What is the “Distributed Lethality” Concept?

Distributed Lethality
Photo courtesy of the US Navy

Distributed lethality is to become the newest paradigm shift in offensive surface combat

Naval surface warfare is undergoing a period of rapid technological and operational change. During the nearly 30 years since the end of the Cold War, navies encountered relatively permissive environments, and improved defensive systems could largely defeat the threats they did face. However, a new generation of challenges has emerged, including ubiquitous passive sensors, quiet submarines, supersonic and hypersonic anti-ship missiles (ASM), “smart” mines, and the increasing use of paramilitary forces in naval operations. As a result, many fleets are revising their concepts and capabilities for traditional surface missions such as air defense, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), maritime and land strike, and mine warfare (MIW).

Distributed Lethality (DL) was officially announced as a concept in development by the USN in an article jointly written by three USN flag officers for the United States Naval Institute in January 2015. The piece referred to a shift underway in the surface force that was “not subtle, and … not accidental” The Admirals referred to the loss of core skills and competencies in the surface fleet due to the dominance of carrier-based tactics that relied upon uncontested control of the sea.

Essentially the USN had become accustomed to the domination of the maritime domain following the end of the Cold War. As a result, the ability of surface ships to conduct core duties such as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface warfare (ASUW) had been allowed to atrophy. Protecting carriers in uncontested waters far from enemy-controlled areas had become the sole focus of the USN. To correct this problem, the admirals have come up with Distributed Lethality.

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Distributed Lethality Concept – US Navy release

U.S. Navy’s future operation concept

The Distributed Lethality (DL) concept is the that is being developed to enhance the viability and offensive capabilities of the U.S. fleet in an Anti-Access and Anti-Denial (A2/AD) environment. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has dominated almost every battlefield with its overwhelming military power. However, the increased A2/AD abilities of the enemy, including the development of long-range missiles, threaten the freedom of action of the United States.

Additionally, Distributed Lethality plans to geographically distribute forces called a Hunter-Killer Surface Action Group (SAG), making it challenging for the enemy to target U.S. forces. The U.S. Navy expects the DL concept to provide more attack options to Joint Force Commanders (JFC), seize the initiative, and increase complexity for the enemy.

Sea Control is the main focus

The DL concept is to establish sea control and prevent an adversary from doing the same. It is achieved by increasing the offensive and defensive capability of individual warships, employing them in dispersed formations across a vast expanse of geography, and generating distributed fires. Surface forces outfitted with robust defensive systems and armed with credible surface-launched stand-off weapons, survivable in both contested and communications degraded environments, will help to secure sea territory and enable forces to flow for follow-on power projection operations. Sea control does not mean command of all the seas, all the time. Instead, it is the capability and capacity to impose localized control of the sea when and where it is required to enable other objectives and to hold it as long as necessary to accomplish those objectives.

Distributed Lethality has distinguishing characteristics at the tactical and operational levels. At the tactical level, it increases unit lethality and reduces the susceptibility of warships to detection and targeting. It employs warships as elements of offensive Adaptive Force Packages that are task-oriented and capable of widely dispersed operations at the operational level. Adaptive Force Packages allow operational commanders the ability to scale force capabilities depending on the level of threat. This manner of employment is designed to open battlespace and enable concealment and deception to inject uncertainty and complexity into an adversary’s targeting.

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US Navy image

Hunter-killer SAGs

The focus of the USN will shift back to the offensive while maintaining the skills required to support existing CVN battle groups. Distributed Lethality is the condition gained by increasing the offensive power of individual components of the surface force (cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships [LCSs], amphibious ships, and logistics ships) and then employing them in dispersed offensive formations known as “hunter-killer SAGs.” Arming the overall fleet with longer-range weapons has been a significant focus for the Navy for many years. For example, arming the LCS with deck-launched Hellfire missile to extend ship-based air-defense ranges and giving the ship the new “over-the-horizon” NSM missile, the strategy also employed on the Navy’s new Frigate, emerged years ago as part of the Distributed Lethality concept.

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US Navy photo

Hunter-killer SAGs seize maritime operations areas for subsequent activities (including power projection), perform screening operations for more giant formations, and hold adversary land targets at risk. Additionally, by distributing power across a more significant number of more geographically spaced units, adversary targeting is complicated, and attack density is diluted. Hunter-killer SAGS can defend themselves against air and missile attacks and extend that protection to expeditionary forces conducting offensive operations of their own. These hunter-killer SAGs will be networked and integrated to support complex operations even when not supported by the carrier air wing and land-based patrol aircraft.

Limitations of Distributed Lethality

However, there are many limitations in realizing this concept. It is practically difficult to cover the vast A2/AD area by the United States alone. There is a high probability that logistical support problems will also occur in dispersed domains due to the lack of adequate logistical support for U.S forces. In other words, with the existing supply system, it would not be able to efficiently cope with the demand for supplies at different times and locations.


As a result, if the problems that can be experienced in logistics and command and control are eliminated, Distributed Lethality provides the ability to apply all elements of sea power for deterrence, to respond to crises, aggression, or conflict, to build readiness to project power to deny or defeat attack in multiple theaters, and to provide a robust ability to strike targets with a surprise from the sea.

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