The Navy’s commander for surface warfare believes the fleet needs to adopt a more offensive capability by adding weapons to ships that can strike sea targets at greater distances, forming the basis of a “hunter killer” posture to counter emerging threats in more heavily contested waters.

In a presentation and separate roundtable with the media during the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium just outside Washington this week, Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, the commander of naval surface forces, outlined the concept he calls “distributed lethality.”

BarryRowden said that the surface fleet needs to shift from a defensive orientation to become more offensive and lethal at greater distances to force enemies to alter battle plans in the fight, or, as he puts it, to “change the rules in the middle of the game.” He said the concept also applies to striking at land and below sea.

Rowden envisions ships with more long-range strike capability that can operate with greater independence in surface action groups. The Navy should consider the possibility of adding additional weapons to all of its warships, from amphibious vessels to destroyers to small surface combatants, Rowden said.

He did not specify a timeframe or cost force standing up the capability, saying all of that must be analyzed, as well as how the surface action groups will be configured and operate, including at what distances they should be able to project force, whether it be in the range of 500 to 1,000 nautical miles.

“What’s the appropriate range?” he said. “I think we have to go work on that …. and press it out.”

“We have to understand fundamentally, from the tactical and operational perspective, the influence that these hunter killer surface action groups will have, and the type of influence we require of them,” he told reporters.

Rear Adm. Peter Fanta, the director of surface warfare on the chief of naval operations’ staff, also spoke at the symposium, following up on Rowden’s speech from his perspective as the official paying for the offensive capability upgrades to the surface fleet. He said current and projected budget levels will not allow the Navy to have a sufficient number of ships built with state-of-the-art technologies; the options, therefore, are for the Navy to build a small number of technologically advanced ships, or to build a sufficient number of ships without all the bells and whistles and add on weapons and systems in the future when needed and when budgets allow.

This option, he said, is what the Navy is doing with its Littoral Combat Ship fleet and perfectly exemplifies distributed lethality.

Fanta explained to the audience that U.S. Navy ships could be thought of like bees. At his home west of the Washington metro area, he said there is a relaxing hum when the bees fly around his backyard, and he rarely pays attention to the occasional bee that flies by – analogous to the Navy’s current forward presence. He might get a little nervous if he saw a beehive – or a carrier strike group, in this analogy – but it wouldn’t prevent him from going elsewhere in his backyard because the threat would be concentrated in just one area. However, if he heard reports of killer bees in Virginia – or upgunned ships under the distributed lethality concept – he’d probably be too scared to venture into his backyard at all.

Fanta’s ideal surface Navy would be one where every vessel that floats is made to be lethal in one way or another, be it through long-range missiles, sub-hunting sensors, or unmanned platforms extending the ship’s reach. Every ship could be a killer bee, so the enemy couldn’t afford to overlook any American ship in the water, regardless of size or mission set.

Discussing the recent decision to transition the LCS program into a modified small surface combatant, he said distributed lethality supports the decision.

“This is the trade: build four to six exquisite ships from a brand new scrap of paper, and out of those four to six ships I’ll be able to deploy one or two of them somewhere to the Far East or the Middle East, and I’ll build them in the next 15 to 20 years because I’m building a new ship and it takes that long to get it through. Or I can build you 20 modified LCS in half the time and deploy 10 of them in half the time. Your choice.”

To add both survivability and offensive capability to the current LCS program, Fanta said the Navy would do several things. The first choice for a ship at sea is to hit the enemy before it can strike first; therefore, a long-range surface missile will be added. Second, the ship wants to avoid being hit, so the Navy will add better radars and sensor packages to the ship itself rather than to the task-specific LCS mission packages only installed part of the time. And lastly, the ship needs to leave space for future survivability upgrades if and when they’re needed.

As far as the weapons go, the Navy’s first priority, rather than developing new weapons, should be to focus on current systems and modifications to meet mission requirements–once they are identified, Rowden said. The Navy is actively carrying out an analysis for suitable long-range surface weapons, he said. Unmanned systems would also have a role, he added.

Adding existing weapons to ships is not overly challenging, Rowden said, pointing to last year’s successful test of the Naval Strike Missile, built by the Norwegian firm Kongsberg, on an LCS months after war gaming an over-the-horizon missile with a range exceeding 100 nautical miles.

Asked whether the Naval Strike Missile was a leading contender for fielding on an LCS or any other ship, Rowden demurred, saying only the test was “very effective.”

Once these capability gaps are identified and addressed, the Navy will also need to give some thought to how to best employ the new hunter killer force, Rowden said, adding that “another significant portion of it is just thinking differently about how we aggregate our forces and how we employ those forces.”

Given the confluence of declining budgets and increasing global demands for the Navy, increasing the lethality of existing ships that can be spread out globally, rather than relying on the concentrated power of a carrier strike group, provides the greatest return on investment, Fanta said.

“At a 5 percent change, you tighten your belt,” he said. “At a 10 percent loss, you run out of margin. At a 20 percent reduction in DoD budgets, you better start doing things differently. And that’s where distributed lethality sits.”