Tag Archives: ASW

MFP: Tough Choices For Small Navies

The following is a guest post inspired by the questions in our Maritime Futures Project.  For more information on the contributors, click here.  Note: The opinions and views expressed in these posts are those of the authors alone and are presented in their personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of their parent institution U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, any other agency, or any other foreign government.

Any attempt to answer question #8 from the MFP faces a problem at a very beginning: If we focus on what should be but isn’t, we eventually risk ending up with a dream fleet disconnected from reality. However, if we focus on what is possible, we risk to be stuck in real-life constraints, unable to conceptualize the next stages of naval development. Therefore, if there appears some fantasy within the my answer below, it means that the right balance is still ahead of me.

Today’s Polish Navy is at the beginning of a modernization process, which assumes construction of conventional submarines, corvettes, patrol ships, mine-hunters, and ASW (anti-submarine warfare) helicopters among others. The dilemma the Navy faces is block obsolescence of most of its assets, which means setting priorities for modernization within the context of a national security strategy based on two pillars — defense of the country and commitment to alliances/cooperation in the field of broader international security.

There is another critical issue to address: Poland’s geo-strategic position and history favors strongly national defense but the same history says that in any serious conflict, the navy will play a rather secondary role. Consequently in cases of significant budget cuts, the choice is as follows:

  • The Navy would invest in submarines as a potent anti-access weapon; surface forces, so useful in maritime security cooperation, will suffer badly, or
  • The focus would be on surface combatants, with a risk of loosing competencies in the operating submarine force, which will be very difficult to reconstruct.

Alternatives offered for consideration would be sacrificing capabilities of larger submarines (interesting to note how the meaning of “large” differs between navies) and instead investing in smaller coastal boats like U210-Mod or Andrasta. Resulting savings should be secured for surface vessel program. That would allow the Navy to maintain its proficiency in the operating submarine force surface vessels fulfilled international obligations. Both pillars of the strategy therefore could be followed, albeit in sub-optimal way.

The surface warship best suited for the Polish or any other smaller navy is linked

Churchill asks, "Why make a battleship when you can build a carrier out of a glacier?"
Churchill asks, “Why make a battleship when you can build a carrier out of a glacier?”

closely to strategy, geography, and advances in technology. Operating in narrow or coastal water puts a premium on small combatants, but if the navy wants to be an active participant in alliances far afield, then demand for seakeeping and self-deployment puts a premium on much bigger ships, unless we accept advanced hull forms. The compromise could be a ship in a range of 2,000 tons. What is possible to achieve in terms of capabilities within such a hull? British naval architect D. K. Brown in his book The British Future Surface Fleet: Options for medium-sized Navies makes a remark about ships’ “unstable designs”. These are ships which are already too costly to be defenseless. Proceeding toward two opposite extreme solutions, one either makes ships cheaper or better arms them: “Chinese junk” or “super battleship”. In a big navy, problems translate to discussions about force structure or “Hi-Lo mix.” In smaller navies the first is useless and the latter is often unaffordable. Just for reference – the Polish Navy projected shipbuilding budget, considered by many as rather too optimistic, is below $300M a year.

The issue is more complicated by the fact that experience and history teaches militaries that any conflict can easily escalate into full-blown war. Therefore, in the case of “unstable design,” they are inclined more towards “super-battleship”, while treasuries driven by other needs and perceived lack of threat would often oppose it. In the past, the solution was to arm a flotilla with asymmetric weapons and make it dangerous for any opponent. This, however doesn’t allow a smaller navy to support effectively allied forces far from its own bases. The modern equivalent of a flotilla could be a sort collection or hybrid of corvette and Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). If a ship would be more corvette than OPV depends on the threat perception and compromise between the Navy and treasury, within constraints of political, financial, technical, and operational environments. It is also Important to consider if the given country has a Coast Guard as a separate service or solely a Navy. Technically, corvettes and OPVs are very different ships; corvettes offer survivability and armament while OPVs offers endurance and low cost. One proposal would be to trade armament for a low-cost which results in light corvette or up-armed OPV. Another is to enhance OPV survivability, increasing the cost.

