Distributed Lethality: Taking All of the Eggs Out of One Basket

Beginning in World War II, and accelerating during the Cold War, the U.S. Navy has focused its offensive strike capability in manned aircraft launched from aircraft carriers. Other warships were used, then designed, to protect the carriers from attack by hostile aircraft, missiles and underwater attacks. With few exceptions – ballistic missile submarines and littoral craft – the design of warships was focused on protecting the carrier from harm. Offensive capabilities on surface warships were neglected.

This neglect accelerated after the end of the Cold War. The Harpoon anti-ship missile was designed in the 1970s and by the mid-1980s was ubiquitous on warships. The stand-alone system could give even the smallest combatants, like the Pegasus-class hydrofoils, a significant offensive capability. The Tomahawk cruise missile had an anti-ship variant, deployed in the 1980s, that could be fitted into warships with Vertical Launch System (VLS) or hardwired into box launchers on destroyers and cruisers.

Although both of these weapon systems still exist and are deployed by the U.S. military and its allies, the technology behind them is over 40 years old and outdated when compared to the newest generation of Chinese anti-ship missiles. Appropriations and technological research have been heavily invested in strike aircraft (such as the F-35), but anti-ship missile technology has been allowed to languish.

CarrierThat is the background to “new” tactical doctrine being promoted by the Navy. Distributed lethality is based on three principles:

  • Out thinking the enemy
  • Out scouting the enemy
  • Out shooting the enemy

The potential threat of China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) program doesn’t stop at the physical damage it can cause to the carriers. That threat is the backbone of the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) doctrine employed by China.

The U.S. Navy believes that Distributed Lethality is the answer to the Chinese threat of neutralizing the use of aircraft carriers by deploying A2/AD weapons. In the short term, it includes upgrading and developing missile systems that have an anti-ship capability. A new anti-ship Tomahawk design is in the works, the latest version of the standard missile has also been upgraded to make it more versatile and new missiles are being developed to give all navy combatants the ability to engage enemy warships at sea.

However, new and upgraded weapon systems are only one small part of Distributed Lethality. The biggest change will come from the role that ships play within the fleet. No longer focused on defending the carrier from attacks, warship commanders will have to learn how to fight offensively – without the overwhelming strength of the carrier – against a major blue water force, again.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

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Matt Towns

Matt is a former military journalist who spent 10 years in the US Navy. He served in various posts during his career, including a couple of deployments on the USS Valley Forge (CG-50). After leaving the Navy, he worked in management for a number of years before opening his own businesses. He ran those businesses until 2012 when he chose to leave the retail industry and return to writing. Matt currently works as a freelance writer, contributing to the US Patriot blog and other websites about political affairs, military activities and sailing.
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