America is, and always has been, a maritime nation. Today, just like centuries before, the oceans are the key to our influence, our security and our prosperity. As the global economy continues to expand and become more connected, the U.S. Navy, and specifically the Naval Surface Force’s ability to exert sea control when necessary – from the open ocean trade routes to the to the shallow littorals along continental coastlines, is vital to maintaining the free flow of goods over the world’s oceans and, ultimately, the economic stability of many countries. For the United States, with 25 percent of all U.S. jobs being directly or indirectly tied to global trade, sea control is a must.
That being said, the global maritime security environment has entered a complex time where threats to navigational freedom are being presented in a broad array – from low-end piracy to well-armed non-state militant groups, as well as sophisticated adversaries being determined, at times, to unlawfully rule certain regions and resources.
So given this shift in the environment, how do we achieve and sustain sea control when necessary to protect the oceans – the lifeblood of the interconnected global community?
This week, Commander, Naval Surface Forces, Vice Admiral Tom Rowden addressed this issue with Sailors and Marines Forces of the San Diego waterfront as he spoke to the merits of the recently released Surface Force Strategy. The strategy maps out Surface Forces’ return to sea control and provides more substance to the organizing and operating principle of Distributed Lethality.
“If you’re going to control the sea you’re going to do it with ships because ships bring capacity and capability. Existential threats to the United States of America are going to come from countries who are trying to control the sea,” said Rowden.
He began the conversation with a brief history discussion of how our current maritime environment was shaped – from the end of the Cold War to supporting the recent conflicts in the Middle East.
“By 1992, the Soviet Union has ceased to exist. It’s dissolved and all of their submarines, ships and aircraft were tied up to the pier. And so, almost overnight, we woke up and we had this thing that had eluded us for decades – we had sea control. We had it in the Eastern Pacific, the Western Pacific, in the Indian Ocean, in the Arabian Gulf, the Mediterranean. We had it everywhere,” said Rowden.
In the following decades, without an enduring threat to sea control, the U.S. Navy did what it does best, and that is to adapt to the strategic environment. Just as the visionaries of the ‘70’s saw that the Soviets could be pressured by offensive sea power, a new group of visionaries saw that the mobility, flexibility, and endurance of naval forces—compounded by the revolution in precision guided weapons—could act as a powerful enabler of the Joint, multi-domain fight.
“We were afforded the luxury of being able to shift our emphasis, shift our investments to power projection ashore. So, over the years, we adjusted the flight deck of our aircraft carriers quite appropriately. We adjusted the armament on our ships, we started to look differently at surface ships,” said Rowden.
While participating in a series of high-level war game exercises several years ago, Rowden realized that decades of deemphasizing sea control meant the fleet had concentrated the lethality of the force on to the flight decks of our aircraft carriers. Consequently, the opposing force in the exercise focused almost exclusively on trying to kill the aircraft carrier and end its power projection abilities. Rowden’s response to their efforts was to successfully distribute his force of Littoral Combat Ships and go on the offensive – using these ships in an unforeseen manner to attack the opposing combatant ships. This immediately changed the adversary’s strategy and how they operated their ships.
His success during the exercise may have been the genesis for a multi-year effort to develop the new Surface Force Strategy, as Rowden reconsidered how naval forces might be better employed.
“I asked myself ‘Why don’t we distribute the lethality of the force back to the Surface Forces, back to the sea control assets, in order to complicate the problem for the adversary with respect to how it is they’re going to execute operations at sea, and perhaps even more important for their government, force them to invest differently,’” said Rowden, “How do we do this? We came up with this great concept called Distributed Lethality.”
Could the U.S. Navy make adjustments to existing weapons systems to go on the offensive?
The short answer was yes – by modifying a number of defensive weapons to also serve an offensive purpose, retrofitting ships to handle those capabilities, and backfitting various current computing systems to work on older IT infrastructure to enhance their capabilities, the lethality of surface ships was quickly enhanced. These improvements force an adversary operating at sea to not only calculate for the capabilities of the aircraft carriers, but now also the enhanced offensive capability of all U.S. Navy warships at sea.
“Distribution of lethality is not necessarily about distributing the lethality of the force for the sake of distributing lethality. It’s distributing lethality of the force to enable sea control. That’s why the title of the Surface Force Strategy is ‘The Return to Sea Control.’ People read the strategy and they go, ‘Did we ever lose it?’ I don’t know. But we’re certainly facing more challenges,” said Rowden.
He explained that while surface ships will play a huge role in the Navy’s return to sea control they’re not the only players on our team.
“This is not all about surface ships. This is about the combined capability of submarines, aircraft, aircraft carriers, and warships and the men and women who operate them. This is about making everybody more lethal and understanding that we’re headed into a fight for sea control. It’s not about controlling all the sea, all the time. You need to control the sea, you need to control, for the amount of time you need to control it, and then relinquish control [at your choosing].”
Ultimately, the Surface Force Strategy was created to help the Sailors carrying out the sea control mission and Rowden intends to do everything within his power to ensure they are combat ready.
He told the crowd, “As we talk about the organizing principle of Distributed Lethality, as we talk about the return to sea control and the driving investments associated with that, we’re starting to see some big payoff. This is all about YOU and making sure you have the talent, the tools, the tactics, and the training in order to get the job done!”