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Navy’s surface warfare boss urges smarter, tougher sailors for future sea battles

SAN DIEGO — Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, the “SWO boss” who helms Naval Surface Forces, kicked off the Surface Warfare Summit on Tuesday at Naval Base Point Loma with a plea for his officers to get smarter and meaner as they train to fight a potential 21st-century sea battle.

The second annual conference gathers more than 200 Navy commanders, defense industry tycoons and academicians to three days of talks on how to adapt America’s Navy to wage war. Much of the forum is classified but focuses on what Rowden calls the “T4” — tactical excellence, nimble and savvy talent, cutting-edged tools that sense and then destroy enemy forces and the realistic training that puts all of the other elements together.

“The message I’d want people to take away from this summit is how far we’ve come over the past few years,” Rowden said. “This conference is designed to create an environment that brings a wide range of disparate entities together to help each other understand the future we face and how we’ll confront it. The idea we like here is, ‘All are smarter than one of us.’ We have the opportunity this week to talk about the challenges but also how we’ll mitigate our weaknesses and exploit the weaknesses of our potential enemies.”

The organizing principle corralling the conference is “distributed lethality,” a concept tied to Rowden and evangelized throughout the surface Navy through some of the brightest junior officers he recruited.

The blueprint for distributed lethality was sketched out at the Rhode Island-based Naval War College but blossomed under Rowden, a career surface warfare officer who came of age during the Cold War and later commanded the destroyer Milius, Destroyer Squadron 60 and multiple carrier strike groups.

The detailed tactics and operations that will flesh out the concept are being refined daily, but in general distributive lethality seeks to widely disperse warships to put a potential enemy at risk of destruction from many different vessels.

Rowden wants the surface fleet to be deployed forward, on the cusp of potential conflict, not only to respond quickly and ruthlessly to challenges at sea but also to be a visible show of American force.

That transparency can deter foes by leaving no doubts about Navy capabilities and presence.

Rowden realizes that if deterrence fails and America must go to war, sailors are going to have be not only competent at their jobs but also tough — capable of taking a punch from the enemy, repairing the damage and then aggressively hunting down that foe to kill it or drive it from sea battle.

As carrier and amphibious strike groups leave San Diego bound for deployments to the Pacific and Indian oceans, they increasingly rehearse battle scenarios during the trip to Hawaii. The groups led by the carriers Carl Vinson and Nimitz, plus the high-tech warship America, have done this and the flattop Theodore Roosevelt will spearhead similar maneuvers when it sails in the autumn.

Rowden and other commanders often shy away from naming the potential enemies these strike groups might fight, but the opening day of the conference spotlighted speeches by Toshi Yoshihara, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments; plus Thomas Fedyszyn and Richard A. Moss, both professors at the Naval War College. Yoshihara is one of the world’s foremost experts on the Chinese navy. The professors specialize in analyzing Russia’s military.


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