From aircraft supercarriers to offshore patrol vessels, highly integrated on-board systems offer centralised oversight of the status of all a ship's systems. They also provide unparalleled situational awareness, offering a multilayered composite overview into which officers can drill down to get precision mission-specific data.
Using commercial off-the-shelf components and open architecture means modules and sensors can be freely switched in and out depending on the mission at hand and if a unit fails. To ensure constant availability over months-long patrols, shipboard systems have multiple layers of redundancy, making it near-impossible that they will fail altogether, and can be configured to carry on providing useful information in austere and GPS-deprived environments.
Critics argue that dependence on a centralised system that could be destroyed in a single enemy strike is risky. Also, new levels of automation support the claim that in an era of severe defence cutbacks the same level of at-sea defence can be provided by fewer sailors. (The Royal Navy is still smarting from the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review under which 5,000 jobs had to be cut by 2015.)
While there are no easy answers, a selection of recent programmes and contracts demonstrates the wide range of groundbreaking technology available to support modern sailors in news ways.
Queen Elizabeth-class carriers - two islands, one purpose
The bid daddy of current naval programmes, first in class HMS Queen Elizabeth is three times the size of its predecessor, the Invincible-class HMS Ark Royal, but operates with a fewer crew members than the former flagship. Central to making this possible is a highly integrated mission system that acts as the brains of these ships, with three main functional areas: information systems, communications, and flight control and weapons. The backbone is a fibre-optic network that links the combat, communications and visual surveillance systems, which are usually separate on warships.
The biggest UAS ever operated by the navy, Triton will fly missions of up to 24 hours scouting out large areas of the ocean.
But there is a limit to how much integration can support a ship's operations without hindering them. Instead of a single bridge, Queen Elizabeth-class carriers have a forward island for navigating and running the ship and an aft island housing the flying control. The forward island brings together tactical, navigation, command information and mission control data to support multiple aircraft operations of the embarked F35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters and Merlin helicopters, and task force group command functions. It also supports engineers conducting maintenance activities and provides logistics support.
The ship's on-board weapons systems comprise the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System for use against aircraft and missiles, and miniguns and 30mm cannon to defend against seaborne threats. Weapons for the on-board aircraft are brought to the deck by another sophisticated integrated solution, the Highly Mechanised Weapon Handling System (HMWHS) which moves munitions on pallets using remotely controlled vehicles and lifts. Operable by just 50 people, or as few as twelve in an emergency, HMWHS supports a faster sortie generation rate than any previous Royal Navy aircraft carrier; a rate that would require 160 people using a conventional system
US Independence-class littoral combat ship
It is not just enormous aircraft carriers that can benefit from integrated systems. One of the most important vessels in the US Navy's immediate plans is the lightweight Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). One of two designs commissioned, the General Dynamics/Austal designs Independence-variant LCS is an exemplar of integration.
Its core missions system are built around a flexible information technology backbone, known as Open Architecture Computing Infrastructure (OPEN CI), developed by General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems division. OPEN CI enables any current or future system applications that comply with open architecture standards to be seamlessly integrated with other LCS systems.
Among its suite of weapons, LCS boasts a SeaRAM missile defence system which uses the Phalanx 1B close-in weapon system integrated with an eleven-missile launcher for the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile to create an autonomous system. All weapons systems are controlled by a Northrop Grumman Integrated Combat Management System which integrates the sensors and weapons on-board the platform, including the electro-optical/infrared sensor, volume search radar, on-board missile system, 57mm gun, electronic warfare suite and communication system.
OSI Maritime's Integrated Navigation and Tactical Systems
OSI Maritime is one company that offers a complete Integrated Bridge Systems solution compliant with military standards. Its Integrated Navigation and Tactical Systems (INTS) is flexible and scalable, and meets International Maritimes Organisation standards and NATO STANAG 4564, which governs Warship Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (WECDIS).
The solution is centred around OSI's Electronic Chart Precise Integrated Navigation System with which radars and navigation sensors are integrated, and can be installed on new builds or retrofitted to existing warships. The WECDIS provides a full Recognised Maritime Picture to support navigational and tactical scenarios, and has multiple layers of redundancy so it can work in Differential GPS/GPS denied environment and even if battle-damaged.
To this, OSI's Navigation & Tactical Data Distribution Unit can be added which provides the functionality of a Consistent Common Reference System and a Simplified Voyage Data Recorder (S-VDR).
Finally for ships carrying rotorcraft, OSI can provide a Helicopter Operating Limits software module for the INTS, designed to make complex situations like a multi-ship anti-submarine warfare scenario easier to interpret.
A new generation of 360 degree ship sensors
The US Navy’s variant of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter has successfully completed its first-ever landing on an aircraft carrier.
Future naval vessels will inevitably have an even wider range of inputs to incorporate into a one-stop Integrated Bridge System, and a recent US Navy request for information could see an incremental leap in input data. In June, the navy asked manufacturers to put forward solutions or components to support the development of a Shipboard 360 degree Multi-Spectral Persistent Surveillance System.
The Electro-Optical/Infrared sensors would enable operators to capture high-resolution video and images from all around the vessel in any weather and visibility conditions. This could improve responses against new threats such as swarms of fast attack craft, and provide targeting information for on-board weapons, including the new generation of laser weapons.
Secret briefings were held in June for manufacturers to put forward their ideas, and solutions taken forward will be demonstrated at NSWC Crane, a shore command of the US Navy which has facilities including the Joint Electro Optics Center's towers, labs, target boards, and Lake Greenwood.
A new naval era
The prospect of technology replacing hands will always be an emotive subject, but without these new integrated systems modern sailors would be unable to carry out the vast range of missions demanded of them. From counter-piracy through humanitarian missions to providing offshore support for land operations, there's a shipboard system for that.