From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Whenever you put together a top 10 list related to an organization with a 241-year history, there’s really no way to get it right. It’s one of the reasons we asked our fans on Facebook and Twitter for input on the 10 most important innovations in Navy lethality. As always, our fans came through with quite a few good ones included in the list below. There are also several suggestions that aren’t, such as nuclear power, which was indeed a game changer for persistent Navy presence. But we’ve already done a similar blog on the evolution of power in which nuclear power obviously figures prominently (been there, done that). Still the purpose of this blog is to stimulate a discussion about Navy lethality. Knowing there are systems, platforms and technologies that didn’t make this list, we encourage you to tell us in the comments on this blog, which ones you believe should be on the list and why.
Essentially, distributed lethality provides for a more lethal and distributed surface force, increasing the offensive power available to combatant commanders, which changes the adversary’s planning calculus.
So why is all this talk about lethality important?
Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, Commander, Naval Surface Forces, released the Surface Force Strategy Jan. 9. It serves as the Surface Force’s call to action to build, organize, train, and equip surface forces that can fight and win today, tomorrow, and beyond. In keeping with the Chief of Naval Operations’ Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, the strategy is a call to “strengthen naval power at and from the sea” through sea control. To achieve sea control, the strategy relies on distributed lethality.
In a strategic sense, distributed lethality:
- rededicates us to sea control and describes how surface forces are organized and employed to achieve and sustain sea control,
- drives collaboration and integration across warfighting domains,
- increases warfighting capability of surface forces, yielding more options to fleet commanders, and
- guides deliberate investment in modernization and the future force.
When combined with the right mix of capabilities and tactics, distributed lethality enables the surface force to deter an adversary with credible combat power, challenge the operating space, and gain the advantage for follow-on joint force operations.
No longer a new concept, distributed lethality is an operational and organizational principle for achieving and sustaining sea control at will. distributed lethality’s core concept is that more lethal and distributed surface forces increase the offensive options available to fleet and joint commanders. Equally important is the ability to enhance conventional deterrence postures that limit an adversary’s options and even keep them at bay. Distributed lethality reinforces fleet initiatives that drive collaboration and integration across warfighting domains.
So looking back over the past 241 years what are some of the capabilities that have given the Navy its edge? As discussed earlier this could be a very long list and we want to hear your thoughts, but for the purposes of this blog, here are ten:
Sailors. Seems like we’re taking the chicken’s way out on this one with a big, old BFO (blinding flash of the obvious), and maybe we are. But think about our history for a moment. Tell us about the weapons used by a famous Sailor from history who is said to have uttered the words “I have not yet begun to fight!” You probably can’t, but you can probably tell us the Sailor was John Paul Jones. Everything the Navy has achieved in the past 241 years, and everything it will achieve in the next 241 years, begins and ends with American Sailors who are defined by their legacy of integrity, accountability, initiative, and toughness. We dare you to argue this point with us.
Six Frigates. The Naval Act of 1794 authorized the President to procure six frigates, “a naval force adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States, against the Algerine corsairs.” One of those ships survives today, USS Constitution. They were designed to outrun anything they couldn’t outgun, and outgun anything they couldn’t outrun. Joshua Humphreys, the principle designer, determined that the ships had to be the strongest, fastest, and most heavily armed frigates of the era. Constitution’s three-layered hull, composed of exterior and interior white oak planking over dense live oak framing (ribs) spaced close together, forms a dense and sturdy structure more than 22 inches thick at the waterline. In the case of Constitution, this resulted in the nickname “Old Ironsides.” The importance of innovations in shipbuilding and weapons systems has persisted through the years, increasing the Navy’s lethality and giving America the necessary advantage to emerge victorious in combat.
Turreted Guns. So the Navy began in the age of sail, and although the original 13 frigates were cunningly designed to outrun and outgun adversaries, they were basically sailing ships – technology that had been in use for generations. However, in the industrial age, a number of transformational technologies were developed, the descendants of which can still be found onboard the most modern ships in the fleet. Among them: turreted guns. During the Civil War, John Ericsson put a revolving gun turret on the warship Monitor, which proved famously effective in the contested inshore waters of Hampton Roads. In the years that followed technology improved on the basic design to today’s two 155 millimeter advanced gun system (AGS) mounts onboard the newly commissioned USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000).
Torpedoes. In addition to improvements to naval guns, research continued in the 19th century into extending the combat reach of Navy ships. One such innovation was the torpedo. The Howell Torpedo, named for Lt. Cmdr. John A. Howell, the primary contributor, was developed between 1870 and 1889. The Howell, the first propelled torpedo, was 11-feet long, made of brass, had a range of 400 yards, a speed of 25 knots, and a warhead filled with 100 pounds of explosive. Intended then as an anti-ship weapon, torpedoes today are used by surface ships, aircraft and submarines against target on and beneath the sea.
Naval Aviation. Originally thought to have practicality as fleet scouts, the Navy was interested in aviation from the earliest days of the science. In fact, aviation itself was still in its infancy when the Secretary of the Navy designated Capt. Washington I. Chambers as the officer to head up the development of the new field for the Navy in 1910. More than a century later naval aircraft and the ships that carry them have earned their place in history at places like Midway, Philippine Sea, MIG Alley in Korea to the ongoing operations against terrorism. They remain central to the Navy’s forward presence and its ability to project power and defend fleet assets.
