Under budgetary pressure, the Navy is putting forward an incredibly logical concept called "Distributed Lethality," under which it could add more weapons and combat capabilities to existing combat ships, as well as to ones that have never had any offensive capabilities at all.
Distributed Lethality has evolved from a number of disparate experimental exercises, such as this year's Adiutrix Spear and Bold Alligator, that have seen Marines deployed aboard non-traditional ships, such as aircraft carriers, destroyers and logistical ships, in a similar manner as they do with the well established 'Gator Navy,' just with a much smaller footprint.
In addition to Marines hitting the planks of unfamiliar surface combatants and cargo vessels, testing of the nearly toothless Littoral Combat Ship with the Norwegian-built Naval Strike Missile (NSM) has brought the new, although seemingly apparent to anyone with sense, concept of 'plug and play' missile systems to the forethought of Navy planners' minds.
Built by Norway's Kongsberg, the Naval Strike Missile (NSM) is an advanced anti-ship missile that brings a reduced radar signature, smart-maneuvering and sea-skimming ability, as well as an imaging infrared seeker for terminal homing, to the fight, all in a relatively compact and affordable modular package.
NSM is very capable in the more complex littoral, or 'brown water' combat environment, as well as far out to sea in the more traditional 'blue water' anti-ship missile environment. It can fly over land masses on its way to its target area and once it arrives it can differentiate between the objects it sees via comparing them to imagery stored in its memory banks. It has a range of around 100 miles and weighs only 900lbs.
The NSM has been tested aboard the Littoral Combat Ship LCS-4 USS Coronado late last year, the results of were said to have been fantastic. Still, many would say a test was not really needed as putting a modern anti-ship missile aboard a Littoral Combat Ship seemed like a given in the first place.
A larger and improved version of the NSM, known as the Joint Strike Missile, will pack both ground and sea attack capabilities, increased range and a two-way data-link system. This missile is being designed be able to be carried by the F-35 and will face off against Lockheed's cunning and stealthy Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile for the Navy's next batch of ship-launched anti-ship missiles. The program is officially known as the Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare Increment II. LRASM already won Increment I.
The thing about the NSM, and its more advanced Joint Strike Missile cousin, along with many weapon systems like them, is that they can be installed on almost any vessel, and even targeting, command and control can be performed from a remote location to save costs and complexity. What this does is give commanders a more flexible offensive force via providing many more 'weapons platforms' spread out over a larger area around the globe, with each one of them capable of individually putting an enemy force's assets at risk. This greatly complicates the foe's ability to build a defense strategy as there are simply so many possible threats in so many different geographical locations that countering them all would be problematic.
If the Navy were to follow through with this 'bolt on' weapons concept, it would mean that not just the Navy's LCS, along with the Gator Navy's large amphibious landing docks and flattops, could be enhanced with the ability to sling anti-ship and potentially even land-attack missiles, but so could ships operated by the Navy's Military Sealift Command. Fleet Replenishment Oilers, Dry Cargo and Ammunition Ships as well as Fast Combat Support Ships – all traditionally unarmed logistics vessels – could take on a secondary role as arsenal ships, able to volley off a string of standoff guided missiles at a moment's notice.
Beyond the potential of turning America's USNS logistics fleet into 'shooters,' there is a real initiative already underway to turn these ships, and virtually every other large Navy ship, into sea bases for small detachments of US Marines and special forces operators. The idea, which is already under evaluation after several successful tests, sees tailored teams of Marines, especially those that can provide a flexible quick reaction force to a crisis abroad, such as Fleet Anti-Terrorism Support Teams (FASTs), deployed aboard America's aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, LCSs, High-speed vessels and especially the aforementioned fleet of cargo and resupply ships operated by the Navy's Military Sealift Command.
Since any number of these ships are forward deployed at any given time, usually near a hot spot or area of strategic interest, whether it be an emergency search and rescue mission, disaster response, anti-terrorism event, or a flash evacuation of American personnel from a hot spot, the chances are that a forward deployed team under such a concept would be close by to respond. Additionally, some resupply ships have aviation assets embarked and all of these ships have landing areas for helicopters if they are not equipped with hangar facilities, too. This gives Marines, or other special operations personnel, the ability to quickly get into position at a hot spot at short notice, even though their ship may be hundreds of miles away from that hot spot.
During recent tests, Marines are said have loved being forward deployed aboard USNS designated assets as they live and work alongside merchant marines and civil contractors. This means their accommodations underway are akin to a five star hotel in comparison to what they are accustomed to aboard very densely populated 'gator navy' vessels. Additionally, the shorter chain of command and limited hierarchy aboard these relatively lightly manned but large ships provides for great flexibility, as well as faster action.
Reports from these tests also say that the Marines were treated almost as stars among the Military Sealift Command's mostly civilian crews. How can you blame them really? It must be nice having an extremely heavily armed and combat capable defacto security force embarked aboard your hulking cargo ship full of things any enemy would love to have—namely massive amounts of fuel, guided munitions, jet engines, vehicles and sustainment goods such as food stuffs. Additionally, with their potential new secondary mission it means that these logistical vessels, which are the unsung backbone of the US Navy's entire front-line fleet, could be at the leading edge of world-wide events at a moments notice.
In fact, the Navy's new High Speed Vessels, and especially their large logistics oilers and cargo ships, have incredible amounts of room, both internally and externally. If the Navy continues to think creatively in regards to how to use these assets on missions outside their historic logistical roles, these big ships could be fertile ground for new bolt-on capabilities. Seeing as modern warfare is more about the weapons that a platform carries than the performance of the platform itself, outfitting a fleet oiler with an arsenal of standoff missiles and data-links to use off-board sensors for targeting and situational awareness, seems like a fantastically economical and tactically relevant idea. This is true especially for very limited, 'low end' missions that the Navy's AEGIS capable destroyers and cruisers, as well as the 'gator navy's' hulking flotillas, are overqualified for.
