The U.S. Navy’s Surface Force Just Got a Lot Deadlier

The U.S. Navy’s surface force has been working hard over the past year to bring its idea of “distributed lethality” to fruition. Jim Holmes wrote about it here on WOTR last year at this time, and his overview hinted at some of the promise that more lethal surface forces could deliver, along with some cautions about how that promise might be realized. “Distributed lethality” is a concept that holds that a greater number of individual surface ships should see their lethality increased as efficiently and opportunistically as possible, and that these more lethal ships should be operated in novel force packages operating independently from the main body of the battle fleet. This dispersal of combat power requires an adversary to account for many more targets, therein diluting available weapons assignment against any one platform while also stressing the adversary’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Simply put, a more lethal and distributed surface force gives an adversary a much more difficult operational problem with which to contend.

A week or so after Holmes wrote his piece, a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) was launched from a U.S. Navy destroyer and flew for hundreds of miles before impacting a target barge. This demonstration was a huge step forward for distributed lethality, in that a tried and tested land attack weapon was modified and repurposed into a subsonic, anti-surface warfare (ASuW) weapon. Another critically important capability was recently announced. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter revealed the heretofore highly classified fact that the long-range, supersonic “SM-6” missile designed to counter air, cruise missile and ballistic missile targets — also capable of being fired from the VLS-equipped cruisers and destroyers — has been modified so that it too can be fired against surface combatants.

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