Why would anybody be interested in hybrids if well-established solutions exist? Because a corvette is dangerously close to the unstable design. The wartime evolution of the Flower-class corvette, symbol of simplicity and low costs, ended with the Loch-class being the best ASW performer of Royal Navy during the WWII but for the cost of Tribal fleet destroyers. If we take a look on LCS from that point of view, for the full cost including modules we can probably purchase a FREMM frigate. As there are limits to cutting cost, the natural tendency will be to arm the ship better. It would be interesting to speculate what a small navy would make of LCS, in that for many of them LCS would be a capital ship!

When your name is HMS DEVASTATION, you can carry whatever propulsion you want!

Predicting which technology will have the biggest impact in the future is practically impossible. Steam power implementation was discouraged by Royal Navy Admiralty. It gave freedom of movement at the cost of logistical complexity, completely changing operational patterns. Not surprisingly, there was strong resistance to such a big change of the status quo. However, what usually makes the big change is a coincidence of many developments rather than a single technology. All-big-gun ships and the long-range fire of Adm. Jacky Fisher would be of no great value without advances in fire control systems. Equally, steam power without coaling stations around the globe would be disastrous for British Empire protection. My preferred mix would consist of the old and the new — robotics with related artificial intelligence, modularity (with some reservations), and artillery.

Autonomous vehicles have spread rapidly, changing old habits. Its story resembles that of naval aircraft — from reconnaissance and scouting to attack roles. Not long ago, Tomahawks paved the way for manned aircraft attacks. Maybe in the future manned craft would lead swarms of robotic weapons, the human role to assess situations and make decisions on spot?

I expect modularity to be helpful in easing conflicting demands for many roles and tasks expected to be performed by a dearth of platforms. The smaller the navy is, the bigger problems seem. The Polish Navy plan calls for 3 corvettes, 3 patrol ships and 3 mine-hunters. That is all for defending the country and forward deployments. Modularity used by coastal navies should generate much less logistical burden if load-out changes were required between deployments and in proximity to bases. Modularity, however should be implemented cautiously; keep in mind the old truth that you have to fight with what you have at hand, not with what is in the logistical pipeline or on drawing boards. It is an important decision to choose what sets of armament and sensors should be fixed and what could be exchangeable.

Choosing artillery (naval gunnery) may be surprising, but a versatility which some see as surpassed may be restored by advances like Volcano ammunition or by electromagnetic gun. With ranges of fire in the order of 100nm, operations in narrow seas means that there will be cases when major naval bases of opponents will be within range of naval artillery. This should incentive us to study cases like the Soviet Baltic Fleet operating from Kronstadt/Leningrad during WWII. Eventually, it should trigger one’s imagination to ask how Royal Navy would handle the problem of Channel convoys if confronted by German long range artillery installed on French coasts, assuming the latter possesses guided munitions? I believe that for a small navy operating in narrow waters, the paradigm of “stand-off weapon” needs to be applied after careful examination, which leads us again to nothing new, but rediscovery of historic battles.

Przemek Krajewski alias Viribus Unitis is a blogger In Poland.  His area of interest is broad context of purpose and structure of Navy and promoting discussions on these subjects In his country

The Royal Navy’s Type 26


Concept image of the Type 26 Global Combat Ship.

In 2020, the first of the new Royal Navy frigates – the Type 26 Global Combat Ships – will enter service, replacing the current fleet of 13 Type 23s. The ships are designed to be versatile and adaptable, making them useful within a broad range of strategic, operational, and tactical circumstances.

The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, said of the ships: “The T26 Global Combat Ship (GCS) will be a multi-mission warship designed for joint and multinational operations across the full spectrum of warfare, including complex combat operations, maritime security operations such as counter-piracy, as well as humanitarian and disaster relief work around the world… It will be capable of operating independently for significant periods or as part of a task group and will play a major role in the defence of this country for many years”1.

The Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, Peter Luff, also said of the ships: “The Type 26 Global Combat Ship will be the backbone of the Royal Navy for decades to come. It is designed to be adaptable and easily upgraded, reacting to threats as they change”2.

As individual units, the Type 26 frigates will no doubt be potent warships. The intended fleet of 13 Type 26 frigates do indeed represent a flexible and adaptable platform, ideal for ever-changing technological, diplomatic, strategic, operational, and tactical contexts. The proposed armament bears this out:

  •          Anti-air missiles
  •          Anti-ship, submarine and land-attack missiles
  •          Anti-submarine torpedoes
  •          Guns
  •          A hanger to accommodate a Merlin or Wildcat Helicopter (and underwater, surface and air drones)
  •          Additional accommodation for Royal Marine detachments

The frigates is a concept, not just a particular type of ship. It is one that emphasizes wide-ranging utility, speed and cost-effectiveness. These fundamental functions have barely changed throughout the Royal Navy’s history. This quote from blogger Gabriele Molinelli posted on the Defence Management website supports this notion, “The Type 26 is going to reverse the Type 45 situation by adopting proven, legacy solutions for 80 percent of the design, and only innovating in the remaining 20 percent. This is an effort to stay within budget and get a minimum of 13 hulls into the water. Using existing and proven solutions whenever possible does not make the Type 26 obsolete. The ship will still be a great leap forwards in capability as it will be, effectively, the first true multi-mission ship of the “age of the drones” for the Royal Navy.’3. Considering the flexible nature of these warships and their obvious utility, they are understandably an exciting prospect for the Royal Navy and will represent the backbone of the fleet of the future.

But my concern is with numbers, concerns also felt at the highest levels of the military. Recent comments made by Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, at an Oxford University talk revealed one of his biggest concerns in relation to Britain’s modern armed forces is the number of frigates and destroyers the Navy has4. We often hear talk of how advanced and flexible modern warships are, however, no matter how advanced a warship may be, numbers are of critical importance – there is quality in quantity – for a nation that wishes to retain global influence. With the Royal Navy due to commission two 65,000 tonne Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers in 2016 and 2018, there is a chance of a distorted allocation of resources from the wider surface fleet.

Concept image of the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.

A current American carrier battle-group is at a minimum often comprised of, but not limited to, the carrier itself, two guided missile cruisers, 1-2 ASW destroyers or frigates, and up to two attack submarines. To lose one of the new carriers would be unthinkable, even more so because the loss of one would halve Britain’s seaborne strike capacity (or all of it if one of the carriers is sold to the French!). It would thus be fair to assume that the Royal Navy will need levels of protection similar to that which the American Navy affords their carriers when on deployment (additional protection in time of conflict or crisis). When you consider that there will be only 6 destroyers and 13 frigates (Type 23, then 26) for the foreseeable future, factoring in periods in re-fit, ships returning from operations and the sheer importance of these assets, deployment of just one carrier would seriously hamper the Royal Navy’s ability to meet its wider global commitments. Consider the analogy of a football team; a side consisting of only a few world-class players will still struggle to compete against a full team of average players; unable to respond to every manoeuvre on the pitch. If a warship is thousands of miles from a crisis, technological superiority counts for nothing. It is all well and good having an adaptable and flexible warship, but a flexible fleet is vital.

Limited numbers also means that should any ships be lost during a crisis, regenerating forces to replace those loses becomes problematic. We only need to recall the loses sustained during the Falklands; the modern Royal Naval fleet could not sustain such damage. With procurement timelines as they are (many sailors who serve on the new carriers and frigates were not yet born when they were first conceived), it is important the service fights tooth and nail to get its full allocation of 26s in the first round; the MOD and the Navy must learn from the Type 45 fiasco, where construction delays led to spiraling costs and a halving of the initial building programme of 12 ships. Unlike days of yore, we can’t acquire several new warships after an afternoon sparing with the French.

