In September 2022 the RN published the Maritime Operating Concept (MarOpC) which essentially lays out a vision of how the RN and other stakeholders in the maritime domain will evolve and develop to meet the challenges of the future. Here we examine aspects of the document and look at some of the questions around taking its ideas and making them a reality.
Besides the internal RN audience, the MarOpC is really aimed at the UK’s international partners, allies, industry and academia and is not intended to be a policy, strategy or doctrine document. Its particular value for a wider audience is to help understand how the RN is preparing for the future. It has 3 key themes – being a distributed and highly connected force that can operate worldwide, taking risks now to pivot from industrial age to digital age technology and moving away from being platform-centric to becoming a capability-centric force.
There is a danger that these documents can be perceived as just a lot of management speak and buzzwords that have limited relevance to real operators on the frontline. The concept may have a few flaws but is broadly sound, logical and makes sense in the context of rapid technological change. Throughout the fleet, all Commanding Officers and Executive Officers are provided briefing on the content, a copy of the concept and the opportunity to question the author organisation. There are also briefings at the Defence Academy on career courses.
The MarOpC was masterminded by the RN’s Director Develop, (formerly Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Capability)) in a collaboration that draws inspiration from multiple sources. Core to its development is the close relationship it has with Defence’s Integrated Operating Concept (IOpC – published August 2021) and the Royal Navy Strategy, both of which provide the key themes upon which it is built. Development took input from across all five domains, the other frontline commands, the science and technology community, Defence Doctrine and Concepts Centre (DCDC) and various independent organisations and think tanks.
It recognised there is still a long way to go in the RN’s transformation and the ideas are not likely to be fully mature or realised until some point in the 2030s. It is not an attempt to predict the future, but rather a way to ensure the RN is better prepared to respond to emerging challenges. The concept is a part of wider organisational and cultural change in the navy that began in earnest under the leadership of Admiral Tony Radakin and Vice Admiral Nick Hine. On leaving the RN in January 2022, Hine signed off with a broadside in an open letter saying the navy had “lost its ambition” and “if we don’t transform we will fail and we will lose.” The current leadership now have to make very tough calls about how far and how fast this change can be delivered and what risks must be taken to realise the vision of the MarOpC.
At present there are only small signs of tangible progress. For example, in the uncrewed/autonomous space there has been endless experimentation since 2016 but as yet very little capability has actually been deployed on the frontline. The RN says it is now prioritising the development of autonomy and the synthetic training environment, to improve operational effectiveness, provide more realistic training, mass and survivability. The FOST organisation is moving forward with synthetic training and the purchase of the Experimental Vessel Patrick Blackett is a further commitment to innovation.
A distributed, ‘protean’ force
The navy has always been an inherently flexible force, able to re-role or improvise quickly but being ‘protean’ implies this can be done more rapidly with a force architecture ready to support role change. On the frontline, this will require greater interchangeability of systems and sub-systems and is not just about equipment but training, infrastructure and logistics.
This concept works especially well at the lower end of the capability spectrum – it makes sense to have containerised UAVs, USVs, mine warfare, medical equipment etc that can be swapped in and out, depending on the mission. At the higher end, the systems that make a Type 45/83 destroyer a high-end air defence asset or a Type 26 an ASW specialist require a platform designed and built around them and can’t be modularised so easily. It is a similar story with the desire to “incorporate disruptive technology at higher refresh rates, more frequently across a diffuse range of capabilities with greater agility”. It is much easier to quickly replace or update standalone off-board systems than the complex weapons built into a warship, although open architecture is drastically improving software upgradability.
The ‘distributed force’ concept seems to go against the principles of force concentration. It is fine for the RN to be thinly spread all around the globe during peacetime and have persistent engagement against low-level/grey zone adversaries but in a peer conflict, it will need to concentrate mass. The concept says: “Littoral Response Groups will rapidly re-aggregate into a Littoral Strike Group, and, alongside the Carrier Strike Group, may subsequently form an Expeditionary Strike Force; supporting and supported by partners and allies. The continuous and adaptive use of information and systems can deliver an asymmetric surge of effect to degrade, deny or disrupt an adversary early in a conflict.”
Aggregation can take time that is not available and units may be vulnerable, having to make predictable transits through choke points such as the Suez canal. When the MV Ever Given accidentally blocked the canal for 6 days in March 2021 it demonstrated how easy it would be to close this global waterway that is critical to naval operations as much as commercial traffic. In the distant past when the RN had vast resources and could field Home, Mediterranean and Pacific Fleets there was adequate mass to hold on until reinforced, now it must rely to a far greater extent on allies and the additional potency of the interconnected protean force.
Just how distributed forces should be will remain controversial but the RN view is that by working with partners it can maintain a footprint in keeping with the UK’s national interests which remain global. Disaggregation does not automatically dilute mass and vulnerabilities from careless concentration by exposed forces can be seen in ongoing and previous conflicts. What is critical is the effect to be achieved at the time and place of its choosing, not that of the adversary.
