At DSEI 2021 the Second Sea Lord revealed the RN’s PODS concept (Persistent Operational Deployment Systems). In simple terms, a move to put equipment into standard-sized modules (ISO shipping containers) to simplify and speed up delivery a variety of capabilities.
New but not new
In the past, the RN had been rather dismissive of modularity as something for lower-tier navies. Modular concepts for warships have been around in various forms for many years, pioneered in the 1970s by the highly successful German MEKO system and the Danish Stanflex modular mission payload system conceived in the 1980s. In the civilian shipping world, ‘box ships’ and their humble containers have become the standard means of transporting the world’s exports by sea (a shortage of containers is currently causing price spikes and supply chain issues around the globe). Well known commentator, Think Defence has been advocating the advantages of ISO containers in both for logistics and a wide variety of other military applications for many years.
The RN has used containers on an ad hoc basis in various ways going back decades. Current uses include SMERAS containerised decompression chambers, portable operations centres for autonomous systems and refrigerated containers for food carried by RFAs. HMS Queen Elizabeth already has her ‘PODS’ on board in the form of Deployable Mission Rehearsal Trainers – two F-35 flight simulators fitted into shipping containers that slot into spaces in the aircraft hangar gallery.
The RN is not claiming PODS are a completely new innovation, rather this is a kind of rebranding and a way to bring coherence to the procurement and fitting out of containers and their contents, especially to support uncrewed and autonomous systems. PODS is a relatively low-cost and low-risk initiative to quickly prove the concept and get small additional capabilities to sea or onto the battlefield. This will follow a pioneer, prove, procure, plug and play model in line with the Navy’s intention to accelerate capability delivery into a cycle measured in days not years. As the Type 26 and Type 31 frigates will have spacious mission bays, the opportunity to embark containerised equipment has been under consideration for some years. (See our previous article considering T26 mission bay options). The new OPVs are also designed to embark two containers which may help mitigate for their lack of hangar by housing small uncrewed systems. Both HMS Tamar and Spey sailed for the Indo-Pacific carrying a TEU container in the starboard waist position.
To kick off the process, five Minimum Viable Products (MVP) are in development for the ‘Q Series’:
The RN envisages PODS will house existing and new functions which could include: precision strike, uncrewed air systems, directed energy weapons, communications, minehunting, survey and medical facilities. Beyond the 5 MVP being worked on, the RN has around 60 other concepts that could be developed further. PODS projects are well suited to SME companies that can respond to quickly and the RN is appealing to industry for ideas and input. The idea is to field the first PODS immediately, trial them on the front line first and develop fast feedback and procurement mechanisms.
The PODS will share a common digital backbone – shared protocols, open architecture and IT systems developed by the RN under project NELSON to make for simple connectivity. The concept of ‘podular design’ will see an effort to standardise components so the PODS are can be rapidly adapted to the mission and are easily upgradeable and maintainable in theatre. The RN says proposals from industry for PODS must be “Sustainable, Available, Adaptable, Interchangeable and Connectable”
The PODS concept itself evolved quickly over just 5 weeks, before first being made public in September 2021 and there is still much development work to be done. Besides the common IT infrastructure, the basic metal box will need to have support systems for its contents. Integrating with the ship’s systems or land-based infrastructure is where the project gets more demanding. There will need to be appropriate power supplies and cooling arrangements for people and electronic equipment as well as sufficient bandwidth available to transfer data and for communications. If these supporting elements can be created and standardised so that PODS have a common interface and can easily be added and removed from many different types of platforms then this will be a significant gain.
The mock-up images above show PODS being delivered by an autonomous ‘heavy-lift drone’. This is possibly where the vision starts to over-reach a little. An ISO 20ft steel shipping container weighs around 2.3 tonnes empty and can hold cargo up to 25 tonnes. Given the lifting capabilities of drones in this type of configuration, the container would likely have to be constructed of lightweight carbon fibre composite and cargo very limited in weight. Delivering containers weighing up to 25 tonnes to a ship at sea without the assistance of shoreside cranes would be a challenge requiring barges with specialist lift and transfer equipment. Those thinking about PODS have been encouraged to push the boundaries. One example discussed was to deliver a UUV or underwater sonar array by placing it inside a PODS container lowered onto the sea bed. The container would then dissolve in saltwater.
PODS look especially well suited to the needs of the Future Commando Force, particularly for command and control and light precision strike. It would be theoretically possible for the LCUs (carried by HMS Albion and Bulwark) to deliver lorries or specialist vehicles carrying ISO containers over the beach for use ashore. A means to transport PODS ashore could be a key requirement for the future Multi-Role Support Ships planned to replace the LPDs.
There is clearly an advantage in removable modules that do not require expensive surgery on a ship to add or remove capabilities. At the lower end of the spectrum, PODS are effectively already in use and offer lots of future potential to flexibly add niche capabilities. There are limitations, fitting complex weapon systems or high-end sensors into PODS is unlikely given the size constraints, engineering tolerances and safety issues. Assuming the transport, handling and interfacing arrangements can be satisfactorily be solved this re-working of an old idea promises to allow the RN to be more agile and responsive to different mission needs and threats. This is far from a panacea for every problem but is another step in the right direction in getting new kit to the frontline in a timely and affordable manner.