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Navy deploys carrier strike group to Pacific — without the carrier

April 19, 2016 (Photo Credit: MC3 Gregory A. Harden II/Navy)

This story was originally published April 19, 2016, at 5:10 p.m. EST and has been updated.

The destroyers Spruance, Momsen and Decatur deployed as part of a surface action group and will be on the prowl in the Pacific.

A carrier strike group typically deploys with a escorts like cruisers, destroyers and a destroyer squadron to guard the flattop and its air wing. But this stripped-down group's mission is special: Making the surface fleet more deadly.

The destroyers are charged with testing out concepts to make the surface Navy more of a threat to adversaries by being able to assault ships and bases from many angles, according to a naval expert. 

The move is a key part of what surface Navy boss Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden has called "distributed lethality," aimed at breaking up groups of surface combatants to threaten enemy ships and land targets from multiple angles and force the adversary to devote surveillance assets like submarines and aircraft to find them. The surface action groups pull the enemy in multiple directions and make it harder to target the carrier strike groups. 

At the same time, the ships will be outfitted with longer-range missiles and networks that give today's ships sharper fangs. In the past, Rowden has described these groups as "hunter killers."

Bryan McGrath, a retired surface warfare officer who has followed the strategy closely, said the SAG will be tasked with coming up with new ways of doing business.

"They are deploying with the destroyer squadron CO and staff with them and one of the things they are really on the hook for is figuring out what are some of the capabilities that we wish we had," said McGrath, deputy director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute. "What problems could we have created for someone responsible for surveilling them if we had different capabilities?

"What we are doing is really unleashing three ship crews and a DESRON staff's worth of innovation."  

Rowden, head of Naval Surface Forces, announced the SAG deployment at the Surface Navy Association's annual meeting in January, and told Navy Times in an interview that the goal was to offer combatant commanders more than just carrier strike groups to pursue military operations around the world.

"We need to deploy the ships and begin to understand the effects we can achieve," Rowden said. "We can then begin to articulate those to the combatant commanders. So when the combatant commanders say, 'I need this capability,' we can say, 'This is the capability I can deliver with this adaptive force package, this is what we can deliver with the other package.' That way we can express to the combatant commanders the options available beyond the carrier strike groups."

That's an idea that has buy-in from Navy's top officer, who has called for ships to deploy in different configurations and with new capabilities to find new ways of employing the fleet.

The Navy should " explore alternative fleet designs" and begin "exploring new naval platforms and formations ...  to meet combatant commander needs," wrote Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, in a January strategy document.

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