Distributed Lethality and the Failure to Break Naval Stovepipes

“Distributed Lethality and the Importance of Ship Repair," like the original article on the overarching concept of “Distributed Lethality” by VADM Rowden, RADM Gumataotao, and RDML Fanta, marks another lost opportunity to break potentially tragic naval institutional stovepipes.[1,2] To a degree, their concept proposes many worthwhile warfighting models and innovations for naval warfighting requirement to address a naval operating environment that is rapidly changing from one dominated by U.S. sea control. However, their focus on a surface-community model perpetuates an institutional liability—one that could have devastating consequences. The balkanization of the Navy’s personnel structure threatens the fleet’s ability to conduct naval maneuver warfare in the emerging contested sea control environment. For over 70 years (and particularly after the Cold War ended), U.S. naval supremacy has allowed the U.S. Navy to view the sea as a sanctuary to operate from. It could focus on leveraging the advantages of sea control to project power and influence, as opposed to fighting to achieve it.

A skilled naval maneuver warfare capacity creates a multiplicity of overwhelming dilemmas for an enemy that shatters the enemy’s cohesion through unexpected but highly coordinated actions on, over, below and from the sea..

As the previous contested sea-control age before and during World War II demonstrated, fighting for and securing control of the seas against competent adversaries demanded the ability to conduct well-coordinated and fully integrated naval maneuver operations. An institutional amnesia has developed about the competencies and fleet design necessary to effective naval maneuver warfare. The U.S. Navy faces a demanding challenge to recover its ability to generate high tempo unrelenting operations. A skilled naval maneuver warfare capacity creates a multiplicity of overwhelming dilemmas for an enemy that shatters the enemy’s cohesion through unexpected but highly coordinated actions on, over, below and from the sea, including fully employing the advantages of littoral and archipelagic terrain.[3]

USS Pennsylvania and a Colorado-class battleship followed by three cruisers in Lingayen Gulf preceding the landing on Luzon, Philippines, January 1945. (U.S. Navy Photo/National Archives)

These were the same hard lessons learned at the beginning of World War II in the Pacific, but they were applied to great advantage by the U.S. Navy during the second half of the war.[4] The lack of a near-peer competitor at sea since the end of World War II resulted in an institutional bias within the Navy about the nature of its operational environment. The seas are regarded as an medium for the efficient movement of forces for projecting military power from rather an arena where forces must apply effective combat power and control wrest control. Repetitive iterations of yearly budgeting and programming exercises that emphasize combat efficiency that leverages operations from the sanctuary of the sea over combat readiness to fight on the sea have reinforced this trend. The result is an incremental acceptance of requirements that address the most likely conditions over the most dangerous conditions. These factors have also facilitated a drifting apart of separate naval communities into near fiefdoms. This balkanization of the force, in turn, has fostered the absence of a well-crafted, central naval operating concept. However, with the increasing threat from near-peer adversaries, the highly detrimental parochial structure within the U.S. Navy is now a perilous liability.

In his 1995 Naval War College study, “Brown Shoes, Black Shoes, and Felt Slippers; Parochialism and the Evolution of the Post-War U.S. Navy,” Roger Thompson, highlighted the tribalism among the various Navy communities and its significance “in terms of decision-making, on acquisition, modernization, and ship-building in the post-war era.”[5] He reinforced his arguments, in part, by citing various comments from within the Navy itself including: “We have become a Navy comprised of smaller navies, supported by a shore establishment made up non-communicating fiefdoms. Isolation is extreme among the warfare specialties, and bureaucratic insularity typifies the shore establishment.”[6]

It seems nothing has changed over the past two decades. Any claims about efforts made in correcting this institutional deficiency are inadequate. For instance, the publishing of a naval maneuver warfighting concept (e.g., “Distributed Lethality”) that

  1. is put out by a single community’s leadership,
  2. focuses almost exclusively on that communities role in conducting naval operations, and
  3. lacked serious questioning regarding its place as the de facto organizing service strategic concept

epitomizes the fundamental institutional problem. Likewise, while a recent Navy report to Congress on an “Alternative Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study” envisions “a widely dispersed, expansively networked set of air, surface, and sub-surface platforms,” it gives “priority” to the “next generation offensive surface warfare weapons for sea control within a contested maritime area.”[7]

In 1942, Admiral Nimitz had a certain degree of time and space to learn hard-earned lessons about integrated naval maneuver warfare. He knew the “Two-Ocean Navy Act” authorized in 1940 would result in a massively expanded fleet starting in early 1943. Today’s fleet, however, will not have similar opportunities in a future war at sea and in highly contested littorals. In part this due to the current fleet’s built-in brittleness. Years of subtle acquiescence of an efficient force for the most likely scenario has resulted in a fleet design optimized for leveraging the sanctuary afforded by naval supremacy, not lethal combat at sea.

