Distributed Lethality and the Importance of Ship Repair

In the post-Cold War era, the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet has been operating around three general concepts: carrier strike group defensive protection, land-attack missions, and ballistic missile defense. In the absence of a blue water adversary, and few contested areas, the Pentagon emphasized these cost-saving and efficient concepts in an attempt to overcome an evolving threat environment. With the upsurge in near-peer competitors and the Pivot to the Pacific policy, the Navy’s surface community began to examine the new challenges posed by potential adversaries. They found the most significant challenge to the surface community in the Pacific was potential adversary’s anti-access/area denial capabilities (A2/AD).[1] Specifically, with China’s recent assertive posture in the Pacific theater, this aggressiveness is amplified with A2/AD capabilities that consist of advanced counter-maritime systems designed to destroy critical U.S. surface naval assets.[2] The surface community explored options for joint force contribution with a shrinking budget steering much of the conversation. The culmination of more than three years of research led the surface community to introduce a new concept of operations called distributed lethality.[3] This doctrinal shift to a more offensive posture will require Navy leadership to address the likelihood of an upsurge in battle damage, leading to the need for more focus on the maintenance and recovery process of our maritime platforms.

This article will define and explain the idea of distributed lethality. It will delve into how the Navy currently repairs its ships in the Pacific theater, as well as discuss recent case studies describing Navy battle damage and how the service  responds to it.   The discussion will close with some options on how to improve the time needed to repair ships in this new operational environment.

The USS Cole towed away from the port city of Aden, Yemen, into open sea by the tug USNS Catawba. (Sgt. Don L. Maes/USMC Photo)

What is Distributed Lethality?

Training and equipping ships for offensive surface combat action was a low priority in the three decades following the Cold War. In January 2015, that concept changed with the introduction of distributed lethality by top leaders in the surface community. Distributed lethality was to become the newest paradigm shift in offensive surface combat, aimed at ensuring joint force contribution and preparing the fleet for future conflicts.

Distributed lethality is a shift to offensive sea control and relies upon breaking up the traditional surface fleet defensive forces into smaller hunter-killer offensive surface action groups of three to four combined U.S. and allied vessels.[4] Using a budget-conscious approach, much like the one introduced in 2012 by the Chief of Naval Operations called “Payloads over Platforms,” the top ranking surface warfare officers in the Navy developed the concept of distributed lethality to increase the offensive potential of surface ships and shift the burden of defensive considerations to adversary navies.[5] It is also designed to enable concealment and deception in order to inject uncertainty and complexity for adversaries targeting.[6] The concept of distributed lethality is aimed at a budget-sensitive strategy for employing new weapons and platforms capabilities. By adding new capabilities to existing platforms, the surface community will be able to keep prices down and maximize the potential of existing systems.[7] In the past, the Navy designed new platforms around existing, or future, weapons systems. Distributed lethality calls for the opposite approach; it calls for the service to place new weapons on existing platforms, thereby potentially saving billions of dollars. The primary method for increasing offensive capabilities to existing platforms is adding medium to long-range surface-to-surface missiles to platforms that previously employed short-range missiles or lacked surface attack missiles altogether.

The U.S. surface fleet is a learning and adaptive organization. Civilian and military perceptions of the strategic maritime environment in the Pacific have led the U.S. surface fleet to focus their tactical proficiency and operational readiness on defeating A2/AD by assuring joint force contribution. The concept design of distributed lethality is simple: a paradigm shift from a defensive to an offensive posture. By adding offensive capabilities to ships that were previously benign to adversaries’ fleets, the U.S. Navy has greatly increased the number of problems the enemy has to track.[8] If, for example, every Littoral Combat Ship, USNS resupply ship, Mobile Landing Platform, prepositioning ship, Joint High Speed Vessel, etc., were to become an offensive threat, the adversary would be forced to devote their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to all these platforms and the U.S. forces would essentially dilute or exhaust the enemy’s targeting ability. By fundamentally changing their approach to combat and how they present their naval forces, the surface navy will influence potential adversaries’ ideas about U.S. centers of gravity and force them to contemplate new defensive considerations.

...distributed lethality means distributed vulnerability

There is a trade-off when employing a change in tactical operations from defensive to offensive, including an inherent increase in vulnerability involved in spreading forces. Put another way, distributed lethality means distributed vulnerability. Distributed lethality could be a hard pill to swallow when senior leader conversations turn to U.S. ships taking damage because of the new paradigm shift. Currently, there is a gap in existing literature and thought about the increased risk to U.S. ships as a result of  the distributed lethality concept.

