This post is a contribution to a series leading to ASPI’s Future Surface Fleet Conference at the end of March. Early bird tickets are now available.
The prospect of future conflict being conducted in contested, extremely complex operating environments presents many threats for surface combatants. But there are new technologies emerging which may mean that the attributes of mobility in mass, persistence and autonomy which larger ships have always possessed can provide a basis for wholly new ways of conducting operations at sea.
Three of the most important considerations in the design of the future surface combatant to permit its evolution to meet the new operating environment will be internal volume, power generation and signature reduction.
The proliferation of unmanned vehicles will present more opportunities than challenges for the surface ship. With the right facilities, it will be able to deploy and recover passive and active sensors on its own unmanned air, surface and underwater units. That will not only extend its detection ranges—most notably, ending the ‘tyranny of the horizon’ that has long bedevilled surface forces in the absence of aerial early warning—but also allow active emitters which can be tracked by other passive sensors, such as ELINT satellites, geographically displaced from the ship itself. That would considerably complicate the targeting problem for an attacker. There will remain a critical role for deployable manned organic systems, as well. In addition to helicopters, the continuing evolution of semi-rigid boats will create new possibilities for their employment not only as autonomous, unmanned craft, but also—probably in the most covert and complex situations—as manned units.
Small, wholly coastal defence navies in enclosed seas may continue to use smaller manned combatants as well as their own ‘swarms’. But it’s arguable that fast attack craft and missile corvettes will be replaced in navies which go any further afield by larger ‘host’ units, whose own greater combatant power—and much better battlespace management capabilities than those of the small ships—will be augmented by the ‘swarms’ that they’ll be able to bring with them into theatre, deploy and sustain.
There are several advantages to that approach. The proximity of a mobile base avoids the problems of endurance that small units, particularly fast-moving ones, inevitably otherwise have. They can thus capitalise on their strengths, particularly the difficulty that any adversary will have in dealing with multiple small and speedy targets. Furthermore, the smaller and simpler units, particularly UAVs, will inherently be much more expendable (and possibly less vulnerable) in a contested environment than their big, long-range brothers operating from remote locations. A third advantage, particularly when networks are under attack, is that local communications, especially line-of-sight systems, may well be less vulnerable to interruption than long range ones. And, if all else fails, the data from a unit recovered by the ‘host’ ship, even if time-late, may be more useful than nothing at all.
Much of this is in the future and many aspects of unmanned systems still have significant technical problems to be solved, but the way ahead’s clear enough. New surface combatants will therefore need to be fitted not only with at least two hangars—one for a manned unit and a second for the appropriate mix of unmanned aerial vehicles—but a big internal handling space with surface and underwater launch and recovery facilities. One side-effect is that we may see the manpower requirements of surface combatants increase in order to provide the required maintenance and operating personnel for the multitude of unmanned vehicles, as well as crews for manned rigid inflatables, which are likely to include special forces elements.
Great internal volume has another benefit—the ability to carry multiple vertical launch tubes. The tubes themselves are cheap; it’s the weapons they contain that are expensive. But the greater the number of cells available, the greater the potential to carry multiple types of weapons and in numbers sufficient to overcome massed or protracted attacks in high-intensity environments.
Missiles will not be the only weapons of choice. Surface vessels acquired over the next decade and having an operational life lasting well into the 2050s must be capable of hosting directed energy weapons and energy-critical sensor systems. This is one of the inherent advantages of the electric propulsion systems that are now going to sea in large numbers, since they’ve the potential to redirect large amounts of power to an energy weapon when required. While ‘for but not with’ is a discredited concept in some ways, the provision of surplus power generation on build, or at least the potential for cheap and rapid installation of additional generators, will be vital to a successful design for the long term.
Signature reduction will be important but can’t be allowed to drive costs to an excessive level. The combination of Moore’s law with that of diminishing returns suggests that any variation from ambient noise will eventually be detected by increasingly capable software, while the struggle to achieve the minimum signal possible will become more and more challenging across the electromagnetic spectrum. Judicious signature-reduction measures will, however, continue to complicate detection and targeting sufficiently to require would-be adversaries to make substantial investments in their sensor systems—in particular they’ll need to develop mechanisms to fuse data from widely disparate sources at a rate and to a degree which will allow successful target identification and targeting. That’ll be no small challenge. Notably, it’s here that the mobility of ships will become even more of an advantage by comparison with fixed operating bases as precision weapons (whether gravity, cruise or ballistic) become even more long ranged—and more precise.
James Goldrick is a fellow of the RAN’s Sea Power Centre and an adjunct professor at UNSW Canberra, Australian Defence Force Academy. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.