During the Surface Warships Conference 2021 (held online, 19-21 January) senior officers offered some insight into how the RN is working towards its vision for the future.
The conference is an annual event, primarily for industry representatives and officers from navies worldwide, covering a broad spectrum of interests. Although hosted and anchored by the RN, international speakers share how their navies are dealing with issues surrounding warship development, procurement and operations.
There was liberal use of buzzwords and the curious lexicon of phrases used by modern UK defence leadership. This is a direct quote from one uniformed speaker, typical of the kind of language used; “In the above-water battlespace our hybrid concept will exploit transformational approaches in the digital autonomy and lethality spaces to deliver sea control through multi-domain awareness, credible deterrence and the ability to defeat threat systems…”
Despite the dense vocabulary, the conference was very informative and the overall tone positive. Optimism about the RN’s future is not entirely misplaced and there is a definite change in mood, and no longer a case of the leadership trying to put a positive spin on managed decline. The First Sea Lord gave a very clear keynote presentation, outlining the progress being made in the transformation programme and giving further insight into the future direction of the service.
One of his most notable statements was that “we really are prepared to swap ships for drones”. This process is sure to be controversial with the legacy minehunters looking likely to be the first to be replaced with autonomous systems.
The forward-deployment of HMS Montrose in the Gulf has proven to be a major success and ISL noted that she is now the most reliable Type 23 frigate in the fleet, achieving 99% of planned availability. Another speaker explained later that this was largely due to the one-ship, two crews arrangement that provides more time for engineers to maintain her. It is also an old adage among engineers that equipment that is kept running tends to be more reliable than when it’s stopped for long periods.
Forward basing OPVs overseas is also working well and eventually Type 31s frigates will join or replace them. 1SL said that ultimately we could see ships based overseas permanently and expect them “never to return to the UK”.
Speaking about the Type 26 frigate and its large flexible mission bay capable of holding up to 14 shipping containers of equipment, he said that: “we have had the confidence to wait and see how we best use that space”. There are many options, which could include; “Directed-energy weapons, a railgun, mobile 3D printing factories, it might be ‘MCM in a box’, it could be a full office suite for an embassy, it could be medical facilities or a suite of surface or underwater drones to enhance a single ship’s reach. That is what the RN of the future is starting to look like”. (See our previous articles on the T26 mission bay)
There are still around 6 years before HMS Glasgow is fully operational and some of this hardware that could be candidates to be carried in the mission bay has begun development. Incidentally, there has also been no announcement of any plan to purchase compatible weapons for the Mk 41 VLS cells of the Type 26.
Admiral Radakin pointed out that the additional money for defence announced last year, amounting to an extra £24Bn over 4 years, was not really intended to bale out the MoD finances or and fill gaps. It is supposed to fund real change to and provide for a ‘once in a lifetime’ modernisation. ISL said the RN must drive down bureaucracy, costs and timelines. This aspiration has been the same going back decades, but the rapid pace of technological change and advances by our adversaries makes it imperative.
Rear Admiral Andrew Burns, Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Capability) delivered a presentation about how the RN is embracing technology and innovation. This is a complex, multi-faceted effort which will ultimately impact every aspect of the fleet.
Under the umbrella of NEMESIS, the RN is creating a ‘maritime innovation ecosystem’ which consists of several accelerator programmes. These include; NavyX for autonomous experimentation, Project Nelson for digital, data and AI, MarWorks for information warfare and DARE – Rapid Discovery, Development And Innovation Exploitation. These initiatives are intended to use technology from industry and academia and use a start-up enterprises model. Ideas are tried through a process of iteration, followed by integration and experimentation. The intention is to rapidly trial lots of low-cost, fast-to fail ideas, the few that prove successful can then be integrated into the conventional MoD CADMID (Concept, Assessment, Demonstration, Manufacture, In-Service, Disposal) procurement cycle.
Navy X has already delivered two uncrewed systems that are undergoing evaluation by the RN. The MADFOX (Maritime Autonomy Demonstrator for Operational Demonstration – main image above) is based on the DSTL/L3 Harris MAST-13 vessel and underwent a series of trials operating from HMS Albion during amphibious exercise Cold Response held in Norway last year. The BAE Systems Pacific 950 Autonomous RIB is an armed USV and may soon routinely be available to equip every ship in the fleet.