Since distributed lethality means distributed vulnerability, the Navy must consider the ramifications of surface ships taking damage and how best to conduct expeditionary repair (i.e., the ability to swiftly repair naval ships that take on battle damage). The Navy has neglected expeditionary repair in their defensive-centric post-Cold War maritime strategy and operations. Considering the formation of hunter-killer surface action groups called for by the distributed lethality concept, the loss in mission effectiveness of a single ship could mean a loss of 33% of the entire group. Or, if only one ship in the group is capable of a particular type of warfare—anti-submarine warfare for instance—the loss of that one ship leaves the rest of the surface action group  vulnerable to undersea threats.

How the Navy Repairs Battle Damage to Surface Forces

The United States Navy repairs its ships in foreign ports routinely when those ships sustain damage during the course of a deployment.  These repairs address damage other than battle damage. One example of this in the Pacific theater is the Cam Ranh Military Port in Vietnam. Captain Schlise, former Commodore for Destroyer Squadron 3, believes the U.S. Navy’s demand for repairs is on the rise and U.S. ships will continue to be repaired abroad in foreign ports, if they can meet demands.[9] The Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung stated that the port is used as a technical logistics base providing repair and maintenance services for seagoing vessels, including submarines, from all around the world in addition to its military purposes.[10]

Damaged by a mine in the Persian Gulf, the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts is transported by MV Mighty Servant 2 from Dubai to Newport, Rhode Island. (Photographer's Mate 2nd Class D. Kevin Elliott/U.S. Navy Photo)

Recent history suggests that U.S. repair to battle damage takes ships out of military action for a long period of time. Case studies to support this statement are the USS Samuel B. Roberts mine strike in 1988 and the attack on USS Cole in 2000. In the case of the Samuel B. Roberts, when the vessel was struck by the mine and conducted its immediate damage control repairs to stop from sinking in the Middle East, the ship was loaded onto a heavy-lift floating dry-dock ship and transported all the way back to Newport, Rhode Island for its repair. The voyage took over 45 days and the ship had to wait three months until it was dry docked and underwent  over 7 months of repair work.[11] A single incident removed this ship from service for 15 months. The case is similar when looking at the USS Cole which, after being attacked in 2000, was out of service for 14 months.[12] In both cases, this method from travel to repair of U.S. battle damaged ships would be extremely detrimental when ships are re-organized into small hunter-killer surface action groups.

In the case of distributed lethality, or more importantly, distributed vulnerability, the doctrinal shift will lead to a rise in battle damage for naval warships. Keeping the rebalance to the Pacific in mind, the U.S. Navy currently uses four repair facilities best positioned to repair ships that receive battle damage in the Pacific: Guam, San Diego, Everett, and Pearl Harbor,[13] as well as a joint U.S.-Japanese ship repair service in Yokosuka, Japan.[14] The U.S. Navy continues to repair heavily damaged ships in U.S. repair facilities and only conduct emergent work in ports like Cam Ranh Military Port in Vietnam.[15] With the exception of Japan, the repair facilities in foreign ports lack the capability to repair battle damage, but these ports can repair emergent work that occurs during a routine deployment.  Because of the assertion that distributed lethality will cause a rise in battle damage, and with only two major repair facilities owned by the United States outside of the continental United States, there will be a delay in repairing the ships due to the lack the repair ports compared to the potential rise in battle damage. So far, distributed lethality does not address the resultant logistical requirement for an increase in battle damage repairs.

USS Blue Ridge in the Naval Ship Repair Facility dry dock located in Yokosuka, Japan. (Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Lowell Whitman/U.S. Navy Photo)

Propositions to Accelerate Ship Repair from Battle Damage in Support of Distributed Lethality Doctrine

To cope with naval forces incurring damage while being spread throughout the Pacific during an active conflict, a number of cost-effective options can mitigate the shortfall in battle damage repair capacity. The U.S. Navy could convert submarine tenders into dual-purpose surface and submarine repair vessels. Since the end of WWII, the U.S. Navy has slowly decommissioned most of these ships leaving only two commissioned vessels left in service.[16] Already stationed in the Pacific, these vessels can be converted into a dual purpose attack vessel—to suit the needs of the distributed lethality—as well as be refitted to assist vessels in dire need for repair from battle damage.

Another option that can mitigate distributed vulnerability is the creation of modular facilities temporarily hosted on an existing vessel. This could be done by using non-specialized vessels and adding containerized intermodal (ISO) containers that hold work/repair stations, supplies, and stores for immediate assistance. In the same vein, the Navy could convert commercial vessels into repair ships. Commercial conversions have been used repeatedly throughout history, ranging from cruise liners, container ships, Roll-on/Roll-off (Ro-Ro) ships, and cable ships. All vary in size and have distinct advantages and disadvantages concerning space for workshops, specialized personnel, auxiliary systems, and accommodation of rescued individuals. During the Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom (UK), the UK utilized both of these strategies to ensure logistics would cover all forces deployed on the other side of the world.[17] Though these actions were a short term solution to a war that came unexpectedly, a similar action could mitigate the long term timeline for repair from battle damage under distributed lethality.

