Throughout history, fighting at sea has demanded the use of the most advanced technologies that a culture possessed. Warships, whether the renowned triremes of ancient Greece, or the famous ships-of-the-line of the days of fighting sail, have always been complex and sophisticated machines. That is truer today than ever before.
However, advanced technology is costly, and even the most generous budget imposes constraints on spending. So, in the early twenty- first century, what are the technological challenges facing the navies of the world and how are they responding to them? I put these questions to senior officers of the navies of Australia, Brazil, Chile, Germany and South Africa. These navies represent four continents, operate in four oceans (Atlantic, Indian, Pacific and Southern) and come from both developed and emerging powers.
Australia – Ensuring Balance
“The biggest technology-related challenge is our technical workforce and making sure we have the right balance of skills and we can retain our technology workforce in a very competitive market,” states the Chief of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Vice Admiral Ray Griggs. He points out that this is a problem for all navies.
In Australia, there is a booming mining sector. “We produce people with very useful skills and the [mining] industry can offer three times the salary we can. We have to focus on intangibles for our people. Salaries are part of it, but housing and healthcare are also important. And belonging to an organisation that does a worthwhile job and an interesting job, I don’t see this landscape changing over the next ten years, particularly in Australia.”
The RAN currently has a complement of just over 14 000 personnel and a fleet of some 54 vessels, including six submarines, four air defence missile frigates, eight frigates, one dock landing ship (LSD), six minecountermeasures vessels (MCMVs) and two replenish- ment vessels (AORs). It has a Fleet Air Arm with Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk antisub- marine helicopters and Eurocopter Squirrel training and Bell 429 advanced training helicopters. Further, the RAN has on order two 27 000 t amphibious assault ships (LHDs), three air defence destroyers, 24 MH-60R versions of the Seahawk and a number of NH Industries MRH-90 heli- copters (the Australian version of the NH90 tactical transport helicopter).
“Keeping engineers is a particular challenge,” he highlights. “We’ve probably seen a hollowing out of our engineering capability over the past 10 to 15 years. That led to some difficulties for us in terms of the technical integrity of our ships. There was systemic underresourcing. We had regarded engineering as an overhead, not as an enabler.” The RAN is now working very hard to change this situation, emphasising to its engineering staff that its attitude has changed and that it recognises the importance of engineering.
“The real challenge in rebuilding engineering capability is that you just can’t ‘add water’. There aren’t thousands of engineers in civilian life waiting to be recruited into the navy,” says Griggs. “We’re looking very hard at lateral recruiting from other navies, especially from the [UK] Royal Navy, which is downsizing. We’re very involved with the First Sea Lord’s team – they want to find jobs for their people. (The First Sea Lord is the head of the Royal Navy.) One of the positive things about lateral recruits – we’ve got a Rear Admiral who was a South African, another Rear Admiral who was a British submariner – is that they can still progress and achieve career goals [after transferring to the RAN]. If you’re good, you get the gig.”
A separate issue is the level of technological understanding among nonengineer officers, which could be higher. The RAN is con- sidering ways of improving this, as technology is now the core of all naval systems. Through such things as warfare courses, officers do get a knowledge of technology, but Griggs believes it would be a good thing if their basic (pre-course) technological knowledge was higher than it now is.
The new ships now being acquired – the LHDs and guided missile destroyers – also pose challenges, introducing new technologies and requiring skills not previously required. The Spanish-designed and -built LHDs are the largest ships ever built for the RAN. They look like aircraft carriers and each will be able to operate eight medium-sized helicopters (but could transport more). They are fitted with vehicle decks and will accommodate 1 400 personnel (400 ship’s crew, plus 1 000 air group personnel, embarked troops and headquarters staff). Each also has a floodable rear dock which can take four 110 t LCM 1E landing craft. The LHDs will employ electric drive systems. They will be fitted out in Australia and the first, HMAS Canberra, should be commissioned in January 2014.
“Just having a dock is a new thing for us,” says Griggs. “The technology is not particularly sophisticated, but there’s a skill to it. We didn’t use it in the past. Having picked up [auxiliary dock landing ship] Largs Bay [from Britain] last year has given us a great bridge [to the new capability]. It’s also been our introduction to electric propulsion. The [HMAS] Choules [ex-Largs Bay] is our first ship with electric propulsion. We’re building a particular set of skills in the Choules to take us through to the LHDs.”
The guided missile destroyers, the Hobart class, are also designed in Spain but are being built in Australia and will be fitted with the US Aegis system and SM-2 medium range (150+ km range) surface-to-air missiles. Aegis is a total weapons system which handles everything from the detection of flying targets – more than a 100 at a time – to their engagement and destruction (the combat system – the command and decision computer core of Aegis – can also be used against surface and submarine targets). “Aegis is a big thing. It’s not new technology, but it is new to us,” affirms Griggs. “We’re building the necessary skills now, through cooperation with the Spanish Navy and the US Navy.” Finally, the RAN is keeping a very close watch on biofuel trials being run by the US Navy.
