Future of war at sea

Future of war, part two: combat systems at sea, ruling the waves

Image credit: BAE Systems

War is one of the great accelerators for technology development. It is, quite simply, a matter of life and death and consequently it is a huge industry sector in its own right. In this series of three articles, E&T talked to military and aerospace contractor BAE Systems about how the future is shaping up for equipment for land, sea and air.

Naval resources remain crucial to future conflict, but it is the technology in the operations room rather than the hardware that is critical.

“Naval resources will be essential to future requirements,” says BAE Systems’ Combat Systems head of technology, Frank Cotton. “We are already seeing navies adapting as the threats they face evolve, and they are evolving very quickly. Just a few years ago a Nato exercise, Formidable Shield, took place in which a Type 45 destroyer successfully demonstrated how it could intercept a ballistic missile on the edge of space – a new development for a warship.”

With budgets decreasing and responsibilities increasing, the role each ship in the navy has to perform is expanding and their capabilities need to be equally all-encompassing. The Type 26 Global Combat Ships (a frigate – all-purpose warship) being built in Glasgow, for example, will be the quietest warships ever made and very hard to detect by the submarines they will be hunting.

Another example is mine-sweeping. The majority of the world’s trading routes are still at sea, and the centuries-old tactic of cutting off supply lines is still used in conflicts. The easiest way of employing that tactic is to deploy naval mines, and so navies will be called upon to use mine countermeasure vessels. In order to make mine disposal safe, it is likely that those vessels will deploy autonomous and unmanned vehicles, which is another area of technology development.

As well as the design of platforms, the technology that gives them combat capabilities is a major area of development. Cotton observes: “Modern sensors are collecting large amounts of data, and the larger the amount of information, the longer it takes for specialist warfare officers to make sense of it, decide what to do and take action. That’s where we’re seeing a need for better technology that gives as much help to those specialist warfare officers as possible, as well as a vital edge in combat.”

A combat system takes information from the platform’s surroundings via sensors, such as radars, sonars and meteorological and hydrographical equipment. That information is then presented in a tactical picture via combat management systems (CMS), which a weapon systems operator will use to take action through the command and control of weapons such as missile systems or guns.

Future of war at sea (inline version)

Image credit: BAE Systems

Development of these combat systems is moving on apace, as Cotton describes: “The biggest change we are seeing is a move towards combat systems that use ‘open architectures’. In years gone by combat systems have used computing architectures that have been difficult to update, and that has limited the ability for navies to introduce new capabilities such as improved sensors or weapons. With threats evolving at a rapid rate the ability to introduce a new capability in response is vital, so navies are now looking at ‘open systems’, which can be quickly and cost-effectively adapted to include new technologies.

“In 2016 BAE Systems played a leading role in the UK Royal Navy’s Unmanned Warrior exercise, where industry was invited to demonstrate how unmanned and autonomous systems could be used in naval operations. We showed how a version of our CMS, the same systems used by the Royal Navy today, using a more open computing architecture, could be used for the command and control of dozens of different unmanned and autonomous vehicles.”

BAE has recently begun a £20m, five-year programme to develop new technologies, such as augmented reality, that can go into its combat system products, particularly the CMS. The way that CMS display tactical pictures hasn’t changed much since the late 1950s when the Royal Navy first used its comprehensive display system, which was a simple way of showing radar information and tracking threats with a conventional computer display screen.

“Sixty years later we are able to display much more information on our CMS and warfare officers can do much more with them,” says Cotton, “but augmented reality could really make a difference. Rather than having a warfare officer sitting in front of a display screen in an operations room, we see a future where officers could use wearable technology such as a headset on a ship’s bridge, and still be able to access all the vital data they need.”

This combination of new technologies and an open architecture offer great potential. Cotton concludes: “Our vision for the future of combat systems is a single IT system that hosts capabilities in the form of apps – just like a smartphone is a piece of hardware that users can download apps to. We aren’t quite at the stage where a warship can quickly download a new technology that instantly works with its combat management system, but it’s not far away.”

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