Another significant recommendation could be for the Navy to keep close track on heavy lift flow on, flow off vessels. These floating dry-docks were used repeatedly in WWII and have since been decommissioned and are limited in active service. The Navy often utilizes floating dry docks by commercially owned companies. During peacetime, it is incumbent on the Navy to keep assured charter arrangements in place to guarantee their availability on short notice. During wartime, the navy could purchase these commercial vessels for use by the Navy.

Lastly, the Navy could convert Expeditionary Transfer Docks (ESDs), formerly Mobile Landing Platforms (MLPs), into repair ships. The ESD’s primary mission is to serve as an in-between point for Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) and similar vessels for amphibious warships to land. These vessels are based on the flow on, flow off vessels. There are currently three commissioned ESDs with five more contracted to be built.[18] The Navy could re-examine the current design to include a simple conversion from a purely amphibious warfare design to include conversion into a repair ship.

USNS Montford Point (T-ESD-1) and USNS John Glenn (T-ESD-2) pass each other near San Diego in 2014. (NASSCO photo)


When Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden introduced the concept of distributed lethality in 2015, he set about to overcome the hurdle presented by our adversaries in A2/AD. One year after its inception, with an increase in budgetary constraints, the Navy reported improvement in general offensive capabilities, “[I]nstead of coming up with a single bright shiny object, add a little a little bit of technology to each weapon . . . [there is] a different way of gluing together the sensors and weapons we have.”[19] These incremental improvements are a step in the right direction to prepare against potential adversaries. However, to fully prepare for the long term using distributed lethality, the Navy will need to be prepared to repair ships that take battle damage in an expeditionary manner.

Christopher Cedros is a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy. He received his bachelor's in Political Science and Government from the University of Florida and his Master’s in National Security Affairs from the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S Government.

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Header Image: U.S. Navy Photo


[1] B.J. Armstrong, “The Shadow of Air-Sea Battle and the Sinking of A2AD,” War on the Rocks, October 5, 2016, https://warontherocks.com/2016/10/the-shadow-of-air-sea-battle-and-the-sinking-of-a2ad/ 

[2] Christopher McCarthy, “Anti-Access/Area Denial: The Evolution of Modern Warfare,” US Naval War College, accessed February 6, 2017, https://www.usnwc.edu/Lucent/OpenPdf.aspx?id=95

[3] Thomas Rowden, “Distributed Lethality,” US Naval Institute, January 2015, http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2015-01/distributed-lethality

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Surface Force Strategy: Return to Sea Control,” January 2017,  9.

[7] Rowden, “Distributed Lethality.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] “U.S. to send ships for repair at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh port: Commodore,” Tuoitrenews, April, 08, 2014,  http://tuoitrenews.vn/politics/18891/us-to-send-ships-for-repair-at-vietnams-cam-ranh-port-colonel

[10] Ibid.

[11] David Larter, “Sammy Sammy B: A frigate’s heroic legacy,” Military Times, May 22, 2015, http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2015/05/22/samuel-b-roberts-frigate-legacy-1988-mine-report/27593135/ .

[12] Raphael Perl and Ronald ORourke, “Terrorist Attack on USS Cole,” Naval History and Heritage Command, January 30, 2001, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/t/terrorist-attack-on-uss-cole-background-and-issues-for-congress.html

[13] Jesse Leon Guerrero, “New PACDIM Ship Repair Facility Ensures Navy, Fleet Mission on Guam,” Department of the Navy, April 9, 2014, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=80219 

[14] “U.S. Navy’s Overseas Force Structure Changes Underscore Commitment to the Asia-Pacific,” Department of the Navy, October 16, 2014, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=83905  

[15] “Repair at Vietnam,” Tuoitrenews.

[16] “Submarine Tenders,” Department of the Navy, November 19, 2014, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=2400&ct=4 

[17] Kieran Webb, "The Continued Importance of Geographic Distance and Boulding's Loss of Strength Gradient," Comparative Strategy, October 2007, 295–310.

[18] “Construction Begins on First Mobile Landing Platform,” Department of the Navy, June, 30, 2011, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=61345 

[19] Megan Eckstein, “A Year Into Distributed Lethality,  Navy Nears Fielding Improved Weapons, Deploying Surface Action Group,” USNI News, January 13, 2016, https://news.usni.org/2016/01/13/a-year-into-distributed-lethality-navy-nears-fielding-improved-weapons-deploying-surface-action-group