Monday, November 6, 2017

Distributed Lethality - Leyte Gulf

A recent Anonymous comment suggested that the WWII radar picket lines around Okinawa were an example of distributed lethality.  That’s a fascinating example that I hadn’t thought of and it prompted this post.

The radar pickets weren’t exactly distributed lethality as envisioned by the Navy.  The ships were mutually supporting, to a degree, and had air cover although leakers were, obviously, commonplace.  Further, the ships were tied to a known, fixed location.  Finally, the picket mission was completely defensive in nature versus the offensive nature of distributed lethality.  Still, it’s an example of what happens when individual (distributed) ships are expected to survive in enemy waters under enemy air cover.  The ships accomplished their purpose but paid a very heavy price doing so.

Another, possibly more relevant, example of WWII distributed lethality is the Japanese actions at Leyte Gulf which actually were a combination of multiple battles.  I won’t bore you with the details of the actions – they’re readily available on-line.

Here’s the interpretation of what occurred from a distributed lethality perspective.

The US had established a large and powerful anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zone around the Philippine islands of Leyte, Samar, and Luzon in October of 1944.  The A2/AD defensive forces consisted of submarines, PT boats, fleet carrier task forces, battleships, and all manner of escorts along with total air supremacy.  Into this powerful A2/AD zone, the Japanese sent three independent (distributed) forces to search for and attack US forces.  The Japanese plan was complex, convoluted, and depended on a degree of command coordination (networking) that was simply unachievable (the self-imposed radio silence and the fog of war being the equivalent of attempting to operate in today’s electromagnetically challenged environment).  As a result, the three Japanese forces wound up operating independently and largely ineffectively.  The overall action resulted in heavy Japanese losses and the end of Japanese naval power.

Japanese Battleship Musashi Under Attack At Leyte

As you ponder that, now consider that the US Navy plans to send individual ships, or small groups of small ships, into China’s A2/AD zone (defined by the East/South China Seas and the first island chain) which is defended by overwhelming numbers of aircraft, submarines, missile boats, frigates, destroyers, land based anti-ship cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and all manner of sensors.  Is this beginning to sound a lot like Letye in reverse? 

The US forces will depend on complex, real time data sharing and command coordination to enable the distributed ships to conduct massed attacks on Chinese targets.  Does this sound a lot like the wishful command and control thinking that the Japanese planners depended on?

According to the Navy, this highly questionable concept will succeed because it will “complicate” the Chinese tactical picture.  The only complication for the Chinese will be deciding which of many assets should be given the honor of destroying which Navy ships. 

The historically inclined among you may note that the Japanese plan actually succeeded, to an extent, in that it did decoy the US fleet carriers away from the intended main action.  You may consider that a “complication” of the American tactical picture.  In the end, though, the lack of effective command and control and the operational stupidity embodied in the attempt to make inferior forces penetrate a heavily defended A2/AD zone led to the almost complete annihilation of the Japanese forces and any complications that arose were more than compensated by overwhelming A2/AD numbers and firepower.

Why we think our attempt at distributed lethality, using vessels that are far less powerful on a relative basis than the Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers, will be more successful is a mystery that no one has yet been able to explain to me.

Believing that distributed lethality will be successful because it will complicate the enemy tactical picture is tantamount to believing in victory because God is on our side.  It may be comforting but it is tactically and operationally lacking.


  1. I agree, but in that case the Japanese were losing and had to take a risk. The plan was sound and worked great as a task force was lined up to demolish the transports at Leyte. It was only prevented by the reckless bravery of older small American escorts and aircraft that attacked a far superior enemy force. (aka Task Force Taffy) This confused the Japanese Admiral who fled.

    1. "had to take a risk."

      Absolutely. The Japanese were in a no-win strategic position at that point. Nothing they did was going to win the war. This wasn't even a million-to-one gamble. It was pure suicide and they recognized it as such.

      "only prevented by the reckless bravery of older small American escorts and aircraft that attacked a far superior enemy force."

      No, not really. Two points, here. One, even had the Japanese force continued on and engaged the ampibious fleet (the overall main mission), that would have simply delayed their inevitable destruction by the American fleet carriers and fast battleships that were in the area as well as the numerous subs, PT boats, patrol planes, etc. This leads to the second point which is that a distributed force, such as the Navy is envisioning, cannot survive in enemy waters under enemy air power in the face of overwhelming power. Even if you can achieve a momentary, fragmentary victory, distributed forces will be destroyed. Given that the Navy envisions using amphibious ships and logistic ships, among others for the distributed lethality, any momentary victory will be an overall loss when inevitably lose the vital amphibs and logistic support ships. The Chinese A2/AD zone is even more powerful than the US zone around Leyte and our distributed ships are going to be far less powerful, on a relative basis, than the Japanese task forces. Note, the Japanese task forces were not really distributed the way the Navy envisions individual distributed ships but it suffices to drive the point home. If a powerful, battleship task force has no hope in an A2/AD zone, why do we think our current distributed lethality (what a joke of a word) concept will work?

      The Japanese confusion and ineptitude ensured that they would get almost nothing out of the mission but it was going to be the end of Japanese naval power regardless.

  2. Actually: the mission of the destroyer pickets at Okinawa was tactically defensive - but operationally offensive.

    Their presence gave the carriers sufficient warning time (15 minutes) to deal with incoming kamikazes

    Ultimately their sacrifice allowed the carriers to survive and continue their mission. Namely protecting and supporting the Sixth Army on Okinawa.