Sensors. Engaging the enemy requires that you detect the enemy, hopefully before they detect you. To that end, much research and development in the last century was dedicated to extending Sailors’ ability to see over the horizon on, above and below the water. Sonar was the first development, coming of age during World War I as a way to meet the threat of submarines. That was followed by radar in the early days of World War II which extended detection to the skies and the ocean’s surface. Vast improvements were made to those systems in the ensuing years with a giant leap forward with the advent of Aegis in which radar was integrated with weapons to form a total weapon system, from detection to kill. The next evolutionary step in integrated sensor technology is allowing sensors from one unit to provide a firing solution to another unit which can then engage a target. Last fall, the Navy Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) system did just that. On Sept. 12, 2016, an unmodified U.S. Marine Corps F-35B acted as an elevated sensor to detect an over-the-horizon threat. The aircraft then sent data through its Multi-Function Advanced Data Link to a ground station connected to a land-based launch facility designed to simulate a ship at sea which used an existing Aegis Weapon System (Baseline 9.C1) and a Standard Missile 6 to successfully detect and engage the target.
Rockets/Missiles. Rockets can trace their history back to 400 B.C. and of course we’re all familiar with the idea of the rocket’s red glare mentioned in a song about the War of 1812 bombardment by the British of Ft. McHenry. In that case, the Congreve rockets were relatively recent innovations, but were no more accurate than in the early days. In the early 20th Century rocket technology continued to develop though for exploration purposes under the leadership of people like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky of Russia, American Robert H. Goddard, and Hermann Oberth of Transylvania. However, during World War II, German rocket scientists weaponized rockets to great psychological effect, sending V-2 rockets into England. By war’s end Germany had begun developing plans for longer-range more accurate rocket and missile systems. Those advancements were integrated into allied research which had also begun during the war. In the 50’s research and development continued increasing range, power and accuracy of tactical surface-to-surface, surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. Today, one of the more famous missiles in the Navy’s inventory is the Tomahawk land attack missile which has become the go-to military strike weapon in the opening days of any conflict. Sea launched surface-to-air missiles also figure prominently in today’s ballistic missile defense programs. Interestingly a missile development from the 1950’s has had a profound effect on America’s national defense strategy that continues to this day: the development of the submarine launched ballistic missile program. On Nov. 8, 1955 the Secretary of Defense established a national ballistic missile program involving joint Army-Navy development of an intermediate-range ballistic missile for shipboard and land-based operations. Stunningly, less than five years later the ballistic missile submarine (a class of ship that had not existed before) USS George Washington (SSBN 598) made history on July 20, 1960 when she successfully launched the first Polaris ballistic missile while submerged. Later that year, she would depart on the nation’s first strategic deterrent patrol (the Navy and Washington’s successor boats have since completed more than 4,000). Perhaps the most effective part of the nation’s strategic deterrent triad, the submarine force’s “boomers,” which are extremely difficult to track, differ from the air-borne and land based elements of the triad in that a potential adversary never knows where they are.
Amphibious Assault Ship Well Deck. Putting forces ashore is nothing new for the U.S. Navy. It first did so less than six months after it was established. From March 1-4, 1776 Commodore Esek Hopkins put Marines and Sailors ashore in the Bahamas capturing valuable munitions and supplies. In the decades that followed amphibious operations continued, but they were often hampered by the techniques required to get Marines and their gear over the side which could be an extremely dangerous evolution. On June 5, 1942 the first amphibious dock landing ship, USS Ashland (LSD 1) was commissioned featuring the first U.S. Navy well deck. For the first time in our seagoing history, the Navy was able to load people and supplies onto amphibious assault craft onboard the larger ship which would then lower itself into the water. It was a game changer, allowing assault craft to safely depart the ship aft. The well deck has become a standard feature on American amphibious warships for the past 50 years, with the exception of the Iwo Jima-class amphibious assault ship (helicopter) and the first two America-class general purpose amphibious assault ships.
Navy Space/Satellite Programs. The Navy aggressively pursued space exploration in the years following World War II leading eventually to the Naval Research Laboratory’s March 17, 1958 launch into orbit of a Vanguard satellite. In the years that followed multiple reconnaissance, navigation, and communication satellites were launched to support fleet operations. Perhaps one of the most well-known military space programs developed for navigation is the Global Positioning System (you probably know it better as GPS) which became operational in the 1990’s. Although originally intended for use by the military, GPS has become commonplace in the cars and hands of millions of Americans. Most recently the Navy’s fifth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite reached operational orbit and successfully deployed its arrays and antennas. The MUOS system is designed to provide improved communications capabilities to users around the world, regardless of where they are in relation to a satellite. The MUOS constellation and associated ground network will provide 3G-like cellphone communications to the fleet for the next decade and beyond.
Unmanned Systems. We wrap up this list on the reverse side of the coin with which it began. Unmanned systems have been in use by the Navy for decades in the form of remote controlled target vessels and other airborne drones. More recently Fire Scout and ScanEagle platforms were used in Iraq and Afghanistan from multiple ground and sea-based platforms. Unmanned underwater vehicles were actively used in the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. In 2015 Virginia-class nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine, USS North Dakota (SSN 784), conducted the first real-world operations deploying and operating with unmanned undersea vehicles. Unmanned systems have been described as the answer to dull, dirty, dangerous jobs where the nature of humanity is the main limiting factor. Future unmanned systems will increase endurance making it possible for them to remain on station for increasingly lengthy periods of time. On Nov. 2, 2016 Unmanned Patrol Squadron (VUP) 19 was officially commissioned becoming the latest command whose warfighting punch is packed by unmanned systems.
With the launch of the surface force strategy, Rowden rededicates the force to the ongoing effort to sustain sea control, retain the best and brightest Sailors, provide advanced tactical training, and equip ships with improved offensive weapons.
Using innovative and lethal technologies, Surface forces are distributed across the globe ensuring sea lanes remain open for the free movement of goods, safeguarding the interests of the United States and partner nations, and preventing adversaries from leveraging the world’s oceans against us.