From the introduction of new aircraft like the joint strike fighter and a growing shift towards littoral dominance to major defence reviews that could well establish the future of naval warfare for years to come, we look towards the horizon at what might become 2010’s biggest stories.

Joint strike fighter (JSF) – fly or fail?

After years of delays, the Lockheed Martin-led joint strike fighter team recently announced the successful test of the lift propulsion system for a full 14 minutes. Not for the full flight promised in 2009, but a good run nevertheless. The big question, however, is whether or not this is too late. The first full test of the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) system is scheduled for early 2010, but much has still to be accomplished.

Reports from the UK indicate that as many as 70 of the 140 F-35 JSFs ordered may be cut in the 2010 defence review and the US has also maintained it will take a conservative view towards cost. Bad news for the JSF, which will now go for £62m, almost double the original £34m first quoted.

To resurrect flagging interest this year, the JSF team will first have to succeed in flying enough test aircraft to complete the systems development and demonstration process. On top of that a pilot trainer training programme also needs to kick off if full-scale flight tests are to be achieved before 2013.

“A shift towards littoral dominance and major defence reviews in 2010 could well establish the future of naval warfare.”

Cloud computing and cyber security

In today’s naval environment there is huge pressure to become lighter, more agile and better connected. The need to provide a common hosted computing environment across the entire fleet is of the utmost importance to streamline and free up resources for the job of war fighting.

During the first quarter of 2010, the US Navy is expected to make its first big step towards a consolidated tactical “cloud computing” network with the selection for the consolidated afloat network enterprise system (CANES).

The CANES network will consolidate networking hardware and centralised software to be accessible by users on land or at sea, which, although crucial for moving the US Navy into the new millennium, is risky as it paints one big target for cyber attackers.

Recent successful cyber attacks on Google, India’s National Security Department and the South Korean military have raised the threat level from what US President Barack Obama calls “weapons of mass disruption” to growingly uncomfortable levels.

The challenge for 2010 will be for countries such as the US and Australia and others, which have created cyber security commands, to coordinate against and repel attacks. A big part of this is sure to involve coordination with the private sector and most importantly international cooperation, especially with tech-savvy giants such as China and India.

UK strategic defence review

In 2010, the UK is set to undertake its first full defence review since 1998, the first since the invasion of Iraq and the current war in Afghanistan – conflicts that were neither expected nor budgeted for.

Although all fighting forces are likely to feel the affects of a tight budget, the Royal Navy is likely to see drastic changes as the UK moves towards the lighter, nimbler, more intelligence-focused fighting force needed to fight modern insurgencies.

“As many as 70 of the 140 F-35 JSFs ordered may be cut in the 2010 defence review.”

The naval projects that are most at risk are the two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince Of Wales, on order at a figure close to £6bn, the JSF fighter jets intended to be flown from them and the Trident submarine nuclear missile programme.

While the aircraft carriers are immensely expensive, the huge deterrent factor, defended recently by First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, should keep their heads above water. The JSF fighters are also likely to survive although reduced orders are very likely.

The fate of the replacements for the aging fleet of Trident submarine nuclear missile systems seems more likely to face the chop. Although the decision to replace them was taken in 2007, little has been done and formal contracts have not even been drawn up yet. Extending service life and reducing the fleet size, may well be more attractive options.

Piracy – the scourge of the seven seas

What was once the domain of story books and history has, in recent years, become a very modern and dangerous threat. According to the International Maritime Bureau, sea attacks worldwide surged 39% to 406 cases last year, with raids in the Gulf of Aden off the cost of Somalia accounting for more than half that figure.

As a result, navies from several nations acting singly or as a part of CTF-150, CTF-151, EUNAVFOR’s Operation Atalanta and Nato have flocked to the area.

While warships from these navies have had some success in preventing attacks, a huge gulf still remains in how suspects are detained and prosecuted, resulting in the vast majority being sent back ashore unpunished.

In 2009 the Netherlands, with support from Russia, hosted an informal workshop at The Hague to promote the idea of an international court to deal with piracy. Such a move, however, would need to be ratified by more countries than ever before and is likely to take many years.

To rid the high seas of piracy an accord, similar to but more stringent than agreements reached by the UK, US, EU and others with countries such as Kenya, will have to be reached.

Unmanned and at large

The adoption of unmanned solutions for naval scenarios is gathering momentum faster than an incoming storm. Unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Globemaster, ScanEagle and Fire Scout have already proved their worth as valuable reconnaissance tools and strike UAVs such as the predator have also shown deadly potential.