Burns also outlined the long-term conceptual vision for Littoral Strike, Carrier Strike and Minehunting and above water warfare into the 2030s and beyond. In all instances, there will be much greater reliance on autonomous systems. It is widely acknowledged that in most instances the hardware is relatively straightforward but the volume of data, bandwidth and the ability to operate where communications and networks are denied are the real challenges.
On Littoral Strike there were no specifics about platforms but Burns said there would be a transition away from current amphibious force model, including its structure and force generation to be more “scaleable and agile”. The Future Commando Force will have a sea base, surface and aviation manoeuvre, tactical precision strike, comms and ISR capabilities. Autonomous or uncrewed systems will support pre-landing insertion and extraction operations, provide resupply, act as interception swarms, conduct ISR, carry cyber payloads, together with an urban ‘find and strike’ capability.
Carriers Strike will similarly become more reliant on uncrewed systems, although the F-35 will continue to be the core asset. Crowsnest is likely to eventually be replaced by high-altitude ‘pseudo-satellites’ deployed over the horizon to enhance ISR, AEW and command and control. Uncrewed aircraft will also be developed to mount combat air patrols (sometimes as ‘loyal wingman’ to F-35) and provide logistic and transportation to and from the strike group. This ambition would appear to demand STOVL-capable air vehicles of substantial size and the requirements would not appear to dovetail well with the RAF Tempest FCAS or Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA).
The RN is very satisfied with the new autonomous minehunting capability being delivered under Project Wilton. A very experienced mine warfare Warrant Officer recently said it is by far very best capability he has seen from any modern mine hunting system. It is currently undergoing trials on the Clyde and will deploy operationally to the Gulf in 2022. These systems reduce risk to life and will allow the rationalisation of ageing MCM fleet. Burns claimed the ‘MCM in a box’ solution will eventually deliver the same effects as 16 conventional minehunting vessels.
When asked about how new MCM capability will be hosted, he noted the importance of the Bay class LSDA (currently RFA Cardigan Bay) forward- deployed in the Gulf and the mothership concept may be the way forward. On replacing the existing minehunters he said: “We are keeping our minds open about whether we do that from a future platform in the National Shipbuilding Strategy or something less expensive using a commercial off-the-shelf opportunity”.
Burns said he believed that culture and mindset within the navy, MoD and industry is a bigger obstacle than funding or capacity to transformation. It is clear that in future when considering the strengths of the navy we will have to move further away from “counting ships” and think more about a modular ’system of systems’.
Rear Admiral Simon Asquith, Commander Maritime Operations (COMOPS) followed with a presentation on “UK maritime power in a digital age”. His themes were similar to Adml Burns but tasked with managing the daily operations of the RN, he highlighted how the needs of the navy today have to be balanced with aspirations for the future. The existing fleet is based on Industrial Age technology but we are now in the Information Age. UK defence is no longer at the leading edge in many areas, overtaken by commercial enterprise which moves faster. The days of taking a generation to develop a new warship are over and navy must “solve the problems of this fighting season within the season”.
The RN is also developing its contribution to the UK defence Integrated Operating Concept 2025 (IOPC), the response to the changing nature of conflict and new technologies, intended to see closer working across the 5 domains (Sea, Land, Air, Space and Cyber). Most importantly, Asquith recognised that despite the advances in automation, warfare will continue to primarily be a human endeavour and people are as important as ever. Enabling mission commanders with the right tools to make sense of the huge volume of data is critical.
The RN is not about to entirely abandon its conventional platforms but is acting now to ensure they are equipped with on and off-board systems that keep them at the cutting edge in both the near term and long term. The eighth Type 26 frigate, HMS London, which will join the fleet in the late 2030s is expected to serve unto the 206os. No one can predict what developments will have taken place 40 years from now and new ships must be designed with capacity and open architecture that will allow them to easily absorb new technologies that are developing at an accelerating pace.