I used to watch my beloved Detroit Red Wings hockey team back when they were derisively referred to as the “Dead Wings” due to their inept play. I recall one game where I watched the Wing’s only decent player, a center, flit about the ice going from corner to corner, always out of position, and accomplishing nothing. Finally, a fan several seats away stood up and yelled, “Hey, [player’s name], pick a position!” I chuckled about that and never forgot it because it illustrated a life lesson. You can’t accomplish much if you’re trying to accomplish everything.
Similarly, the Navy seems unable to pick a position. They’ve jumped from Hi-Lo to SC-21, the 21st Century Family of Surface Combatants, to the Zumwalt, the mandatory future of naval warfare which quickly gave way to being unwanted, to littoral combat, to AirSea Battle, to Pacific Pivot, to Third Offset Strategy, to UCLASS – no UCLASS, and so on – each the guaranteed future of naval warfare and each abandoned in short order. Every year or so the Navy throws out another game changing, future of naval warfare concept and tries to sell us on it.
The current concept du jour is distributed lethality. This concept envisions anti-surface (and land attack?) missiles on everything that floats, according to the Navy. This will greatly complicate the enemy’s strategy, operations, and targeting since they will have to account for every floater in the Navy, so the story goes. Let’s look a bit closer at this concept.
Attack missiles on every ship. That’s the fundamental concept. Okay, what ships are floating today?
The combat fleet, meaning Burkes, Ticonderogas, carriers, and amphibious ships constitute around 190 ships. Burkes and Ticonderogas already have Tomahawks, Harpoons, and Standards (anti-ship mode) to varying extents. Thus, those already have distributed lethality. The carriers don’t need distributed lethality since they already have aircraft that far out range likely missiles. That leaves amphibious ships.
Are we really going to load anti-ship missiles on our amphibious ships, loaded with Marine troops and equipment and send them on anti-ship attack missions in forward areas? Remember, these ships have no credible self-defense capability. Will we risk amphibious ships and entire Marine units to launch a handful of bolt-on Harpoon missiles? Not unless we’re dumber than a roomful of Admirals. So, there’s nothing to be gained from attempting to modify the 190 combat ships.
Well, what about the remaining 100 or so ships in the fleet? These are the tankers, and various replenishment ships, LCS, JHSV, hospital ships, MLP/AFSB, MCM Avengers, and the like. Are we going to risk the tankers and replenishment ships, the key to fleet operations, in an attempt to mount and launch a few Harpoons? I certainly hope not! Are we going to risk the 2-4 MLPs, the key to offshore basing, in an attempt to launch a few Harpoons? No way! Hospital ships are out for obvious reasons. Are we going to risk MCM Avengers, our only functioning mine countermeasures ships, trying to engage in some misbegotten attack mission? I hope not. That only leaves JHSV and LCS. The JHSV is, by law, prohibited from front line combat since they are crewed by civilians. They also have absolutely no self defense capability. That leaves the LCS.
The LCS could accommodate Harpoons and the newer version might be able to accommodate Tomahawks depending on the VLS cell size. The problem with the LCS is that the weapons far outrange the ship’s sensors. Thus, the LCS must have an off-board platform supply targeting data. During combat, in an electromagnetically challenged environment, this may prove problematic. If the LCS attempts to close with the enemy to the point where they can employ their own sensors, the LCS will likely not survive since it has little effective AAW capability.
Thus, the much touted distributed lethality concept being pushed by the Navy amounts to putting Harpoons on LCSs and hoping to find a way to get them close enough to a target, with actual targeting data, to be useful. Given the LCS’ extremely limited range/endurance, the need to put back into port every two weeks for scheduled maintenance, and the need to put back into port every 4-6 weeks for extensive maintenance, the odds on the LCS being a useful strike platform are poor.
I’ve read that the Navy has conducted wargames that demonstrate the tactical validity of distributed lethality. Specifically, the games involved LCSs with (Harpoons?) involved in some type of fleet action and the remarks from Navy spokesmen claim that the ships cause immense problems for the enemy. What is not discussed are any details. How did the short-legged LCS arrive in the battle area? How did they get there undetected and undestroyed since they have no significant AAW? How did they manage to stay on station long enough to strike given their lack of endurance? How did they acquire targets given that their weapons outrange their sensors? Are you getting an inkling of the likely wargame scenario – that the game started with the LCS magically in place and with targets acquired? Well sure, in a scenario like that the LCS (or a rowboat with a Harpoon, for that matter) would constitute a threat. In a real world scenario, the odds on achieving that kind of pre-strike arrangement is near zero. But the Navy wouldn’t conduct a rigged wargame, you say? Answer – Millenium Challenge 2000 which we recently described.
Distributed lethality appears to be just another Navy marketing ploy to entice Congress to allocate more money. I wish the Navy would “pick a position” as my fellow hockey fan put it. I wish they would pick a strategy and approach that is consistent with their core mission and stick with it rather than grasping at new fads every year. Of course, that assumes that the Navy understands what their core mission is and, horrifyingly, there is no indication that current leadership has any grasp of what that is which probably explains the desperate flailing around as they try to find a justification for existence.
I wonder what the next revolutionary Navy concept will be?