From his perch in San Diego, COMSURFOR – the commander of US Naval Forces – oversees the preparation and training of all the US Navy’s surface warships – cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships, amphibious ships and mine warfare ships. Tom Rowden has had a major hand in the force’s development over the past five years, first as the director of the Surface Warfare Division N96 at the Pentagon, then as the service’s top surface warfare officer in San Diego. He’s championed the concept of distributed lethality and the reinvigoration of combat power in the surface forces. Now, in a new Surface Force Strategy released Jan. 9, he’s harkening back to another classic naval concept.
You’ve succeeded in introducing the concept of distributed lethality into the Navy, and now you’re rolling into the larger concept of sea control – a term of art that was in vogue during the Cold War. Why now sea control?
In five years of focusing all my efforts on the surface warfare community and the surface ship contribution to the Naval team and the joint combined team, I put that against the backdrop of what’s happening globally with respect to nuclear competitors, non-government actors, some of the more destructive governments out there, I go back a conversation I had when I was a midshipman with then-Rear Adm. Hank Mustin. He pointed out that the reason the United States of America has a Navy is to control the sea.
Now in the 21 st century, this is a maritime century we’re driving in to, I see some of our nuclear competitors and their reactions to our complete dominance of the maritime domain. They seek to challenge that control of the sea that we’ve had. Surface ships play a significant role in sea control, and when we had complete and unfettered sea control we had the opportunity to, I guess, not concentrate as heavily on the contribution of surface ships. Well, the times have changed.
As we formulated the Surface Force Strategy I saw a lot of parallels from when we were challenged from the sea control perspective in the Cold War and some of the challenges we’re seeing now, and I concentrated on that conversation I had back with Mustin back in the ’81 timeframe where the Navy exists to control the sea for the prosperity of our country and to the benefit of our allied partners and friends.
When people talk about sea control the discussion often leads straight to aircraft carriers and submarines. What do surface ships bring to the picture?
One is quantity has a quality all its own. Surface forces bring big numbers or have the potential to bring big numbers — 62 destroyers and 22 cruisers in commission today, and a growing number of littoral combat ships coming into the force. From the numbers perspective we comprise the bulk of the United States Navy. However, I think it’s important that we concentrate on a strategy not just on ships or numbers or specific weapons, but a complete package of talent, tactics, training, and tools needed to maximize the value of surface ships in the sea control fight. And it’s been said to me on numerous occasions that, from the historical perspective, when you get into a sea control fight the first thing you run out of is ships.
You mentioned Littoral Combat Ships. One LCS, the Coronado, is deployed and operating from Singapore, but you’re in the process of revamping the crewing and support structures and singling up on mission packages. What’s in the near future for LCS? Is that the only deployment scheduled for 2017?
That is correct.
You don’t have another LCS deployment scheduled for 2017?
No, I don’t think so.
You have eight LCSs in commission now, and another four should enter service in 2017. What are those ships doing for the balance of 2017 into 2018?
We’re in the process of implementing the review, recommendations, forming the first division, and getting the crews squared away, and we’re building the processes and infrastructure necessary to make sure we get those ships out on deployment. I’d like to say, yeah, I could snap my fingers and make it all happen immediately, but the reality of it is there’s a lot of moving parts in getting those combat ships out. On top of it, we formed the first two divisions, anti-surface warfare divisions. I am looking to deploy in earnest in ’18. Obviously, we’ve got work to do. But certainly for the first division, East and West Coast, that’s when we’re looking to start deploying those ships.
In 2016 the Chinese Navy commissioned a 4,000-ton frigate in late February and sent it on a 7-month deployment six weeks later. It often takes a year or more for the US Navy to deploy a new destroyer. What are the Chinese doing that the US Navy does not? What does the US Navy do that the Chinese don’t?
Two gray ships riding on the sea go by. They’ve got a bunch of flags flying and a bunch of sailors up on deck. One of them couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag and the other one will rock anything that it comes up against. Could we commission a guided-missile destroyer and steam it out of the harbor and take it on a world cruise? Yeah, I could. But in that situation I would not be taking care of what I refer to as the center of the universe. I want those men and women on that ship to be 100 percent confident in the ship and confident in the execution of any mission leadership may give them. So what are the Chinese thinking? I don’t know anything about it. I would tell you that I find it kind of interesting they feel they have to do that. To what end? I don’t know.
As commander of Surface Forces you prepare your ships to go out and meet operational demands, focusing on enhanced combat power, tactics, talent, tools, and training. Do you have the resources now to effectively carry out all those requirements or do you need more and where do you need more?
In the strategy I specifically didn’t say, “Hey, these are the resources that we need,” because, I mean, it’s not only discussions within the United States Navy, but obviously within the larger, broader DoD and the government. Are there timelines associated with what we’d like to do with the surface force? Yes. Are there resources required associated with what we’d like to do with the surface force? Yes. The requirement for the United States Navy is to go ahead and execute sea control. We can accelerate when resources are added.
Absolutely, we could use more resources, but I think that it also provides us a framework for the resources that lays out priorities and starts to drive those in the direction that allows maximum utilization and maximum benefit of whatever the resources are.
Christopher P. Cavas in Washington