Managing Maritime Combat – At Speed

Saab's 9LV CMS
Saab's 9LV CMS features an open architecture in order to facilitate the integration of technological innovations throughout the ship's lifecycle (Photo: Saab)

The speed of warfare and the proliferation of multi-domain threats has increased the pressure on naval combat management system develpment

Hypersonic and ballistic missiles, unmanned systems used as forward-looking sensors and as swarms to create a saturating threat, increasingly stealthy submarines and faster jets… The breadth, reach and tempo of today’s maritime threats is forcing navy commanders into a race against time to gain and maintain information, decision and action superiority.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the latest evolutions of naval Combat Management Systems (CMS). As navies face threats that span across multiple domains – from underwater all the way to space – commanders must leverage information from a growing variety of sensors within fleets and coalitions. In practice, CMS must be able to integrate multiple sensors and receive, process, present and share data and information across multiple platforms at an unprecedented tempo.

“It is precisely because everything is faster, stronger and goes further that time must be the object of particular attention in order to be exploited in the best possible way, because it is probably more than ever the most sensitive material manipulated by the tactician,” note Thibault Lavernhe and François-Olivier Corman in their book, Winning at Sea in the 21st Century: Tactics in the Fifth Age of Naval Combat (Vaincre en mer au XXIe siècle – La tactique au cinquième âge du combat naval), published in February 2023. Today more than ever, time is of the essence.

Tactical Coordination

As the world starts to draw lessons from the conflict in Ukraine, evolutions in naval warfare tactics and technology, thus far primarily forecasted rather than experienced, progressively come into sharper focus.

It is now evident, for instance, that unmanned systems – be they aerial (UAV), surface (USV) or underwater (UUV) – are ubiquitous and possibly indispensable to the naval domain. The attack carried out on Sevastopol on 29 October 2022 offers a perfect example of how a small fleet of unmanned systems (reportedly eight UAVs and seven USVs) can deliver a critical effect of surprise. The damage done to the Russian fleet may not have been significant as only a frigate and a minesweeper were hit, but the effect of the attack ‘backed’ the much more important Russian fleet into port. The attack craft came from the air and the sea and used modern communication systems – likely satellite – to coordinate this multi-domain attack.

There have also been reports of various types of missiles being launched from sea to shore and shore to sea. For instance, defence sources report that Russia fires long-range cruise missiles (reportedly Kalibr) from ships in the Black Sea to hit Ukrainian targets on land. Conversely, everyone remembers Ukraine’s sinking of Russia’s Slava class guided missile cruiser Moskva with two Neptune anti-ship missiles launched off the coast of Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have also reportedly used their Harpoon anti-ship missile coastal defence battery to counter surface ships in the Black Sea.

Finally, although not part of the naval aspect of the war in Ukraine, Russia has more recently deployed hypersonic missiles in one of its latest offensives on multiple targets in Ukraine.

As Lavernhe and Corman write in their book, and as Admiral Pierre Vandier, French Navy Chief of Staff, said during the inaugural Paris Naval Conference held in at IFRI (the French institute for international relations) in Paris on 18 January, the use of saturation and multi-domain tactics are nothing new in and of themselves. What is new, is the breadth, depth and tempo of the technologies and tactics being deployed.

The implications of these tactics on the development and use of CMS today are significant. As navies must leverage information from, and take decisions based on, a growing number of sensors across multiple domains from seabed to space in the appropriate tempo, the CMS is no longer just a tool presenting a tactical situation. “It becomes a multi-domain, multi-field federator that aims to provide informational and decisional superiority, as well as action superiority if, ultimately, actions need to be taken,” Yonec Fihey, Business Development senior manager for Surface Ships and Systems at Naval Group, told Armada.

CMS Evolution

Before even delivering critical, real and near-real time tactical situational awareness to naval commanders, a CMS needs to be up-to-date with the latest technological evolutions. As noted by Lavernhe and Corman: “Most often, a tactic can only be born from a perfect knowledge of the reality of the technological evolution and of one’s own mastery of this evolution.” Considering the speed at which technologies evolve and are adopted, CMS today need to be able to evolve rapidly to integrate them into the ship’s and naval force’s system-of-systems – the latter in collaborative mode.

“This has resulted into a continued drive towards more modular and open system architecture [for CMS] coupled with the adoption of modern software architectures and development methods,” Jay Hart, BMT’s chief combat systems engineer explained.

Naval Group’s SETIS, for instance, is now built around a digital architecture. The version installed on France’s FDI (Frégates de Défense et dIntervention) is now entirely virtual and based on two data centres located at opposite ends of the ship. According to Fihey, this offers greater flexibility, allowing Naval Group to integrate new systems, such as laser weapons, Artificial Intelligence [AI] and unmanned systems, much more easily and interactively. “Ultimately, the aim is to have a digital architecture that will evolve with the ship throughout its lifecycle, offering customers a CMS at the technical edge that ensures informational and decisional superiority,” Fihey highlighted.