Brazil – Joining the Big League
For the Brazilian Navy, the main challenges are centred on a single project. But it is a huge project – the design, development and construction of a nuclear-powered sub- marine and its power plant. “The nuclear plant and the submarine design will be Brazilian developments,” stresses the Commander of the Brazilian Navy, Admiral Julio Soares de Moura Neto. Currently, only the US, Russia, Britain, France and China have built and operate nuclear submarines, while India’s first locally built nuclear submarine is currently on sea trials.
The Brazilian submarine will be a fleet or attack submarine (known as an SSN for short) armed with torpedoes and surface-skimming missiles and intended to fight enemy submarines and surface ships. (Popularly known as hunter- killers, SSNs can also be armed with strategic-range cruise missiles equipped with conventional warheads to attack land targets.)
Brazil has a coastline that extends 7 491 km and an exclusive economic zone of 963 000 km2, containing considerable riches, including major oil and gas reserves. Even with the latest technology, conventional submarines, unlike SSNs, are too slow and lack the endurance to effectively patrol such an area. SSNs also have the size and power supply to operate very powerful sensor systems (especially their processing com- puters), including very sensitive passive (listening) sonars. The SSN programme, known as Prosub, is also intended to help stimulate Brazilian technological and industrial development.
The development of the nuclear power plant for the SSN is the responsibility of the Aramar Experimental Centre, in São Paulo state. “Aramar will develop a working prototype of the SSN power plant, which will also serve to train the future crews of the sub- marine,” explains Moura Neto. “This plant will be ready in 2015. Design of the sub- marine itself started in July and will be ready in 2015. We’ll begin building the SSN in 2016 and it will be ready for harbour trials and sea trials in 2021. There will then be two to three years of sea trials. The plan – in the National Defence Strategy, approved in 2008 – is to build five SSNs, but there is no timeframe. We want to finish the first one, and test it, before we go further.” The design of the sub- marine will be the responsibility of the navy’s own Naval Projects Management Company, better known as Emgepron.
Up till now, Moura Neto reports, the Brazilian Navy has had no problems in retaining skilled personnel, and has the authorisation from the government to recruit whatever civilian engineers, technicians and any other specialists it needs to carry out the SSN project. These would be in addition to the navy’s own, uniformed, naval construction engineers. “We’ll need about 1 000 engineers for the SSN project,” he states.
More immediately, Brazil will build three conventional submarines of the French/Spanish Scorpène design in a new, specialised shipyard currently being built in Rio de Janeiro state (the first of the new submarines is currently under construction in France). Brazilian naval engineers are currently being trained in France. The experience gained from this programme will be fed directly into the SSN project, and the SSNs will also be built at this new shipyard, and home-ported in a new base, being built alongside the shipyard.
The Brazilian Navy is currently centred on five submarines, one aircraft carrier, nine frigates, five corvettes, two LSDs, three tank landing ships (LSTs), six MCMVs and two AORs. Its naval air arm includes McDonnel Douglas A-4 Skyhawk jet fighter-bombers and Sikorsky Sea King, AgustaWestland Lynx and Eurocopter Super Puma heli- copters, with SH-60 Seahawks being delivered to replace the Sea Kings and Eurocopter Super Cougars being delivered to supplement the Super Pumas. The Navy also has a Marine Corps of some 14 000, including a brigade-strength Fleet Marine Force. The total complement of the navy, including marines and naval aviation, is some 60 000, which is slowly being increased to about 80 000 and eventually to around 115 000. The Brazilian Navy also has programmes for new frigates, corvettes, offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) and patrol boats.
Chile – Managing Information
“Our number one challenge is information technology. The challenge is to reshape the way we face information,” states Chilean Navy First Naval Zone Commander-in-Chief Vice Admiral Kenneth Pugh. “We’re now in an era in which information flows very fast. What we’re working on now is knowledge manage- ment. How do we keep knowledge in the navy? With a free market economy, the booming mining industry and fishing industry are taking our best people. So we’re working to retain our people.”
The Chilean Navy is reshaping itself for the information age and is seeking to learn from (but not copy) the US Navy, which has developed the concept of Information Domination, which involves combining all forms of information, including all forms of intelligence and code-breaking. But inform-ation is not just about fighting and winning. It’s about running the entire navy. “With information, you can do things you couldn’t do before,” he points out. “For example, spares. You can use information to acquire parts quickly, without needing to stock them. Information allows flexibility – you can adjust whatever you need. Acquisition costs and lifecycle costs can be imbedded in all systems. But you need the knowledge.” That knowledge includes the source codes for software.
The Chilean Navy’s fleet includes four conventional submarines, eight frigates, an LSD, two LSTs, two AORs and seven missile boats. The Chilean Navy also has its own air arm, equipped with both fixed wing aircraft (including Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion, Airbus Military C-295 and Embraer P-111 maritime patrol and surveillance aeroplanes) and helicopters (including Eurocopter Cougars in the antiship and antisubmarine roles), as well as a Marine Corps, which reportedly numbers about 5 000. In total, the Chilean Navy is believed to comprise some 25 000 personnel.
