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Defeating new Above Water Warfare threats

In an increasingly dynamic and complex maritime environment, the time available to detect, identify and respond to a potential threat is being compressed by a new generation of deadly weapons.

How are navies employing their own emerging technologies to maintain survivability, enhancing strike capabilities and retaining the human element in life-and-death decision loops? 

Emerging threats

The threat presented by anti-ship missiles has undergone a step-change with the development by several potential adversaries of advanced, hypersonic technologies.

At the other end of the scale, and firmly within the reach of many more regional actors, are Uncrewed Aerial Systems (UAS). They may be smaller, slower and lower-tech than missiles, but they are also agile, sometimes hard to detect and potentially very lethal.

Hypersonic missiles

The latest hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles being tested pose a significant threat to national and global security. They can be launched in one sea and hit a target in a different one over 1,000km away, travelling at speeds in excess of Mach 5 (i.e. over 1715 metres a second), and employing plasma stealth technology, which uses ionised gases to reduce weapon radar cross-sections to evade air defences.

Aside from the necessary speed of response, though, missile technologies like this presents a number of challenges. Firstly, given their long ranges and ability to change flight paths mid-air, hypersonic missiles must ideally be tracked throughout their flight. Secondly, some weapons operate in different parts of the atmosphere, including space, where many existing naval radars cannot operate, requiring a genuine Multi-Domain Integration approach.

The UAS threat

The effectiveness of drones in conventional and hybrid warfare is well documented, with tactical examples seen on Ukrainian battlefields and even strategic effect being achieved in 2019 when a drone attack on an oil facility in the Middle East temporarily cut oil production.

Drones may be simple, but modern “systems of systems” digital technology could be exploited to compound their lethality. Large number of warheads could be coordinated within swarm tactics to overwhelm the defences of not just an individual warship but of an entire task group, targeting its highest value asset.

Industry’s response

To counter these threat trends, companies such as Thales are using a multi-technology approach, though with many common features.

We need to progressively harness the power of advanced computing and eventually Artificial Intelligence…

Ian Watson, Product Line Manager, Above Water Systems (AWS) for Thales in the UK, outlined their approach: “To defeat the threat posed by both hypersonic technologies and drone swarm tactics, the journey to increased levels of automation and integration is inevitable in naval warfare. We need to progressively harness the power of advanced computing and eventually Artificial Intelligence.” However, the former Royal Navy warfare officer added: “Autonomy has been around for several years, but it has not always been fully trusted. Therefore, this requires a journey, not a ‘big-bang’ approach, and there is a clear need for iterative development to avoid making costly mistakes and to gradually build trust and understanding amongst operators. Also, knowing when to automate and when to keep the human on the loop will be key, and this of course opens a number of safety and moral questions that need to be carefully considered as we move forwards. Ongoing research and development into collaborative combat capabilities, automation, improved operator visualisation and integration will help to operationalise autonomous technology and bring the fight more to the enemy.”

Early warning – sensing danger 

While radar is likely to remain the primary Above Water sensor for the foreseeable future, developments in radar technologies, advanced signal data processing and complementation with other sensors, including ESM and electro-optical systems, will improve range and accuracy.

Combat Management: Automation, visualisation, MDI – and human operators

Working in a cyber-secure environment that nevertheless enables real-time data sharing across multiple units, including autonomous ones, Thales’s TACTICOS Combat Management System provides an open architecture platform for more integrated air and missile defence.

TACTICOS can already classify detected tracks automatically based on their behaviours, significantly improving response speeds while reducing the burden on operators. Its automation, however, retains the operator on the loop through pre-defined rulesets and anomaly detection, mimicking the Royal Navy’s ‘Investigate Procedure’.

Further acknowledging the centrality of the human factor, improving the operator visualisation experience is being explored. Improved Multi-function Operator Consoles, underpinning rapid decision-making, are now being developed to cater for a generation of operators raised with PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch and R&D is underway to provide tactical visualisation aids for upper-deck look-outs and weapons crews. 

Neural activity research opens up opportunities for human-machine cooperation and avoiding operator-overload in high-intensity operations.

Collaborative combat

In future, collaborative combat will be vital for platforms operating within a naval force, using an automated approach to rapid and accurate data sharing to understand the threat situation along with the status and availability of weapons. 

Digital connectivity, big data and AI will take the concept of collaborative combat to a new level, enabling a force to fight and defend itself as one, rather than as a collection of individual platforms.

Fire control

High targets speeds and coordinated saturation raids, drive modern fire control systems to offer a high degree of automation to avoid operator overload and to minimize response times. 

Thales’s Above Water Warfare fire control system, under development for the German F126 and the Netherlands ASW frigate programmes, offers a ‘plug-and-play’ flexibility with distributed integration of sensors and effectors. 

The system features continuous, dynamic performance-based engagement scheduling before and during an engagement. Instead of applying fixed rulesets that tie a predetermined effector to a threat, it calculates the optimal combination of sensors and effectors, selecting an engagement schedule for the most desired outcome aligning with the Command’s mission objectives and priorities, while minimising ammunition expenditure.

Increasing mass and building Lethality

Attack is often the best form of defence and the use of uncrewed and lean-crewed systems, with protean modularised payloads, is being recognised in the doctrines of key European navies, including the Royal Navy’s Maritime Operating Concept and its Maritime Modularity Concept.

Platforms can increase their own force defensive mass and distribution while offering an opportunity to build lethality through strike mission configurations. This maintains an appropriate balance between defensive capability and the capacity to take the fight to the enemy.


Nations cannot afford to rest on their laurels and rely on current technological superiority. To defeat the compound challenges emerging from across the technological spectrum, increased automation and integration is inevitable to achieve MDI, backed by faster data-sharing, clearer real-time situational awareness and improved fire-control across collaborating platforms.

Uncrewed and lean-crewed systems will also play an important role, building a mass and distribution that improves survivability while giving any opponent their own worst defence headaches.