With the Abbott government’s announcement of a new ship building program in Adelaide, there will be plenty of argument over the logic and strategic basis of the decision, on top of the ongoing domestic shipbuilding debate.
Indeed, it has already started. I agree with Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson that the decision is both bold and questionable in light of the continuing proliferation of precision and anti-access/ area-denial weapons in the Asia–Pacific region.
But outside of high-end, peer-to-peer conventional warfare, surface combatants have great utility and strategic value. In any case, it’s too early to understand the changing nature of naval warfare sufficiently to declare surface combatants completely obsolete. Assuming that surface combatants will still be essential elements of naval warfare in the coming decades, we need to apply critical thought to the capabilities we require from them.
I have posted previously about the coming shift in naval warfare and the need for future platform designs to take into consideration emerging technologies. These platforms will likely see many adaptions and changes over their service life, and it’s difficult to predict all the ways we will utilise them. We can be assured, however, of the importance of one design element that needs to be baked in from the start: power.
Power generation and storage will be critical for future naval warfare. The reason for this is the emergence of energy intensive weapons systems, such as lasers and rail guns. Lasers are already being tested in operational conditions, with impressive results. Many believe that lasers will present the best defence against swarming UAV attacks. Electro-magnetic rail guns haven’t yet progressed to that stage of testing, but they aren’t far off. The Joint High Speed Vessel USNS Millinocket will conduct sea trials with a 32 mega joule (MJ) railgun next year.
The promise of rail guns is significant. Rail guns use magnets built into their barrels to accelerate projectiles at speeds of up to Mach six to a range of 180 km. Taking up the same space as a 127 mm Mark 45 cannon (10 square meters), it’ll be capable of firing a 10kg projectile 100 nautical miles at a likely sustained rate of 4 to 5 rounds per minute (10–12 max per minute—about half the current rate of fire).
That round will have roughly the same kinetic energy as the current 127mm’s 32kg conventional explosive round, which has an effective range of 23 km. The Royal Australian Navy’s SM2 missile has a range comparable to the prototype rail gun, but they cost several hundred thousand dollars per round. The prototype rail gun round costs around $25,000.
The benefit is obvious. Currently the Royal Australian Navy has 127 mm Mark 45 Cannons on both the ANZAC-class frigates and the Hobart-class destroyers. Replacing them with a weapon of the same size will provide naval gunfire with the range and twice the speed of a missile, for the cost of an artillery shell. And that’s before we talk about the logistical and safety benefits of moving away from chemical propellants.
The problem with rail guns and lasers will be integration. Both require large amounts of power. The rail gun that will be tested on the USNS Millinocket will require 32 megawatts of power to operate. That’s about the power supply of Darwin and would almost max out the power generation of Australia’s new LHDs. While some new US naval platforms, such as the Zumwalt-class destroyer, can generate twice this power load, it’s something that must be designed and integrated from the start.
Advancing battery and other energy storage technologies may ease the retrofitting of these weapon systems in the future. But it will be difficult to make the most of the capability if it’s not a design requirement from the outset. There would also be additional offsets, such as batteries, taking up precious space onboard. Not to mention the costs and time in dry-dock to undertake the retrofit.
It’s impossible to know all the ways that technology will impact on a military platform through its service life. It’s highly likely that the design will need to include provision for various types of unmanned systems for instance, as well as increasingly sophisticated sensors. But these can be added or changed during the fit-out phase.
Energy intensive weapon systems, such as lasers and electro-magnetic rail guns, are on the verge of deployment and their requirements need to be considered from the start. So as we debate the needs and requirement of the new platforms, let’s take our lead from Jeremy Clarkson and make sure they have ‘more power’.