Ship survivability: can naval ships still project power in this era of unprecedented threat?

Published 20th January 2021

In October, the Russian Navy test-launched a Zircon hypersonic cruise missile against a maritime target in the Barents Sea. TASS reported that it reached a maximum speed of Mach 8 before hitting its target at a range of 450km. Mach 8 is 2.7 km per second, so a flight time of around 3 minutes. Something like ten seconds to impact from when it comes over the horizon. Not long to respond.

That follows a test firing in August by China of anti-ship ballistic missiles in the South China Sea. The Dong Feng 21D is thought to be sufficiently accurate and long-ranged to hit a moving aircraft carrier at 1500km. Even faster than the Zircon, and with a near-vertical terminal trajectory, it won’t be easy to target with a close-in weapon system.

As if the missile threat isn’t worrying enough, with over 50 submarines planned or on order in Asia alone, the underwater threat to surface ships is also growing fast. Conventional submarines with air-independent propulsion can remain submerged for extended periods and are extremely hard to detect, even in crowded shallow waters like the South China Sea. Modern heavyweight torpedoes are a deadly threat to surface ships at ranges of 50km or more. And then we have drone swarms, fast inshore attack craft, cyber threats, autonomous vessels…

The message of all this is clear enough: naval surface ships, especially carrier strike groups, are being targeted as never before. This topic was recently discussed at a Cohort webinar on Ship Survivability. How does technology impact on a ship’s ability to navigate safely through hostile environments? And of course, naval surface ships are not just there to protect themselves.  Are they still able to project power in the face of such extreme threats?

Understanding the threat and challenges

The range of potential threats is ever-increasing and becoming vastly more complex – targeting navigation, radio frequency operations and information exploitation as well as the ever more extreme versions of ‘traditional’ offensive and defensive weapons, such as Zircon and DF-21D.

The multi-threat environment which a modern warship operates in means it has to be prepared and able to respond to offensive action from not only the sea but hostile land, air and cyber operations as well. It will be vital to identify and counter these threats as quickly and effectively as possible.

The challenge is compounded by the pace of the defence acquisition cycle. New platforms require years of planning, budgeting, design, manufacture, integration and commissioning before they enter service. This lengthy process often means that technology has evolved and moved on before the platform and its associated capabilities are available. Additionally, the platforms must last for decades but the lifetime of both threat and protection technology is much shorter, with a half-life measured in years or even months.

Often overlooked, many navies face additional challenges of recruitment and training that have a real impact on naval capability. The training burden for a sophisticated modern capability can be considerable. With increasing levels of technology and sophistication comes the risk of information overload for commanders and operators alike.  Multiple incoming alerts, data to analyse and threat identification must be carried out in fast moving, high stress environments where decisions are literally a matter of life or death.  The resulting cognitive load increases the risk of errors with potentially devastating consequences.

Technology has enabled these threats, and technology clearly has a leading role in the solution. The UK Government made a positive step in November with its commitment to increasing the UK’s defence technological capability. But how does that translate to improved survivability?

Adapt to Survive

Ship survivability is a broad subject area, and it needs to start right from the concept stage to ensure that the platform and its systems work together harmoniously. Weapons and sensors, both onboard and on remote platforms, need to work together in a ‘system of systems’ environment.  Open architecture can enable modular systems to be brought together, and work smarter, to meet the needs of the specific platform without overloading the operator.

Plug-and-play systems that can operate together onboard and interface with off-board land and air systems gives technological resilience and ensures rapid changes in system development can be incorporated with minimal disruption.  In addition, the retrofit of relatively low-cost new capabilities and upgrades can be managed through regular maintenance rather than the slow-moving process of platform replacement.

Of course, capabilities are only useful if they are working and available. An additional benefit of this kind of modularity is improved availability. Through the use of plug-and-play, system repairs are fast and straightforward.

Beyond system architecture, certain technologies will be especially important to survivability. High-performance sensors and effectors will of course be crucial. Another important area is artificial intelligence: if the systems themselves can become more autonomous, the operator burden can be reduced, and human decision-making focused only on those areas where it is most effective and most needed. That might be important, for instance, in detecting the launch or approach of high-speed long-range anti-ship missiles. Multiple sensor cues, each innocuous on their own, can merge into a pattern that represents an imminent threat but which a human would be hard-pressed to identify. When that threat is approaching at Mach 8, time is of the essence.

So integration, flexibility and availability will be crucial to future ship survivability, alongside new technologies like AI. Much of this requires a change in mindset rather than large financial investment – the technology exists now, but the challenge for defence organisations is to introduce processes that allow them to adopt innovations fast. Those behind the new threats at sea aren’t waiting around.

Maritime Systems Focus at Cohort

With a clear focus on reducing the operator burden through the innovative use of AI, and an integrated and modular design, innovations from Cohort businesses Chess, MCL, ELAC SONAR, SEA, EID and MASS offer vital tools in the ongoing battle for true ship survivability.

Chess’s surveillance solutions track and classify air and surface targets automatically and are designed for availability and easy enhancement to address the latest emerging threats. They integrate radar, optical and thermal sensors to provide a genuine all-weather capability. Chess has a unique modular approach to capability design, and a determination to reduce the operator burden, that have seen its solutions chosen by leading navies in Europe and worldwide.

MCL provides maritime EW sensors that are at the heart of ship survivability in the era of hypersonic threats. Coupled to MASS’s EW, cyber and countermeasures expertise, these provide surface ships with an unmatched ability to identify and take action against threats from above, on and below the surface.

ELAC SONAR’s comprehensive surface ship sonar suite is based on a genuinely open architecture. As well as the benefits mentioned above, this allows national submarine operators to configure the system with their own customised data and methods, without revealing sensitive information outside government. SEA’s Krait Defence System, based on its low-profile towed array sonar and weapon launch systems, is highly complementary. It is also based on an open architecture and can provide an effective ASW capability on vessels that historically would have been too small for this purpose.

With the emergence of long-range anti-ship systems, communication is a vital aspect of survivability – on-board sensors alone will not provide the necessary advance warning of incoming threats. SEA and EID offer complementary naval communication systems that are truly flexible, with the ability to handle the most modern data communications and tactical data links. Based on open architectures and highly secure, they are easily upgradeable as new technologies, threats and countermeasures develop. Cost-effective integration of new radios and upgrades help reduce the operational and training burden throughout the system’s lifespan.

MASS provides the EW data management solutions and countermeasures development that make up a vital layer of surface platform defence. MASS’s EW, Cyber, Intelligence and operational domain experts are looking at innovative targeting methods to neutralise hostile action, particularly hypersonic missiles threats. Their work on automated smart data management and exploitation has the potential to transform maritime threat response, supporting novel approaches such as upstream kill chain interventions.

Finally, SEA, Chess and MASS have combined their capabilities to produce the next generation Trainable Decoy Launcher System (TDLS) which ensures that countermeasures are in the right place at the right time to disrupt multiple high-speed threats, without constraining ship manoeuvre. It is a fully open system: compatible with the current generation of countermeasures, but designed to launch the emerging smart, persistent and re-usable payloads that will be needed to protect surface ships into the future. We are already working on the next generation of AI-based Man Out of The Loop (MOTL) survivability systems, with reaction times matched to the new rapid threats.

Above all the Cohort companies have a culture of working with the customer to find budget-friendly solutions that meet real operational needs: defensive technology that gives ships and their crews the confidence to perform their mission and project power even in the most threatening environments. As our customers world-wide have found, we are innovative, responsive and flexible. A trustworthy and capable technology partner in a world of rapidly evolving threats.

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