    If one reads the accounts, they actually operated dispersed and often with little dedicated air cover.

    DL can "work" if you're willing to accept ship casualties in support of the larger operational objectives. The alternative is risking capital ships.

    1. "DL can "work" if you're willing to accept ship casualties in support of the larger operational objectives."

      No, not really. You're talking about ship losses as if they were just ships. Huh??? What do I mean by that? You're talking about losing just another ship - one destroyer out of 200, say, or another LCS that we don't really care about anyway. The reality, at least as the Navy is describing it, is that the DL ships are not just going to be expendable LCSs but are going to be amphibious ships, logistic support ships, etc. Yes, this is actually and exactly what the Navy has stated. So, when we lose amphibious ships (of which we only have around 30) we're losing more than just another ship, we're losing our amphibious capability. When we lose logistic support ships (of which we have very few) we're losing the ability to supply and sustain a forward, at sea, naval force.

      You made a simple statement and I understand what you meant. I "picked" apart your statement to make a larger point about the idiocy and consequences of DL.

      DL, as the Navy has described it, is not just risking ships, it's risking much larger naval capabilities and for what? The possibility of sinking a few odd Chinese ships that aren't going to decide the outcome of a war anyway? Sheer lunacy!

      I'm going to keep hammering on the stupidity of distributed lethality because it is a larger threat to the Navy and our nation than China is! DL is a blueprint for losing a war! How's that for some over the top hyperbole?! Of course, hyperbole doesn't mean it's not true!

  3. Any recommendations for a reading list. Prefer something that analyses the battle in the same way COMNAVOPS has done.

    1. No one analyzes the way ComNavOps does!

      History (and Wiki) offer descriptions of the battles. It is up to us, as students of military history, to analyze and learn lessons. History has much to teach us if we're open to learning. Too many military observers relegate history to irrelevance because "our technology today is so superior to that of WWII". These are the people who will repeat history because they refused to learn from it. Unfortunately, they will take many good people down with them.

  4. I don’t think distributed lethality means what you think it means.

    “As an example, let us move ahead to the late 2020s and consider a scenario that emphasizes close Navy–Marine Corps integration: A hunter-killer SAG consisting of an LCS (ASW module), a Flight III Arleigh Burke–class destroyer, and a Zumwalt -class destroyer are ordered to deploy to the vicinity of a small, abandoned island with an airfield that the joint force’s maritime-component commander plans to seize and use as a temporary expeditionary-operations base for six Marine Corps F-35Bs.”

    “The hunter-killer SAG just described is capable of the following: targeting and destroying the enemy SAG and fast patrol vessels; identifying and destroying fleeting land targets ashore; identifying and destroying air and missile threats to the expeditionary air operation; providing wide-area air surveillance; and locating and destroying enemy submarine threats. It could do this while supported by either carrier- or land-based aircraft, but it would not require this support to accomplish its mission. Every capability described is either in the force or in a budgeted acquisition program. This combination of increasingly lethal surface forces with the F-35B-configured amphibious force creates a significant threat to adversary forward-operating bases and creates additional planning and targeting problems for the adversary.”

    “In addition to adding offensive punch to traditional cruiser/destroyer platforms, consideration should be given to applying the principles of distributed lethality and sea control to the amphibious force as well. There is a strong argument to add offensive capability to the amphibious fleet, creating within it yet another planning nightmare for an adversary, who would face expeditionary forces packing organic offensive surface-to-surface missiles and land-attack capabilities. Adding offensive firepower to the amphibious force does not relieve the surface force from its role of protection, nor does it mean that the primary mission of those ships—projecting Marine Corps power ashore—must be compromised. It does mean, however, that we should think differently about these ships and consider the power of adding additional capability to them.”

    Also informative:

    The Battle off Samar suggests that arming amphibious forces with more offensive firepower is not without merit. The enemy always gets a vote. All vessels can end up in the line of fire. It might not be a bad idea to give each one the ability to at least bloody the enemy’s nose if the enemy gets overconfident.

    1. I don't think distributed lethality means what you think it means. Or, rather, what you think it means is not what the Navy means. They have talked specifically, and on the record, about sending individual ships out looking for the enemy and then, though the miracle of unhindered networking and data sharing, massing the firepower of all those ships against the hapless enemy.

      Your example of seizing an airbase is just an operation and is no more an example of distributed lethality than an airbase on the continental US is. Technically, it's distributed in that it's not part of a single massive military force all co-located in one spot, I guess, but it's pretty clear what the Navy means.

      Further, ships are a zero sum game. They have no extra room. If you add a new piece of equipment - say, a couple of racks of Harpoons and the computers and operators necessary to maintain, operate, and target them - you have to subtract an existing piece to make room. So, if you want to add Harpoons to an amphibious ship on the extremely unlikely chance that they'll come face to face with an enemy ship then you have to remove an equivalent size/weight of something to do it. That means you'll be negatively impacting the amphib's amphibious capability for a thousand to one scenario. Does that really make sense to you? If it does, then logically you would have to be in favor of adding Aegis and Standards to every amphib because they might encounter missiles or aircraft. In fact, there's a better chance of that than an enemy ship. So, we now have an amphibious ship with Aegis/Standard and Harpoons. Of course, it's entirely possible that we could have a very close range encounter so we probably should add at least 5" guns, if not 16". Submarines are a threat so we need sonars, towed arrays, and torpedoes. Mines are a common threat so we also need to add full MCM capability. Presumably you can see the absurdity in this line of reasoning and I don't need to belabor it further.


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