Naval Surface Forces chief's speech expected to focus on strategic shifts
By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: January 9, 2017
SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — Every Navy ship that floats must be ready to fight in new ways.
The service’s fleet needs longer-range rockets, stronger counter-missile measures and more sophisticated sensors if it wants to better survive the enemy’s first punch and return the favor.
Instead of clumping together in armadas led by aircraft carriers, the ships must spread out, making it harder for foes to detect and bombard them. Braving hostile fire, quickly mending battle-damaged vessels and engaging opponents from multiple positions across vast swaths of ocean — these changes require a doctrinal shift and fresh ways of training future generations of tacticians.
Those and other key strategic shifts are expected to be the focus of Vice Adm. Tom Rowden’s long-anticipated “Surface Navy Today” address Tuesday. He’s scheduled to talk about “distributive lethality,” the service’s wide-ranging blueprint for waging future wars.
Rowden, commander of the San Diego-based Naval Surface Forces, is slated to deliver his speech at the Surface Navy Association’s annual gathering in Crystal City, Virginia. His talk will certainly draw the attention of congressional staffers, high-ranking Pentagon officials, defense-industry leaders and many of the surface warfare community’s most respected active-duty and retired members.
There have been hints about the burgeoning doctrine; it was sketched out in a 2015 edition of the U.S. Naval Institute’s periodical “Proceedings,” for example. Now, Rowden is primed to make a strong pitch for its prominence in an era of rising rivals and more austere American defense budgets.
“I’ve been thinking about this for five years,” Rowden told The San Diego Union-Tribune shortly before he left for Washington, D.C., last week.
It began while he was on the staff of former Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert. Rowden and other brass were searching for a way to describe what changes the Navy needs to maintain maritime superiority across the globe.
“You’ve got to get everyone on that rope, tugging in the same direction across the force,” Rowden said.
The “distributed lethality” concept is catching on not only with captains in the surface fleet — destroyers, cruisers and smaller warships that during the past seven decades have often been used to protect aircraft carriers. The paradigm of putting enemy forces at risk across longer ranges of territory and in unpredictable places is also increasingly embraced by the Navy’s top aviation and underwater strategists.
“We’re all in the same business and it’s all about supporting each other,” Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, commander of the San Diego-based Third Fleet, said aboard the supercarrier Carl Vinson on Thursday as it began a deployment to the Western Pacific. “The air community of the Navy, the surface community, the submarine community, the information warfare community — everybody is as synchronized as we’ve ever been in history.
“Distributive lethality, as (Vice) Adm. Rowden talks about it, is just one example of that synergy: All people working together to meet any mission, no matter what it might be.”
Carrier Strike Group One commander Rear Adm. James Kilby, widely considered one of the surface Navy’s wiliest tacticians, said he’s going to increasingly test the components of “distributed lethality” at sea.
In April, he’s slated to add two surface warships to his task force in the Western Pacific. Kilby said he’s already “pushing my leadership to think about that differently” — using destroyers and other vessels to run scouting missions, employ probing tactics and other “things we haven’t necessarily been thinking about.”
Although Rowden works with the Navy and Congress to find the right weapons, planes, unmanned aircraft and ships to flesh out “distributive lethality,” he said new gadgets aren’t always what’s most important. “It’s really easy to say, ‘More money solves everything.’ But it’s not that,” he said.
Rowden ticked off a list of weapons that could help to fully flesh out the lethality concept — including missiles with longer ranges and more effective abilities to sink attack submarines — but said he also needs smart, agile and experimental-minded commanders like Kilby “to stretch the boundaries of where we can go and do.”
Large sea exercises, some involving other U.S. military branches and the forces of allied nations, also will expand American capabilities.
While “distributed lethality” emphasizes greater versatility, resilience and firepower, Rowden said the end goal is deterrence. “It’s about those potential enemies looking at the United States of America, our Navy and other forces, and saying, ‘Today is not the day.’”
To a pair of the world’s top maritime strategists — professors Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes of the Naval War College in Rhode Island — Rowden, Tyson and Kilby are executing a good game plan against potential enemies such as Russia and Iran, but that everyone must understand the real competitor at sea is China.
Chinese shores now bristle with long-range rockets and Beijing is rapidly developing mines, super-silent submarines, stealth attack aircraft and a blue-water navy to square off against the Americans in China’s backyard as tensions rise over disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Yoshihara noted that China’s navy has deployed anti-ship missile systems that fly farther than America’s workhorse Harpoons. He said the United States’ Tomahawk subsonic cruise missile could be converted into more of a naval weapon to work alongside the Standard Missile-6 and the Naval Strike System being developed by allies in Norway. But he stressed that ultimately, the Navy needs to “have dedicated long-range, supersonic, anti-ship missiles in our inventory” soon.
Holmes called America’s missile shortcomings “real and severe.” And while he praises Rowden’s call for more big-time military exercises at sea, he said they “must not detract from the larger project of developing longer-range weaponry that lets us strike at the same time, if not before, our adversaries do.”
“We stopped bolstering our weapons’ reach after the Cold War while new antagonists harnessed the logic of standoff combat,” Holmes said. “As a result, Chinese forces can pound away at our forces long before (we) close the distance to return fire. We will be purely defensive while trying to close the distance, and the adversary will do significant — perhaps prohibitive — damage during that time.”
Yoshihara added that America’s Navy “let some skills atrophy while we were mired in the two wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the battles against Imperial Japan in World War II near the Philippines were the last time American surface ships exchanged fire against a peer competitor.
“The idea that we should rest easy because the Chinese haven’t fought a war since 1979 is a soothing but misleading narrative. The reality is that in the area of a peer-to-peer fight at sea, both sides will be relatively untested.”
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