WASHINGTON — The effort to put more weapons on more ships and find more ways to attack an enemy — and get it done in a timely manner — is key to "distributed lethality," a concept being championed by Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, the US Navy's commander of surface forces.

But an ancient obstacle remains: bureaucracy. And it's no secret that Navy officials have chafed under competing requirements to identify and field new capabilities faster while complying with layers of evaluation and testing authorities that often slow things up.

"How do we deliver the capabilities going forward, what does it take to do that?" John Burrow, the Navy's top civilian official for research, test and evaluation, asked a professional audience in Washington on Tuesday. "It takes investment, a willingness to take on risk, a willingness to fail."

Efforts that fail in their immediate goals can still provide information, Burrow noted.

"I've never seen a project that we pushed forward that even if we didn't deliver a capability, that we learned a lot from," he said to an audience at an American Society of Naval Engineers symposium. "From an engineering point of view — a science point of view — if we don't push the envelope, take it to the outer edge, we're not going to achieve the capabilities we need."

Without pointing to specific entities, Burrow decried critics who focus on defects.

"We need to be willing to go off road, to change direction," he said, noting that it's not always apparent at the beginning of a program what eventually will be needed.

"I don't think we can get a group of people to deliver a requirements package that's perfect," he said, "and then at the end we have trouble with cost and schedule. I submit that with that linear process, we shouldn't be surprised that we have problems at the end."

A recent demonstration by the Russians in launching cruise missiles from small warships in the Caspian Sea to strike targets about 1,000 miles away in Syria is widely seen as an example of distributed lethality.

Rear Adm. Pete Fanta, the director of surface warfare at the Pentagon, was blunt in responding to a question about why the US can't seem to field similar capabilities in a timely manner.

"We can get there, but get the hell out of my way," Fanta declared, speaking to the bureaucratic obstacles. "I can get there fast, I can get with the same capability, I can get it on the ships, but I can't do it in a risk-averse, fear-centric organization.

"That's not you folks," he said to the civilians in the room, "that's us wearing the uniform. I'm willing to go be the chew toy for Congress if I fail. You let me go try it, I'll go do it. You let me bolt it on, I'll take the risk. I'll find a [commanding officer] out there that's willing to point it in a direction and fire it" and understand the risks.

"I can't do it in an organization that spends three times as much on proving it might or might not work perfectly every single time, as I can if I just go do it. Every success we've had we just went and did. Every major failure we've had has been an opinion on the level of failure by someone else.

That may be a little too blunt, but it's the truth," Fanta said. "We need to get out of this risk-averse culture."

Fanta was asked if the Navy is developing a new long-range anti-ship missile.

"We still have a requirement for a Tomahawk cruise missile to attack surface ships sitting on the books. In fact it's been reiterated for the past 15 years," Fanta noted.

The Navy in the 1980s developed an active radar-homing anti-ship version of the Tomahawk land-attack weapon, but dropped it in the 1990s.

"We know what Tomahawk is capable of," Fanta said. "The reason we got rid of it was because our sensors were not long-range enough to keep up with the range of Tomahawk.

Now, he noted, "our sensors have evolved to where we can track and target things out to the range of Tomahawk. So now we have a need for something Tomahawk-esque to reach out that far."

"We're talking about evolving the capabilities that we have," he said. "I got a great truck" — the Tomahawk. "It's a big missile, it's sitting inside my [vertical launch system] cells right now. What other things can we put on it or make it do, whether with a seeker, without a seeker, dumb seekers, smart sensors? We're looking at all of that.

"This missile is going to be around until the mid-2040s," Fanta noted. "I think I better figure out more things to do with it than just hit a spot on the beach."

Twitter: @CavasShips