Sea Change

Royal Navy Baltic Operations
Recent Royal Navy operations in the Baltic and Europe’s far north have underscored the challenges the fleet faces as NATO deals with Russia’s increasingly muscular strategic behaviour in these areas.

A recent conference saw Royal Navy representatives outlining how the service sees competition in the electromagnetic spectrum and the steps being taken to ensure it can prevail in this challenging domain.

The United Kingdom’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s Operating in the Future Electromagnetic Environment (OFEME) symposium has established itself as a key annual event. This year’s event included a presentation by Captain Marcus Hember of the Royal Navy entitled ‘Operating in the Future Electromagnetic Environment.’ His presentation highlighted the levels of tension characterising Europe’s arctic areas and far north. Existential tensions between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) are the result of the former’s increasingly muscular presence in these areas.

Capt. Hember highlighted the importance of the Electromagnetic Environment (EME) as the arena in which a commander understands, observes, and through which they communicate and deliver effects. By leveraging the EME commanders can change an opponent’s calculus. EME operations are not exceptional but are very much day-to-day activities, he added. The use of jamming in areas where the Royal Navy and allied maritime forces operate is a reality even in peacetime. For example, peacetime jamming can affect vital services like crew welfare communications and vessel meteorology.

The past is prologue

The Royal Navy has a long heritage of involvement with the EME commencing with the Senior Service’s use of radar and Electronic Warfare (EW) during the Second World War. The 1970s saw the navy pioneer methods to exploit EW information for command and control, and to share this data between vessels. The loss of the Israeli Navy’s INS Eilat destroyer on 21st October 1967 in the Mediterranean was instructive. She sank after being hit by three P-15 Termit (NATO reporting name SS-N-2 Styx) radar-guided Anti-Ship Missiles (AShM) fired by Egyptian Navy missile boats. The loss of the INS Eilat was the first time a naval vessel had been sunk by radar- guided AShMs. 15 years later, the Royal Navy would learn firsthand about the lethality of such weapons. During the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas conflict the navy’s task force lost two ships to radar-guided Aérospatiale/MBDA AM39 Exocet radar-guided AShMs. A third vessel, HMS Glamorgan, a ‘County’ class destroyer, was damaged by an MM38 Exocet on 12th June during that conflict.

Today’s EME challenges faced by the Royal Navy include the proliferation of technologies like digital communications which can create problems because of signal discretion. Digital signals can be hard to detect by naval communications Electronic Support Measures (ESMs). Digital communications technology also creates cyber protection challenges. Modern naval ESMs need continually improving signals discrimination and endless threat library updates. Training must cope with an ever-changing technological environment as new technology is rapidly fielded. People must be trained to support and use an ever-changing spectrum of technology in an ever-changing operational environment. Meanwhile, technology improves while the number of deployed operators reduces. This divergence has an impact on the level of specialisation operators can have simply because there are fewer of them. Capt. Hember stressed the need for remedies to these challenges which are consistent, clear and robust.

From a materiel perspective, spare parts need to be continuously available and equipment must be robust. New capabilities must be blended into existing platforms which creates its own challenges and places a premium on reducing size, weight and power consumption burdens. Ships and submarines are often entirely deprived of communications for long periods. Communications outages can affect a vessel’s ability to receive timely threat data information for ESM library updates.

The prescription

Future CEMA (Cyber and Electromagnetic Activities) capabilities must be delivered to frontline users at the speed of relevance, Capt. Hember emphasised. The UK Ministry of Defence now recognises CEMA as a single operational domain and the Royal Navy is recasting its CEMA strategy to reflect this. The navy’s objectives are to understand the EME, protect freedom of action within it, develop capabilities to gain operational advantage, operate to actively exploit the EME in a consistent and confident manner, and constantly develop its capabilities at the speed of relevance. The ecosystem that deliveries these requirements must be secure and resilient. Delivering the above priorities depends on some vital enablers chiefly people, adaptable processes to field capability quickly, ethos and intellectual curiosity in every part of the navy. Future challenges will include assuring capability and understanding that vis-à-vis the navy’s opponents.

Ongoing Royal Navy operations in the Baltic and far north are driving home the importance of the electromagnetic environment to the fleet’s freedom of manoeuvre. Fortunately, the Senior Service has both the heritage and strategy to ensure it remains at the cutting edge of maritime CEMA.

by Dr. Thomas Withington