DSEI’s Day Zero conferences bring together military and defence industry leaders from across the globe to discuss the future of armed forces and the defence industry supporting them. At the Maritime Capability Conference delegates heard from the leaders of the Royal Navy, US Navy, and industry about how digitisation, data, artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomy will fundamentally change the naval domain in the future.

Digitisation and the information advantage

One of the Royal Navy’s prominent innovation initiatives is the recently launched NavyX autonomy and lethality accelerator. The programme’s lead, David Tag-Oram, spoke at the conference, explaining how a project that “began as four people in a shed” now plays a central role in how the navy thinks about employing AI.

One of these key focus points discussed at the conference was the need for a common digital platform that would allow the Royal Navy to centralise the information gathered from its sensors and weaponry, rather than each system running its software in isolation.

Tag-Oram described how “transforming the Royal Navy into a data-driven force” did not just mean buying new equipment and developing autonomous ships but rather “putting digital specialists next to the warfighter”. To achieve this, NavyX aims to truly transform the Royal Navy rather than just replacing systems and introducing AI on a piecemeal basis.

Frost and Sullivan vice-president of consulting Scott Clark echoed this idea when describing how data, autonomy and digitisation could be employed in a horizontal nature across the naval industry. This could come in the form of digital shipyards, virtual reality assisted design and testing, deployment in naval systems and the sustainment of a vessel throughout its service life.

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Clark described how, generally in the defence sector, “data technology generally moves at a glacial speed”, stressing the importance of armed forces continuing to pick up the pace of development. The armed forces, he said, can learn from the private sector and employ digitisation not just to replace equipment, but rather to transform it on a wider scale.

BAE Systems’ naval ships combat systems chief technologist Frank Cotton observed that, over the last 30-years, despite digital systems being employed “by and large the fundamental process of operating a warship hasn’t changed”. He added that the defence sector could take clues from the private sector, saying that if banks can reinvent themselves, there is no reason that the defence industry cannot.

Cotton also spoke about project Nelson’s common digital platform, discussing how the company plans to open up its combat management system, perhaps with Nelson at its core, and go from developer of software to accreditor. As the defence industry works with more, newer and smaller partners, interoperability is increasingly important. BAE sees its role here as a gatekeeper, ensuring that new nodes added to the digital platform are safe and effective.

Tony Reeves, a defence advisor from Microsoft, brought the glacial pace described by Cotton into sharp focus when explained that systems that Microsoft would consider ‘outdated’ in the software sphere look like a commander’s dream in the defence world.

He spoke about a system developed for Rolls-Royce years ago that tracks the location of engines, their status, and where spare parts are across the world in real-time. Development of this system specifically for Rolls-Royce took months, but it could be achieved in a matter of hours or days using today’s computing methods.

Increasing mass, reach and lethality through autonomy

Autonomy in the naval domain today is largely limited to 3-D missions – keeping them out of harm’s way by having automated systems complete ‘dull, dirty, or dangerous’ work.

Steve Olson, deputy branch head of the US Navy’s mine warfare division, explained how this approach was at the centre of the US’s autonomous push in countering sub-sea mines. Olson also brought up one of the biggest hurdle that autonomy has to overcome when he pointed out that “autonomy makes a lot of people nervous”. No matter how far and advanced the system, it is worthless unless people know how to properly and safely use it.

The question of trust in autonomy, Olson said, presents significant challenges to the adoption of naval autonomous systems; for self-sailing vessels to have a real impact in the domain it is important sailors truly understand the limits of their application.

Thales’ head of maritime strategy Sam McBriar also spoke about maritime autonomy, highlighting the company’s international development project for an autonomous minesweeping vessel. “We acknowledge we don’t have all the answers, but we have a lot of experience and we need a range of different capabilities, companies and organisations to work together to solve some of the very real challenges to be overcome,” he said.

At DSEI Thales unveiled several autonomous solutions designed for navies across the world, including the minehunter and its TX concept ship. The TX concept is designed for a range of missions from autonomous or lean-manned, taking the pressure of capital ships in high-threat areas. This project illustrates a current trend in shipbuilding and shows how autonomy could server to improve the much-discussed lethality and survivability of naval assets.

Royal Navy Captain Jules Lowe made it clear that this approach is needed across the board, applauding the Royal Navy for “doing things differently at every level”. While the Royal Navy is trying to halt its decline of recent years, it is also changing its attitude towards autonomy and AI in a top-down approach that has spread from commander down to every level.

Lowe explained the benefits of an unmanned navy in terms of the traditional mass, reach and lethality equation, but also through the lens of cost, with unmanned forces ultimately being cheaper to run.

The Royal Navy, Lowe said, has revamped its approach to delivering autonomy accelerated by NavyX. The navy’s motto in its approach for innovation is simple: ‘Buy it, connect it, prove it, and scale it’. This means NavyX will buy equipment that could be game-changing for the service, connect the system assessing its interoperability, proving it works and will be a valuable asset, and then finally rolling it out to naval operations. This will help the Royal Navy shed the sluggish pace of its acquisitions process and give sailors access to new systems before they become outdated again.

All of this innovation cannot happen without without funding, which is where Captain Paddy Green, the deputy head of the Defence Innovation Unit (DIU) comes in. The DIU is accelerating acquisition and gives the lion’s share of its budget to the navy as, across the services when it comes to adopting autonomy, the navy tends to be in the lead.

Green mentioned a Special Forces project which went from problem to solution in 22 weeks – a rapid development model many hope to see proliferated across the UK’s Armed Forces.

The Maritime Capability Conference may have been awash with buzzwords but nonetheless, it made abundantly clear where the Royal Navy is heading, and where the industry is following. The navy of tomorrow will be better connected, backed up by autonomous systems and supported by new attitudes towards technology development and procurement processes.