Crisis Management Defense Policy Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Security & Defense United States and Canada
Report July 1, 2024

Executing distributed operations in an increasingly contested maritime environment

By Dmitry Filipoff

Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) is the US Navy’s service warfighting concept. However, the concept suffers from a wide variety of interpretations across the service and needs more specificity regarding on what warfighting approaches it is concentrating. While the concept describes mass fires and decision advantage as core themes, DMO lacks sufficient coherence and concrete focus to effectively guide the Navy’s development.

DMO is a departure from how the Navy traditionally operates. In past decades, the Navy would pull forces into concentrated formations for high-end threats, or disaggregate formations into independent assets for low-end threats. Distribution in DMO describes spreading warships outward and more broadly, but still having them act with unity of purpose, and primarily with a high-end warfighting focus. DMO is a fleet-level warfighting concept, centered on a higher level of command across a broader geographic expanse compared to the strike group-centric operating norms of recent decades.

The desire to distribute naval forces is part defensive reaction and part offensive evolution. Defensively, distribution aims to improve survivability by imposing more friction on the targeting process that precedes strikes. China fields a significant array of sensors and anti-ship firepower, and distribution attempts to prevent that sensing from culminating in decisive strikes. Distribution is an asymmetric approach for circumventing an adversary’s sensing and firepower by employing nontraditional schemes of maneuver and force posturing. Offensively, distribution better postures US forces to harness new anti-ship capabilities that are emerging across the joint force. All services are now procuring long-range anti-ship missiles and introducing newfound anti-ship firepower into a broad swath of untapped force structure, including surface warships, submarines, bombers, and land-based forces. This will level the playing field against China in key respects and provide the joint force with new options for mass fires.

Deception is a natural partner to distribution by targeting decision-making. Deception operations and capabilities should form a cornerstone of the DMO approach. These capabilities can include unmanned systems and decoy missiles that help overload adversary sensing. Deception can help compensate for force generation challenges by inflating the number of contacts that appear to be confronting an adversary. These capabilities are much more affordable than the platforms they replicate, and they can be broadly distributed across existing force structure.

Distributed forces may still be commanded by heavily centralized command structures. The Navy should consider distributing its command elements by having more expeditionary and afloat Maritime Operation Centers (MOCs). It can also better distribute command by enabling platforms with considerable command-and-control (C2) capability to take on certain command functions when networks are contested. Aerial platforms such as E-2s, F-35s, and P-8s are especially strong candidates for taking on the key role of backup joint fires integrators.

The Navy’s ability to investigate and implement DMO is heavily contingent upon the service’s system of operational learning. This system needs reform to better translate the concept into concrete updates to tactical development programs, as well as warfighter training and education. This system also needs to be reformed so the warfighting development of the Navy’s siloed communities can be deliberately integrated into fleet-level approaches under the overarching framework of DMO. The Navy’s MOCs should be specifically targeted with an intensive wargaming curriculum and additional staffing to markedly increase their warfighting skill in the near term.

About the author

Dmitry Filipoff is the director of online content of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and an associate research analyst in the Operational Warfighting Division of the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). He is the author of the Fighting DMO and How the Fleet Forgot to Fight series. He is coauthor of Learning to Win: Using Operational Innovation to Regain the Advantage at Sea against China.


The Atlantic Council is grateful to Fincantieri, MBDA, and Thales for their generous sponsorship of this paper.

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Image: Ships from Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and Boxer Amphibious Ready Group conduct breakaway maneuvers while sailing in formation during security and stability operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations. U.S. 7th Fleet is the largest numbered fleet in the world, and the U.S. Navy has operated in the Indo-Pacific region for more than 70 years, providing credible, ready forces to help preserve peace and prevent conflict. (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Erwin Jacob V. Miciano)