RADM J.C. Wylie (DetroyerHistory.org)

As Samuel Huntington noted in his seminal 1954 article, “[t]he application of naval power against the land requires of course an entirely different sort of Navy from that which existed during the struggle for sea supremacy.”[8] This does not contradict RADM J.C. Wylie’s cogent observation that the two essential tasks of maritime operations, “establishment of control of the sea” and “exploitation of that control of the sea toward extension of control from the sea onto the land,” “are so closely interwoven that it is hard to tell where one stops and the other starts.”[9] Theoretically and practically both these insights are valid, but the design necessary to achieve both tasks simultaneously is an art. This requires leaders who comprehend the breadth of these tasks and have the cross-community expertise to orchestrate all elements—particularly the skills to generate high tempo naval maneuver warfare operations that create the necessary unrelenting and unexpected series of dilemmas to overwhelm a competent enemy.

Years of emphasis on naval and maritime movement and projecting power from the sea as a base has maximized the fleet’s effectiveness in exploiting its sea control advantage. It has resulted in a fleet with large, multi-mission ships packed with expensive advanced weapons, sensors, and links that efficiently use manpower and minimize overhead requirements. But it also concentrates risk if the strength of this advantage wanes or evaporates.[10] The increasingly challenging maritime security environment now exposes this inherent vulnerability and the fleet’s inability to effectively conduct naval campaigns to secure sea control.[11]

Fully integrating all naval capabilities without the barriers and bias of a stovepiped personnel system is essential to minimizing these disadvantages—in addition to dispersal, massing of lethality, networking, improving the detection/screening ratio, and delaying the full force’s culmination of sustained combat power. The U.S. Navy must vigorously re-institute a reflexive bias towards a combined arms operational approach that fully integrates its multi-dimensional capabilities. This must be fostered at the Navy’s institutional-level by minimizing the paradigm of separate communities; netting of communication systems among surface, subsurface, air, and littoral forces is not a sufficient solution. As with any cultural change, it requires reprioritizing what you value and reward—including experience tracks.

Failure to correct the pre-disposition toward community-centric operations may not be recoverable after the first salvos are fired. Due to the time it will likely take to fix the fleet design and restore necessary resiliency for high tempo, contested naval maneuver warfare operations, this must be priority. The best chance for the legacy fleet’s success in battles to secure sea control is an approach that fully and intelligently leverages all the fleet and supporting elements’ capabilities. One can hope the Navy will develop a more comprehensive service strategic concept and a more unified institutional framework for the challenges it faces. We cannot afford to relearn these fundamental lessons through combat.

Wes Hammond is a retired Marine officer. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He served in Operation Desert Storm and commanded an artillery battery during the amphibious landing into Mogadishu, Somalia. Before retiring from active duty, he was an analyst in Headquarters Marine Corps’ Strategic Initiative Group and director of the Commandant’s Staff Group. He currently works as a DoD analyst and consultant.

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Header Image: The USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group conducts a close quarters exercise while underway in the Atlantic Ocean in 2005 (Photographer's Mate Airman Eben Boothby/U.S. Navy Photo)


[1] Cedros, Christopher, “Distributed Lethality and the Importance of Ship Repair,” The Strategy Bridge, 14 February 2017.

[2] Rowden, Thomas, Peter Gumataotao, and Peter Fanta, “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2015.

[3] For more on the concept of maneuver warfare see: Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1 Warfighting, Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 20 June 1997 (pgs. 72-76); for more on the differences between naval maneuver and naval movement see MCDP 1-0 Marine Corps Operations, Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 9 August 2011 (pgs. 2-20 – 2-22); Work, Robert O., Thinking About Seabasing: All Ahead, Slow, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Washington, DC, 2006 (pg. 59); and Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “Naval Maneuver Warfare,” Naval War College Review, Summer 1997.

[4] Hughes, Wayne P., Jr., “Naval Maneuver Warfare,” Naval War College Review, Summer 1997; and Franks, Richard B., Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle, New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

[5] Thompson, Roger, “Brown Shoes, Black Shoes, and Felt Slippers; Parochialism and the Evolution of the Post-War U.S. Navy,” Newport RI: U.S. Naval War College, 1995.

[6] Byron, John L., “The Surface Navy is Not Ready,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 1987, pg. 39. My own career as a Marine artillery officer with a succession of tours—working for NAVAIR at Pt. Mugu, spending a significant amount of time emplacing the Pioneer UAV system aboard the battleships, commanding the Marine detachment on the submarine tender in Scotland, deploying with a MEU on an amphibious ready group, and then writing my thesis at Monterey on the AN/SPY-1 radar—fully reinforced this perception to me.

[7] Navy Project Team, “Report to Congress: Alternative Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study,” Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 27 October 2016.

[8] Huntington, Samuel P., “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1954.

[9] Wylie, J.C., Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989; pp. 154-55 (reprint New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1967), selected quotes originally from article by the same author: “Why a Sailor Thinks Like a Sailor,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1957.

[10] Rubel, Robert C., “Connecting the Dots; Capital Ships, the Littorals, Command of the Sea, and the World Order, Naval War College Review, Autumn 2015, pp. 46-62.

[11] Sources expounding on these vulnerabilities include: Rubel, Robert C., “Command of the Sea; An Old Concept Resurfaces in New Form," Naval War College Review, Autumn 2012, pp. 21-33; and Hendrix, Jerry, Retreat From Range; “The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation,” Center for a New American Security, October 2015.