“In today’s naval environment there is huge pressure to become lighter, more agile and better connected.”

At present the UAV market is dominated by the US, with Israel as its main competitor, however, many other countries in Europe and Asia are beginning to invest as UAVs become the tool of choice for dangerous scenarios, which not only include naval warfare but anti-piracy and search-and-rescue missions as well.

With this level of interest, the rate of innovation is only likely to accelerate. In late 2009, Northrop Grumman unveiled its stealth UAV and the US Naval Research Laboratory managed to keep the Ion Tiger, a hydrogen-powered UAV, in the air for a record 23 hours and 17 minutes.

Global UAV cooperation will also be a hot topic for 2010 as countries look to guard against both aggressive and inept use of these aircraft, which can often slip past radar. The signing of a 15-nation memorandum of understanding for the Nato alliance ground surveillance project, which will use the Global Hawk, is just one area where national cooperation is set to reap serious rewards.

Trimming the sails – US quadrennial defence review

The US quadrennial defence review, released in February 2010, is likely to forge entirely new paths of US military thinking. Not only is this the first time a defence review will be driven by current wartime requirements but it will also be the first to fully recognise the shifting nature of modern warfare.

The result of fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan has blurred the lines between conventional and non-conventional threats, a scenario likely to put versatility and the ability to fight irregular threats such as terrorism and cyber-terrorism at the top of the defence wish list.

While significant personnel and health costs are likely to drive up the budget, the US is expected to remove a large amount of dead weight with the axing of several big navy projects. These include half the original order for littoral combat ships, the termination of the amphibious assault, cutbacks in the purchases of air-to-air and anti-radar missiles and a delay for the purchase of an Orion surveillance aircraft replacement.

Other cuts could also include two new ships intended to replace aging command ships such as the USS Mount Whitney and one of ten planned Virginia Class submarines to be made jointly by Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics.

In addition, the navy is also expected to save as much as $825m through plans to retire as many as 20 ships one year ahead of schedule.

LCS vs blue water

The pressure of current inland warfare commitments as well as the growing threat of piracy and drug smuggling has led many navies to opt for more agile, shallow-water, low-cost vessels, better suited to coastal operations than the larger blue-water battleships.

The US in particular is expected to grow its LCS fleet and will soon issue a request for proposals to either Lockheed Martin or General Dynamics, based on their two candidates, the second of which was delivered in January 2010.

“In 2010, the UK is set to undertake its first full defence review since 1998.”

The value of such ships to be deployed close to shore in the Arabian Gulf, for instance, is fairly obvious as is their role in disaster relief, which was highlighted in January 2010 after the US sent USS Freedom as a means to quickly move supplies from Guantanamo to earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

Another advantage of the ships is the relatively small crew needed to man them. One disadvantage, however, is that their rapid response role does require a phenomenal amount of fuel, which somewhat negates their speed.

Despite rising interest in LCS, the role of big blue-water ships as a deterrent and for other crucial tasks such as missile defence is not likely to change to quickly. With current rates of technological progress it is entirely feasible that a new blue-water fleet numbering just a few ships could well take on the task of dozens of smaller ships.

Growing navies

The value of operating a capable navy is a strength not lost on any coastal nation, whether it is for international war fighting or to protect valuable shipping lanes and guard against drug smugglers. Two navies in particular, India and China, are creating significant waves.

The Indian Navy is already the fifth biggest in the world and international developments such as the sea-borne terrorist attacks in Mumbai last year and concerns over the safety of shipping lanes in the straights of Malacca, have elevated India’s role as a significant international as well as local enforcer.

In 2010, the Indian Navy seems likely to concentrate its sea power on smaller stealthy, quick-response shallow-water ships, and the nation has significantly committed to a £1.5bn deal to overhaul its naval air power. The country is also awaiting a fixed price on acquiring Russia’s Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier and has also agreed a loan on a Russian Nerpa Class submarine.

Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal has also experienced a lot of growth over the last few years (a point not lost on India) and a similar desire to protect shipping lanes and establish authority in Indo-Asia is fuelling a desire for expansion.

China already operates more submarines that any other Asian nation and is now also widely reported to be looking into the possibility of launching its first aircraft carrier, a move that has concerned the US, which has 11.

What is even more likely, however, is the establishment of China’s first overseas naval base this year, which will most likely be placed to protect shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden where several Chinese ships have fallen prey to pirate attacks.