Naval Group’s SETIS CMS
Naval Group’s SETIS CMS is installed on France’s FDI frigate and is now entirely virtual and based on two data centres located at opposite ends of the ship. (Naval Group)

Other CMS on the market, such as Leonardo’s Athena, Saab’s 9LV, BAE’s INTeACT and Thales’ TACTICOS, are all now developed around similar concepts of open architecture. “The aim is really to be able to seamlessly and safely add new modules to the CMS, as new functionalities and systems need to be integrated with minimum impact [e.g. cyber security and interoperability],” Lorenzo Cozzella, Electronics Division Strategic Marketing Naval Domain, Leonardo, told Armada.

The other important advantage of open architecture is the ability to easily “host or integrate third party functionalities,” Hart added. To this end, BAE Systems has developed the ‘App Locker’ concept for INTeACT. Through a Software Development Kit (SDK), the company provides a generic CMS development environment freely available to industry and research labs to test their applications against the CMS open interface. If successful, an application is then integrated, tested and verified for potential safety and security vulnerabilities by BAE Systems and Ministry of Defence teams at BAE’s Portsmouth Maritime Integration facility. “Once approved, the application is added to the App Locker for Commanders to use according to the missions they embark on,” Amelia Gould, then director of Naval Ships Combat Systems business at BAE Systems, told the author.

BAE Systems developed the App Locker
BAE Systems developed the App Locker, facilitating third party applications’ integration and Commanders’ download of mission-relevant apps (BAE)

Up to Speed

As naval warfare continues to expand across multiple domains, from seabed to space, being able to retain superior tactical situational awareness also means being able to see further afield. It also means getting the information in real (or near-real) time because, as Lavernhe and Corman write, “the validity period of both information [received from sensors] and the resulting situation assessments is shorter.” In such context, UAVs, USVs and UUVs are poised to play an important role in the concept of distributed fleet architecture that the US Navy (USN) is trying to establish – with other navies following in its footsteps – and open architecture CMS are expected to greatly facilitate the ease and speed of their integration onboard.

“SETIS’ open digital architecture facilitates the integration of all new systems coming onboard a ship, including unmanned systems,” Fihey explained. “This will be done through the seamless integration of the I4Drones Mission System into the Combat System in order to implement the ‘unmanned’ capability to the system.” First, it allows operators to plan the mission ahead of launching the UAV/USV/UUV, including flight/navigation plans as well as operational area definition and rules in accordance with the tactical situation. Second, it is through the Combat System that unmanned systems are remotely controlled in order to both send information – navigation, fleet tactical situation, etc – and receive data – data is collected, integrated, processed and transformed into meaningful information.

Similarly, Leonardo has been testing the integration of UAVs in Athena on the FREMM through the OCEAN 2020 (Open Cooperation for European mAritime awareNess) European programme. In parallel, through the Leonardo Labs, the company is also testing integration of unmanned systems in all domains – aerial, surface, underwater. “What we mean by integration is the payload of these systems [such as video, data, etc],” Cozzella specified, the remote control of the systems currently still being carried out from a dedicated console. More than the result of a technical limitation, Hart explains that what is at stake here is ensuring that the introduction of these systems does not invalidate the integration assurance for the rest of the CMS.

Yet despite these significant advances both interviewees were careful to explain that unmanned systems integration into a CMS is inevitably incremental. Not only will it have to evolve as these systems mature, but it also has to take into account their different levels of autonomy. For instance, currently no USV is capable of functioning in full autonomy. “Waves can be interpreted as false objects or can mask other potential obstacles and/or objects, such as buoys, creating a risk of collision,” Cozzella points out, “as such these systems are all remotely piloted.” Leonardo is currently working on developing a solution to overcome these challenges.

Precisely because these systems are remotely piloted, Hart added, the main issue is then being able to maintain a good communication link between UAVs/USVs travelling Beyond Line Of Sight (BLOS) and the ship’s CMS, especially in poor weather conditions. “The challenge then is not so much technical, as one could increase autonomy, but going beyond leveraging these systems as sensors to safely use them as potential weapons,” Hart said.

Case in point, UUVs generally operate with higher degrees of autonomy due to the difficulties associated with communicating underwater. “The challenge in this case is twofold,” Fihey noted. First, mission specifications – including navigation rules and task prioritisation – must very clearly be established through the Combat System ahead of the mission. “Depending on what the UUV will encounter it needs to know if it will prioritise the mission or if it will surface to transmit information,” said Fihey. Second, UUV operators face the challenge of not knowing what the UUV is doing underwater. That is why Naval Group privileges the use of the UUV’s digital twin to be able to have as accurate a scenario of its behaviour during the mission as possible. “The digital twin is a perfect copy of the system, including its decisional autonomy as stated in its mission specifications,” Fihey added.