In addition to the routine but important ‘kinetic’ tasks carried out by Royal Navy frigates and highlighted by Admiral Stanhope in the quote above, maintaining influence through ‘showing the flag’ missions remains of critical importance. For a nation disillusioned with liberal interventionist principles, with little thirst for future foreign policy entanglements and yet a desire, and duty, to influence events abroad, soft-power should be of primary consideration for British policy-makers; something the Navy can uniquely provide. The Type 26 will be a valuable asset for providing such diplomatic leverage.

Unlike the Type 45, the Royal Navy must secure its full allocation of Type 26 warships to ensure Britain has the ability to shape events abroad, both in times of peace and conflict. Britain must not allow the fleet to shrink any further, otherwise London must accept its global influence will continue to diminish.


Simon Williams received a BA Hons in Contemporary History from the University of Leicester in 2008. In early 2011 he was awarded an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. His postgraduate dissertation was entitled The Second Boer War 1899-­1902: A Triumph of British Sea Power. He organised the Navy is the Nation Conference, which was held in April 2012 in Portsmouth, UK. The aim of this event was to explore the impact of the Royal Navy on British culture and national identity.


[1] ‘Design unveiled of Royal Navy’s future warships’ 20 Aug 2012

http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/DefenceNews/EquipmentAndLogistics/DesignUnveiledOfRoyalNavysFutureWarships.htm accessed on 20/11/2012

[2] ‘Design unveiled of Royal Navy’s future warships’ 20 Aug 2012

http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/DefenceNews/EquipmentAndLogistics/DesignUnveiledOfRoyalNavysFutureWarships.htm accessed on 20/11/2012


[3] Gabriele Molinelli ‘The Type 26 will usher in the age of the drones for the Royal Navy’ 21 August 2012 http://www.defencemanagement.com/feature_story.asp?id=20530 accessed on 24/11/2012

[4] Kirkup, J. ‘Defence chief General Sir David Richards attacks Armed Forces cuts’ 14 Nov 2012 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/9679243/Defence-chief-General-Sir-David-Richards-attacks-Armed-Forces-cuts.html accessed on 14/11/2012

Insights into Unmanned ASW

Last week the U.S. government’s defense technology innovator, DARPA, awarded Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) a $58M contract to develop the next phases of its Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vehicle (ACTUV) technology demonstrator. Besides a fine example of the DoD’s love of nested acronyms, the ACTUV program provides a peek into the promises and challenges of the future of unmanned ASW.

It’s important to note that note that the award is for a technology demonstration, not a program of record. The ACTUV will help the Navy mature technologies useful for future capabilities but is not expected to enter active fleet service itself. According to DARPA’s ACTUV website, the first, completed phase:

“refined and validated the system concept and associated performance metrics, completing risk reduction testing to inform program risks associated with submarine tracking sensors and maritime autonomy.”

SAIC is tasked with phases 2-4, specifically to “design a vessel (phase 2); build a vessel (phase 3) and test the vessel (phase 4). Operational prototype at-sea testing is expected in mid-2015.

As stated in DARPA’s press release, the goal of the program is an “unmanned vessel that tracks quiet diesel electric submarines for months at a time spanning thousands of kilometers of ocean with minimal human input.” The website adds that an objective of generating a vessel design that “exceeds state-of-the art platform performance to provide complete propulsive overmatch against diesel electric submarines at a fraction of their size and cost.” In other words the vessel must be small and cheap (target cost goal of $20M apiece), yet robust enough to operate for 80 days and 6,200km without human maintainers or refueling.

The approach the program takes for propulsion will be interesting to see develop, as most long-range drone concepts have relied on solar panels or wave propulsion at the sacrifice of top speeds. Part of ACTUV’s endurance and speed will come from the drone’s design. According to navaldrones.com, the SAIC-built concept’s use a trimaran hull seen (see the video) offers better speeds over long ranges than traditional monohull designs. Additionally, going sans-crew frees up space normally devoted to crew-support systems to fill with more fuel tanks.

No one can escape my cones of many colors!