The Iowa Class Battleships were refitted as part of President Reagan's '600 Ship Navy' doctrine for reinvigorating America's sea-based expeditionary punch. These old dinosaurs of WWII derived their long-range striking capabilities via being fitted with armored box launchers full of Tomahawk Cruise Missiles. This modular design gave each ship 8 box launchers for a total 32 RGM-109 Tomahawk missiles to sling at the enemy from 1,000 miles away at a moments notice. In addition, 16 RGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile tubes were fitted, also in a modular 'bolt on' format still in use today. This gave the Iowa's an additional over-the-horizon anti-ship punch.
A portion of these armored box launchers from the Iowas and the other classes of ships are likely still available and could presumably be reused. Outfitting US Navy logistical ships with four armored box launches, or half that of the Iowa Class's missile punch, would give them as much standoff attack capability as a $2B fast attack nuclear submarine. Even outfitting every Navy logistical ship with a single armored box launcher would give that ship four targets that it could strike within a 1,000 mile radius surrounding the ship's location at any given time. Launch control and planning could be done remotely. This would go a long way to satisfying the DoD's time sensitive global strike initiative, without having to build extremely expensive hypersonic missiles or other exotic capabilities.
Even 25 years ago, targeting for any of these weapon systems, including the ship's huge guns, could be executed using shorter ranged on-board sensors, remote sensors, or ingeniously (at the time) via a unmanned aircraft. In fact, the refit Iowaswere innovative as naval surface combatants as they were the first to really utilize unmanned fixed-wing aircraft for targeting, in their case that aircraft was the catapult launched and net caught RQ-2 Pioneer. Over the last 25 years unmanned systems have come a long way. Outfitting non-traditional naval vessels with standoff weapons capabilities and commandos, as well as a new cost-effective unmanned system, could provide added capabilities, including special operations over-watch, search and rescue, sea-control and even over-the-horizon missile targeting capabilities.
In the end, the news that the Navy is now looking to step outside of its own hull-designation box when it comes to adding teeth to a much larger majority of its fleet is extremely promising. Doing so will offer more flexibility, better value and will leave the enemy at much greater risk from unpredictable attack, a bad problem for them to have. It will also allow for more independence of operation when it comes to individual naval assets. For lower-end, smaller conflicts like many that we are involved today, you could have a fleet oiler packed with eight Tomahawks take the place of a multi-billion dollar destroyer or submarine when it comes to close proximity time-sensitive strikes. Additionally, by spreading more capabilities out over more vessels, the over-taxed AEGIS equipped surface combatants or even Carrier Strike Groups and Expeditionary Strike Groups can concentrate on larger power projection missions.
Although the Distributed Lethality concept sounds fantastic, along with an initiative to make individual American naval assets more independent, I worry that the Pentagon's bureaucracy is not up to the task of seeing it through. Case in point, the San Antonio Class LPD-17s which were originally outfitted for the provision of two Mark 41 Vertical Launch Systems on its bow, with a total of 16 cells. This means a single San Antonio Class ship could deploy with a whopping 64 RIM-166 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles, which would allow these capitol ships to provide area air defense for themselves and their companions in low to medium threat environment. This would allow them to deploy on highly focused missions, to dangerous areas, without the need for a AEGIS destroy or cruiser escort. Additionally, these cells could be used to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles as well. A mixed load-out of 32 ESSMs and eight Tomahawks giving the class an excellent over-the-horizon land attack punch while still allowing it to protect itself and ships nearby it. Sadly, this capability was never installed, although it still could be.
Then there is the Littoral Combat Ship debacle which, even in its newest 'up gunned' form, cannot defend itself in anything but a low aerial threat environment. Even the aging Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigates have been modified by foreign navies to carry a vertical launch system capable of slinging beyond visual range surface-to-air missiles, yet for well over half a billion dollars per ship we cannot include this capability even in an enhanced Littoral Combat Ship?
This, like the much larger San Antonio Class, leaves the LCS dependent on multi-billion dollar AEGIS equipped destroyers and cruisers if they are to operate in even a medium threat environment. In fact, the LCS still doesn't even have a short range missile for plinking targets close by, something that was always promised. If the Navy can't even get its act together enough to outfit the LCS with some Hellfire or Griffin missiles years after it has entered service, are we really supposed to think that the Navy will follow-through with up-arming their logistics ships. The simple truth is that it hasn't finished arming the its super-expensive combat ships it already has.
The Navy would be smart to make its hugely expensive surface combatants and capital ships they already have as deadly as they were envisioned to be, while also looking at outfitting logistical ships with an over-the-horizon missile and commando sea base capability. I think the majority of sane minds would rather have dozens of already paid for, already sailing on a daily basis, logistical ships turned into secondary 'weapons platforms' with relatively cheap bolt-on missiles, along with embarked commandos, as well as an LPD-17 San Antonio Class and LCS fleet capable of defending themselves independently in combat, than purchasing another 20 'up gunned' Littoral Combat Ships sometime in the future.
Like all things Pentagon these days, they should learn to make the very best of what they already have before going out an buying more of what we want at moment, especially if that want is not a super high-end potentially game changing technology, of which an up-gunned LCS is clearly not.
So here-here to a great idea Navy! Now let's see if the Pentagon and Congress can make this totally relevant and economically responsible idea happen. Seeing as it does not artificially subsidize a shipyard and it is a far from glamorous concept, I have my doubts.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com