The fleet presents challenges as well. “The frigates were acquired [second-hand] from the Dutch and British,” he reports. “The challenge is their midlife update (MLU).” The MLU is a very major refit undertaken when a warship is roughly halfway through its designed lifetime, and usually involves major changes in the computers, sensors and weapons carried by the vessel. “We’re looking for systems that we can integrate on our platforms. We’re looking for open systems, which can be integrated with our other systems, in Chile. We have a shipyard, Asmar, with its own systems integration capability. It is much more cost effective. We do it with missile systems, sensor systems and antisubmarine warfare systems. We’ve done this since the mid-80s. It works for us.”
Chile has also successfully upgraded two of its submarines. The navy is currently upgrading its P-3s and Cougars, including the fitting of new radars. In parallel, the C-295s, which are new aircraft, are being introduced into service. The Chilean Navy also seeks to maintain Asmar’s ship design and building capabilities. “We’ll keep our shipbuilding programme for auxiliary vessels – OPVs, patrol boats, landing craft and auxiliary vessels,” concludes Pugh.
Germany – New Operational Concept
“We have a major new project – a new frigate type, the Class 125,” highlights German Naval Staff Branch Chief: Plans and Policy, International Cooperation Captain Markus Krause-Traudes. “It’s a totally new concept, in which we look at ships which can stay, from a technical point of view, on operations for two years. With this comes a new crew concept. Each platform will have two ship’s com- panies. So, for four platforms, there will be eight ship’s companies. In operation, we’ll have one platform continuously deployed and up to five ship’s companies will rotate to it over a two-year period.”
The Class 125 ships are designed for operations far from Germany – for example, in the Indian Ocean. The first, the Baden-Württemberg, is currently under construction and should enter service in mid-2016, followed by its sisters at a rate of one a year, with all four set to be delivered by 2020. These new ships will replace the eight Bremen-class frigates currently serving with the German Navy.
Because the Class 125s are meant to be away from their home port for such sustained periods, their machinery will see considerable use and the mean time between failure for all systems will have to be improved. Each ship will have a crew of 110, with accommodation for a further 80 personnel, comprising the helicopter detachment and any embarked special forces troops and/or other specialist personnel required by a particular operation.
This new operational concept will also require a new training concept. “We will have to train the ships’ companies for the operation [on which the ship is deployed] in their home port, maybe without them having their own platform,” he points out. “This calls for new technologies, like more simulators connected with real world operations. This would be to give the crew situational awareness – to know what was going on in the operation. We are now in the process of developing this training infrastructure and obtaining these simulators.”
The German Navy’s current fleet includes four submarines (with two more under construction), 15 frigates (including the eight Bremen-class), five corvettes (new vessels but only one yet in operation, due to the need to rectify gearing problems), ten missile boats, 20 MCMVs and four AORs (with another being built). There is also a naval air arm equipped with Lynx shipboard and Sea King shore-based helicopters and P-3 Orion aeroplanes, among other aircraft.
South Africa – From Old to New
The South African Navy (SAN) underwent major modernisation during the previous decade, acquiring new submarines and frigates, all from Germany (although the submarines contain a few, and the frigates a significant number, of South African systems).
As a result, the SAN fleet is today built around a core of three submarines, four frigates, two MCMVs, three strike craft (missile boats, now being operated as OPVs) and one AOR (called a combat support ship by the SAN). The country’s small naval aviation force (composed of Lynx and Denel Oryx helicopters and modernised Douglas C-47TP maritime patrol aircraft) is operated by the South African Air Force.
“The technology we’ve got at the moment, with the submarines and frigates, is pretty state of the art,” says SAN director: naval acquisition, Rear Admiral (junior grade) Alan Clayton-Fink. “We’re still in the process of mastering these new technologies. We’re still going through the transition from the old to the new technologies. Skills are important. It’s quite a big jump from analogue to digital. We had a lot of experience in the analogue field. “Our strike craft had analogue plotting tables [for navigation and combat], later replaced by a first-generation Action Information System. Then the frigates arrived with fully data-linked digital systems. We probably jumped two or three generations in one go. We went through a recruiting slump and a lot of our people reached retirement age, creating gaps. But we’re getting recruits now and all our training establishments are full. We now have youngsters coming up through the system and that’ll solve the problem.”
The acquisition of the new vessels brought some 26 new technologies into the SAN. Fully aware that new vessels would bring new technologies, the navy, before it actually signed the submarine and frigate contracts, undertook quite a thorough investigation into the types of new technologies they would bring. Many of these technologies were not new to the world, but they were new to the SAN. A good example is gas turbine technology. Before acquiring the frigates, the SAN had never operated gas turbine engines – it had used diesels and, before that, steam turbines.
“We’re not currently looking for more advanced technologies, but to master what we now have,” he explains. “We need to understand these new technologies, not only from a technical point of view but also from a tactical point of view – what do these new tech- nologies allow us to do in operational situations? “For the future, we’re looking at ‘spiral/ evolutionary upgrades’ of the frigates and submarines. This will accommodate, amongst other things, the upgrade of system software during routine maintenance cycles, instead of waiting 15 years for a major refit before any upgrades are carried out. We’re not looking at new technologies yet; it is too early.