Hunting its prey, the ACTUV will have an edge during lower sea-state levels and due to the necessity of diesel electric subs to snorkel with regularity. High sea-states and advanced air-independent propulsion (AIP) diesel subs pose a greater challenge, although the former is mitigated by the lack of crew-safety requirements (no need to worry about the wardroom’s pitchers of kool-aid flying into SUPPO’s lap).  As discussed in previous posts on our site, increasing a drone’s level of autonomy as DARPA intends with
the ACTUV – through “a sparse remote supervisory control model” –
will decrease its susceptibility to hacking. However the need for two-way contact through communication and command protocols will still create vulnerabilities to guard against. The more the ACTUV communicates, especially in transmission, the more it increases the chance of being detected. In fact, although as a smaller vessel it might have a radar cross section akin to a pleasure craft or fishing vessel, its speed, sensor suite, and the simple fact that it’s a surface vessel will probably make it rather easy to detect – especially by the sub it is following. As a whole, this vessel will probably not be that stealthy, more often used in “we don’t care you know we know” type situations. 

Automated responses also create the possibility of a dependable error that an enemy can exploit (think of a video game that freezes every time one particular action is performed). This is a more remote worry as the error would have to unknown or uncorrected by the U.S., be discovered by a foe, and be of practical tactical use (it doesn’t matter much if the ACTUV shuts down when trying to avoid whales if you can’t drive the ACTUV into a whale).

Another interesting requirement is the need for ACTUV to abide by maritime traffic conventions and legal restrictions. In practice this means preventing it from, say, running over a civilian on a jet ski or straying into protected marine habitats. But the day will come when some unmanned surface or subsurface vehicle does cause damage, and the legal and operational fallout will be quite interesting to watch.

Lastly, as noted in Aviation week, the ACTUV will not perform organic ASW search functions, but will instead rely on other ASW assets and intel to cue its tracking opportunities. Once acquired, the vessel will use “onboard acoustic, electro-optical, radar and lidar sensors to acquire and follow its submarine target.”

If it proves successful, the ultimate benefit of an ACTUV follow-on is therefore that it will free up more expensive assets to do other things. As configured, an engagement would require integration with a weapon-delivery platform, most practically an aircraft. However, like the predator, which made its debut as a strictly ISR platform, a future iterations could quite conceivably carry their own weapons. The ACTUV is a program to keep an eye on.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

Lego Combat Ship

What do kids do when they get new set of Legos? Immediately start construction. Maybe in the beginning they will follow the assembly instructions, but soon discipline breaks and creativity wins. LCS, thanks its modularity, resembles a Lego set in some respects. As Christopher Cavas noted on Information Dissemination:

Will some of the mission equipment not work well? Probably. Have something better? No problem. Change it. Bring stuff in and install it, ship stuff out, bring in different stuff.

While awaiting finalization of already defined mission modules, why not think about additional ones? For example, the SuW module has been designed to counter swarm attacks, based on experiences from Middle East operations. It would probably work well in Strait of Hormuz or even in Far Seas as defined by Dr. Andrew Erickson. But would it be as effective in China’s Near Seas? Later at Information Dissemination, Wayne P. Hughes summarizes his arguments in favor of distributed offensive power and risk. LCS is not conceptual like SeaLance, but installing Harpoons as a part of next SuW module could be a step in line with his reasoning.

ASW is another example. Although it stands for anti submarine warfare, is the conventional submarine the only underwater enemy of the future? If US Navy is pursuing autonomous robot projects, we should assume that our opponents are doing the same. The question arise what will be the best defense against future armed Bluefins or underwater gliders turned into intelligent mobile mines? Even if not armed, underwater robots are dangerous as scouts providing enemies with essential information. Will we need anti scouting module as well?

Recognizing all the challenges related to their development, inventing new modules seems to be unrealistic. Here our analogy could again be helpful. The inspiration for the whole concept of modularity came from Denmark, as did Legos. What Danes did with their StanFlex modules to minimize complexity and risk, was to take EXISTING systems and packed them into standardized container, a true Lego approach. So let us allow our creativity to wander, under subtle supervision of reason.