Sailing ships to nuclear submarines: get ready for another disruptive shift in naval warfare

Sept. 19, 2017
THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY – We may be on the precipice of a major shift in naval warfare that is every bit as disruptive and significant as the armored battleship and submarine in World War I, and the aircraft carrier in World War II.
THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY – We may be on the precipice of a major shift in naval warfare that is every bit as disruptive and significant as the armored battleship and submarine in World War I, and the aircraft carrier in World War II.

The idea revolves around real-time secure networks of manned and unmanned aircraft, surface ships, and submarines able to attack and defend vast areas of the world's oceans to hold enemy ships and submarines at risk over wide contested areas.

This is the core concept of the Cross Domain Maritime Surveillance and Targeting (CDMaST) Phase 2 project of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va. It could lead to a new era of global sea control, and could be a fundamental step forward in maritime combat that has led from oars and war galleys to today's nuclear submarines and cruise missiles.

CDMaST would augment aircraft carrier battle groups and manned submarines with networked manned and unmanned systems of systems (SoS) that work collaboratively to control the seas.

This approach has the potential to render previous forms of naval warfare obsolete. Humans have seen this before, first in the 1500s when sailing warships quickly replaced oar-powered vessels. We saw it again in Hampton Roads, Va., in 1862 when the ironclad Confederate CSS Virginia fought to a draw with the Union USS Monitor, ushering in the era of armored warships and rotating gun turrets.

Related: Transforming ocean warfare using networked systems of systems (SoS) for wide-area sea control

The next great revolution in naval warfare happened half a century later in 1906 with launch of the British battleship HMS Dreadnought -- a warship so strong, so fast, and so well armed that it rendered all other warships obsolete virtually overnight. Around the same time was deployment of the first practical torpedo-armed submarines to menace civil and military surface shipping.

The next great shift in naval warfare came in the 1920s with the first aircraft carriers such as the U.S. Navy's USS Langley. No one knew it in those early days, but the aircraft carrier would spell the end of battleships as the most dominant vessels of the ocean.

The advent of shipboard nuclear power in the 1950s leads us to today's most modern aircraft carriers, fast attack submarines, and ballistic missile submarines that can operate for years without refueling. These vessels have been kings of the ocean now for nearly 60 years.

Everything changes, however, and it's unlikely that today's nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines will remain the centerpieces of naval power.

Related: DARPA seeks to develop non-lethal weapons and sensors that pop up from the ocean's depths

U.S. sea-control today revolves around carrier battle groups and nuclear submarines. Basing the Navy's survival on these assets, however, increasingly is difficult because of the many enemy long-range anti-ship missiles they face. Adversaries also are quickly enhancing their anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities.

To overcome these obstacles, the CDMaST program seeks to move away from a centralized defensive battle group posture to a more distributed and agile approach to hold the opponent at risk over ocean areas as large as a million square kilometers.

Think of it: the Navy no longer would have to base its global strategy on 12 aircraft carriers, 52 attack submarines, and 18 ballistic- and cruise-missile submarines. Instead, the heart of U.S. naval power would be rapidly reconfigurable forces of size and scope to meet specific challenges when and where they are needed most.

The concept is to distribute combat ability across many low-cost systems to threaten the opponent and put him on the defensive. This will involve a combination of manned and unmanned systems to form systems-of-systems architectures able to conduct wide-area surveillance and targeting, and cause the opponent to expend resources trying to defeat the low-cost systems.

Related: Navy asks for new technologies in mine warfare, special operations, and expeditionary warfare

Today's aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines would become platforms for deploying manned and unmanned surveillance and strike assets. Meanwhile, they would retain their offensive and human leadership capabilities. These expensive vessels wouldn't have to operate close to the enemy; instead they would send their unmanned systems to do that -- in the air, on the water, and under the surface. It's doing more with less.

In addition, such a future naval strategy also would use pre-deployed hidden sensors and weapons like those envisioned in the DARPA Upward Falling Payloads program. DARPA researchers also are considering networked systems of new anti-ship missiles; fast, long-range undersea weapon systems; unmanned, long-endurance air, surface, and undersea vehicles; and prepositioned seafloor systems. Combined with manned platforms, these systems can provide the surveillance and targeting needed to exploit new weapons.

New technologies would come to bear in communications; battle management; command and control (C2); position, navigation, and timing (PNT); logistics; sensors; manned and unmanned systems; and weapons.

It's a new day that we should prepare ourselves for. The era of distributed networked naval systems is not far off.

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About the Author

John Keller | Editor

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

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