More analysis needs to be done to determine how the Navy would execute and fund this concept, Rowden said.

"The first thing that we have to do is we have to look at the weapons ... [and] the systems that currently exist and see what modifications that we could make to those systems to increase our offensive punch,” he said. Even without an investment in new weapons, the service could devise new tactics for making ships more lethal both in combined and individual operations.

The service already has plans to acquire about 20 modified littoral combat ships with features such as additional guns, better radar and electronic warfare capabilities, and over-the-horizon missiles.

In September, it fired a Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile from the USS Coronado, one of the Austal-built LCS variants. The missile successfully hit its intended mobile ship target, a Navy news release said.

Media outlets missed the point of the demonstration, Rowden said. More important than the act of launching a missile from the LCS were the wargames conducted earlier that year at the Naval War College. Rowden noted the red team identified the littoral combat ship as a real threat once they saw what it could do if equipped with a missile.

The red team “had the preconceived notion that they could walk in and they didn't have to be worried about LCS,” he said. “That wasn't the case after I put a 120-mile missile on that ship. They had to worry about them all the time because they could do real damage to that fleet."

Topics: Armaments, Gun and Missile, Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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