As such, many of the limitations characterising today’s integration of UAVs, USVs and UUVs into CMS are not necessarily technical. As Hart told AI: “Technology readiness level today allows a large range of missions to be carried out with these systems, but the problem is more about system integrity, functional safety, and compliance with any regulatory or legislative constraints such as Rules Of Engagement [ROE].”

Collaborative Engagement

Navies today face two significant challenges: on the one hand, threats are more varied, faster, stealthier and with a longer reach than ever before; on the other hand, decades of decrease in defence spending, combined with ageing platforms, have resulted in reduced fleet that can seldom afford to span the vast expanse of today’s theatres of operation. In such context, as Lavernhe and Corman write, collaborative engagement is key to gather real-time information and successfully address threats such as hypersonic missiles. CMS are a critical element in this endeavour.

The USN has been working on such capability at fleet level since the 1990s with the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC). The CEC is a real-time sensor netting system focusing on the development of hardware and software that allow radar and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) data sharing on all CEC equipped platforms – including unmanned. For example, on 27 April 2021, USS John Finn successfully launched an extended active range missile (SM-6) based on targeting information gathered from both manned and unmanned systems.

USS John Finn
USS John Finn launches a missile during U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem (UxS IBP) on April 25, 2021. (USN)

In 2021, the European Commission opened its first European Defence Fund (EDF) call for proposals on Naval Collaborative Surveillance (NCS). NCS, much like its US cousin, focuses on Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) and, more specifically, the ability to use a vast sensor of networks to allow “a better tactical situational awareness shared within a coalition, in terms of performance […] and resilience […].”

As the name suggests, NCS is currently in its first step – surveillance – and both Naval Group and Leonardo talked to AI about working on Plot Level Data Exchange and Fusion (PLDEF). “Classic CMS have their limits, particularly in relation to speed, reaction time, and the ability to take action within extremely short delays,” Fihey told Armada. The key advantage of NCS is that rather than exchanging radar tracks, as is currently the case with Tactical Data Link, ships will be able to exchange the plot directly – radar raw metadata such as velocity, altitude and bearing.

“The advantages of PLDEF are twofold,” Cozzella noted. First, it means that no filters have been applied to the raw data, therefore each receiving ship can do as they wish with it. Second, because multiple platforms share asynchronous information the final track built on the receiving CMS is far richer and up to date. “In other words, rather than receiving information every 5 or 10 seconds, as is the case with long-range radar, the operator receives it almost continuously, thus facilitating constant target tracking,” Cozzella concluded.

Thales Netherlands is also working on the PLDEF and, during a visit at the Hengelo site in January 2023, Rogier Noorland, product manager Integrated Air Missile Defence (IAMD) at Thales, told the author that, “another advantage of the NCS will be resilience, as it is much harder to jam multiple radar sharing raw data than just a couple.” Thales also said that PLDEF is performed by the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN) using Guardion CMS and is foreseen to be on-board RNLN Anti-Submarine Warfare Frigate (ASWF). In the long run it will be integrated with TACTICOS also.

The PLDEF was first tested during NATO’s Formidable Shield exercise in 2021, when a French Navy Horizon class frigate Forbin and a Dutch de Zeven Provinciën class frigate de Zeven Provinciën successfully exchanged radar plots through the Link 16 Tactical Data Link (TDL). Ultimately, the aim of NCS is “to develop an EU protocol/interface standard,” as the EU call states.

Always Connected

The pace of naval warfare in the last decade has changed radically. It is not just about being able to track, identify and engage hypersonic threats at Mach speeds, it is also about tackling multiple threats, sometimes simultaneously, from seabed to space. To put things into perspective, Trafalgar in 1805 involved a mere 60 surface ships in a zone of approximately… 20nm square. In the midst of so much uncertainty, one thing is clear: no ship or nation can go it alone.

The past few years have seen a worldwide effort to develop collaborative surveillance and engagement capabilities, from USN’s CEC in the 1990s to the EU’s NCS in 2001. The impact of such evolutions on ships’ CMS is significant. It requires not only the ability to quickly integrate increasingly large volumes of data from multiple sensors, but also the capacity to process them and provide decision-making support in ever-shorter timespans.

Multiple technologies and processes continue to emerge to facilitate this endeavour. For instance, companies such as Naval Group, Leonardo, BAE Systems and Saab have designed open architecture CMS to be able to keep up with technological evolutions  including advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to support operators in their race against the clock. Additionally, Hart told Armada that quantum computing could also be a technology of interest for future CMS: “As an analogue technology, it might be able to undertake analogue processing, bypassing the need to digitise data to enable digital computers to perform CMS functions.”

Ultimately, as Lavernhe and Corman write, platform connectivity is increasingly becoming a critical military criterion to stay connected and ahead of the game. In this way, if one platform is lost, it can look, and it will find another.

by Dr. Alix Valenti