Executing the ‘wise pivot’
The transition from legacy to new technologies while being required to deliver continuously on the frontline is a challenge for all navies. The ‘wise pivot’ is about making transitions as soon as possible, and accepting short-term risk in order to be ready for future demands. The depth and speed of the pivot will be always be limited by operational, industrial and financial constraints and it is not a single act but a constant state of evolution. What is accepted by everyone, is the accelerating pace of technological change and that existing force development is not sufficiently agile. The navy will move beyond its main Concept / Assessment / Demonstration / Manufacture / In-service / Disposal (CADMID) model of procurement to use other methods including COTS, spiral development, capability insertion opportunities, technology accelerators and other novel approaches.
At the more immediate level, there is widespread concern about the accelerated disposal of the MCMVs and loss of HMS Echo. The MarOpC warns that “Acute periods of reduced effectiveness in some elements of the Maritime Force should be accepted. This will prevent a confluence of compound vulnerabilities”. Some contend there needs to be more overlap in the transition period and worry about a lack of all-round capability eg, autonomous MCM systems may be more efficient in their core role than a MCMV, but lack the presence of a crewed platform and could simply be stolen or destroyed by adversaries. Trials have demonstrated that the new Mine Hunting capability (MHC) is very effective, includes the restoration of a mine-sweeping capability, is able to conduct the task significantly quicker than existing manned vessels and to much higher fidelity. New autonomous Military Data Gathering (MDG) capabilities have demonstrated they can do aspects of the job more efficiently than crewed vessels which helps explain the early decommissioning of HMS Echo.
The pivot is not just about the future but about getting more from the existing maritime force by seeking marginal gains, exploiting opportunities and protecting vulnerabilities. There is a promise to focus more on getting greater availability from existing assets and future platforms. Despite various initiatives, availability levels have improved only marginally as the RN wrestles with legacy issues and an industrial base that has been allowed to contract too far. Decisions will be made trying to avoid falling victim to the sunk costs fallacy – ie continuing to invest in a capability that may no longer be relevant just because there has already been a lot spent on it. The concept also accepts the maritime force will have a high / low capability mix, something the RN has always had but not always explicitly stated.
Adopting a ‘system of systems’ approach
Perhaps the most subtle but also the most radical change demanded by the new concept is that attempt to move away from being a Navy that delivers capability defined by its ships aircraft and submarines. The ‘systems of systems’ approach is agnostic of the platform and prioritise effect over force elements. A task will typically require a sensor, fuser, decider and effector, each of which could be distributed across platforms potentially even thousands of miles apart or could alternatively be combined in a single ship. Elements of this operating concept are already in play, but taking this further has the advantage of blending the best elements appropriate to the task, adding resilience and avoiding duplication. This demands a change of mindset and makes sense so long as there are adequate numbers of sensors and effectors connected in an unbroken chain to the fusers and deciders.
Data backbone and connectivity
The connectivity that underpins so much of the concept appears to be inherently vulnerable to being jammed or denied through loss of satellites, cyber attack or electronic warfare. In an effort to develop robust connectivity across a disaggregated force, the RN is investing in the Naval Strike Network (NSN). Along with novel and improved communications bearers which reduce the vulnerabilities inherent to all users of marine communications, NSN will create the digital standards and capabilities for battlespace management and the command and control of crewed and uncrewed platforms through a federated network. NSN is at a very early developmental stage – a Prior Information Notice was issued in June 2022 signalling to industry a requirement for future support.
NSN is a similar concept (although obviously not on the same scale) as the US Navy’s multi-billion dollar Project Overmatch initiative which is focussed on common protocols, equipping ships and submarines with cloud computing platforms, artificial intelligence and integrated fire control system. This would be a major force multiplier assuming a hardened, cyber-protected and seamless network that can pass big data sets (including fire-control solutions) rapidly between widely separated platforms and command centres. Since support from allies is a key part of the distributed force, compatibility with NATO and other partners will also need to be addressed. In 2012 RN was forced to abandon its plans to fit the US-developed Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) to the fleet as a cash-saving measure. CEC was supposed to mitigate for the cut in the number of Type 45 destroyers as it allows dispersed platforms to share sensor data and cue each other’s weapon systems. If NSN could eventually deliver an open architecture, platform-agnostic version of CEC it would really be a major step forward. However, the technical challenges, are significant, especially the development of ‘novel communications bearers’.
There is no getting around the fact that whatever operating concepts or doctrines are adopted, the Navy still needs more submarines, warships and firepower to match its ambitions. There is much more for analysts to unpack from the Maritime Operating Concept than covered here but the document points to ways of increasing the lethality of available assets and cleverly harnessing new technologies. For the navy and its industrial partners to implement this vision, there remains a great deal of work to be done.