The UK's new aircraft carriers are taking shape in an artificial world that looks out over the sea high above Portsmouth, home of the Royal Navy.
The broad suite of techniques being used to design the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers draws upon a mixture of gaming technology to provide a synthetic environment through to wooden mock-ups that have been used to understand design for decades.
The work being done at the QE Class MS Integration facility at Portsdown Technology Park will make sure that the new Queen Elizabeth (QE) Class Aircraft Carriers, currently under construction in shipyards across the UK, will be state of the art and fully integrated with the new F-35 Lightning II when the aircraft is delivered.
The QE Class MS team are involved in a three-year programme of visualisation and experimentation to reduce cost through risk mitigation by integrating real, maturing and prototype systems with assistance from their developers working in partnership with the MoD and Navy to iron out any problems at an early stage. The facility is also designed to evolve to enable the integration of delivered systems prior to their installation on the carriers.
The carriers in question are the QE Class Aircraft Carriers, which at 65,000 tonnes at full displacement, will be the largest surface warships ever built for the UK and represent a steep change in capability and in the way the design process has been carried out.
The QE Class carriers are over three times the size of the current Invincible Class Aircraft Carriers. They have a new and innovative design featuring increased survivability as a result of the separation and distribution of power generation machinery throughout the ship. They also feature twin islands, which separate out the running of the ship from the flying operations providing greater visibility.
Affordability of through-life support has been a key driver in adopting a commercial design allowing key operational spaces to be readily reconfigured and additional equipment inserted in a cost effective manner. Key to the approach is to attack a problem, as early as possible before the cost escalates, using software emulation, human factors engineering, role play with the user and any other method that will bring the issue to life in an affordable but effective way.
In the latest scenario at MS Integration facility, Joint Combat Aircraft (JCA) roar off the deck of the aircraft carrier, with the objective of containing a territorial conflict between two rival nations. Command and control, computer systems and intelligence (C4I), together with aircraft, air and ship-based support systems, must all work in harmony to ensure mission success.
The scenario for this C4I trial depicts a territorial conflict between two adjacent, imaginary countries, Dragonia and Caledonia. The UK naval task force's mission is to conduct military operations throughout the joint operating area and enforce the conditions of United Nations Security Council Resolutions. A range of strike, suppression of enemy air defence, close air support and counter air missions can be played out, ensuring different planning cycles and systems are exercised. To ensure that the exercise is realistic, the scenario even includes environmental conditions.
Familiar scenarios like this have evolved with Navy Command to reflect not only the acceptance scenarios against which the QE Class will be delivered but also the training scenario the first Ship's Company and Airwing will enact to bring the Carrier Strike Capability to Operational Readiness.
A live network link with the US forges the way for transatlantic collaboration, which allows cooperation on common training and integration into the synthetic environment. The integration of radar sensor data into the combat system and the first Integrated Network Electronic server rack build show how the knowledge gained in the synthetic environment is being integrated back into the real environment as the digital systems become reality in the build programme.
Additional programs exercise the ship's visual surveillance capability; mission briefing and debriefing; NATO coalition networks and key roles within air and sea environments.
Real engineering underway
Following the successful collaboration between MoD and industry in 2008 and 2009 to harmonise JCA offboard software and operations with the QE Class Mission System (MS), the activities have now entered the next phase. Understanding how the carrier's planner and the squadron mission team synchronise their efforts remains the underlying scenario, but real engineering integration is now running in parallel as industry and the UK MoD collaborate to deliver the next generation of military capability.
The JCA and the Royal Navy's QE Class Aircraft Carriers enter service within the next decade, so the systems must be ready. Simulation evaluations are already under way to guarantee that future missions proceed with clockwork precision.
A C4I applications trial is being held to investigate mission support and flight scheduling applications for the QE Class and its on-board aircraft in support of carrier strike capability.
"The synthetic environment allows scenarios to represent the dynamics of ship-board operations and combat activity, and can be used to create stressing situations and interaction between ship and air support groups and operations staff," says Commander Owen McDermott, mission system lead, Ministry of Defence.
Investigations carried out during events draw on the expertise of active Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel, as well as experts from the MoD and industry, and look at current and future applications for rotary and fixed-wing mission support alongside C4I applications.
Teams from across the UK and US defence organisations and industries have contributed to the simulations.
BAE Systems is a member of the Aircraft Alliance, responsible for the QE Class MS, and a principal partner to Lockheed Martin in the development of the F-35 Lightning II.
Squadron Leader Bob Arber, JCA Project Team says: "This is, to my knowledge, the first time two major project teams and industry have collaborated, to this extent, this early in a programme. It is an important message and one that will sit well with our leadership as exemplar, particularly within the Defence Industrial Strategy."
Within the backdrop, QE Class MS and JCA Project Teams will conduct a series of investigations to mitigate key risks across the scope of the QE Class MS including: Comms message handling and integration; aircraft logistics management; full mission planning and execution; and aircraft control via data link.