Interview with Admiral Stéphane Verwaerde, Thales Group defence advisor (naval)
Admiral Verwaerde, when people talk about overseas military interventions, the first thing they think about is boots on the ground rather than naval operations. Does that mean the seas and oceans are calm, geopolitically speaking?
Quite the opposite. Repeated incidents in the South China Sea and recent tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are clear reminders that the maritime space is an important nexus of confrontation when nations have conflicting ambitions. Instances of provocation and intimidation at sea are frequent, and there is an increasing risk that these tactics could lead to direct, high-intensity confrontation. It's also important to remember that maritime threats have changed a great deal in recent years. For all these reasons, maritime powers continue to invest in their fleets, and particularly in the development of new systems and weapons to counter these threats and assert their maritime sovereignty.
Can you tell us more about the new threats?
The new threats come from new types of weapons, new platforms and developments in the electromagnetic environment. Let's start with the weapons. There is now a new generation of long-range hypersonic sea-skimming or steep-dive missiles. Often fired in salvo mode, these weapons are equipped with complex guidance systems and their missile seekers are so sophisticated that current warships struggle to deal with them. The Russian Tzirkon missile, for example, has a range of 1,000 km and flies at nine times the speed of sound!
Likewise, supercavitating torpedoes are capable of travelling huge distances at speeds of more than 200 knots, compared with no more than about 50 knots* for a conventional torpedo.
As for platforms, stealth technology has come a long way in recent years. Aircraft are harder and harder to detect with radar and have smaller infrared signatures, surface ships have flat superstructures that reflect radar signals less effectively, and so on. Submarines are also becoming more and more discreet. They are covered with anechoic tiles to absorb the signals emitted by enemy sonars, and they can stay immersed for long periods thanks to new propulsion technologies like AIP (Air Independent Propulsion), which don't rely on an outside air supply.
Unmanned systems in the air, on the surface and underwater are another challenging new threat, especially when they're deployed in swarms.
The electromagnetic environment is becoming more congested and harder to manage, especially close to coastlines (5G, IoT, etc.). Even in low-level crises, naval radars, communications and satellite navigation systems are jammed more and more frequently. And cyberattacks are a major threat to maritime forces, given their reliance on high-quality data.
As you can see, it is becoming extraordinarily complex to establish and maintain maritime dominance.
How can navies respond to these increasingly sophisticated threats?
The key to success is to detect the threat early and react as quickly as possible. And detecting a threat early, particularly in a naval context, means detecting it at long range. So the conventional response is to equip warships with higher-performance sensors and effectors, such as the Sea Fire radar, which can track large numbers of targets simultaneously, very wideband sonars for submarines, long-range infrared sensors, optical systems relying on artificial intelligence to automatically recognise moving targets, and electronic warfare systems that can detect targets at long distances and automatically identify the radars used by hostile missiles and platforms.
Communications are of such huge importance that counter-jamming and area jamming capabilities are an indispensable way to deny the adversary exclusive control of the electromagnetic spectrum. And for naval units to be resilient, they need to be shielded from cyberthreats, with proven cybersecurity and warning systems and the ability to reconfigure quickly after an attack.
Are unmanned systems part of this "conventional" response?
Of course. Using unmanned systems increases the number of sensors we can deploy, helping us to detect threats earlier and offsetting the shortage of conventional warships. Because most Western navies have drastically reduced the number of frigates available for action, and can no longer deploy them in large numbers at the same time on the same mission in the same theatre of operations.
What about effectors?
Surface vessels can be equipped with missiles and rapid-fire guns to destroy hostile missiles or swarms of unmanned systems. Submarines can deploy underwater decoys and anti-torpedo torpedoes. There are also active electronic countermeasures, including jammers to deceive or destroy incoming missiles. Non-lethal, directed-effect weapons (laser, electromagnetic, etc.) will also be a useful way to thwart hostile detection systems, dazzle optical guidance systems or disable the electronics in incoming missiles. These weapons don't require munitions, but the vessels need large amounts of onboard electrical power. They are also effective against asymmetrical attacks by unmanned surface or air vehicles, or by swarms of small, fast boats with crews on board.
Will these enhanced capabilities be sufficient?
We need to go further. Naval combat must become collaborative. This approach is the best, if not the only, way to deal with these new threats.
In such complex environments, informational superiority — in other words, having a complete understanding of the maritime and tactical situation over as wide an area as possible — is absolutely crucial.
Keeping the upper hand in a naval combat situation can be a question of seconds. With missiles that fly at more than 3 km a second, reaction times are infinitesimally short — less than 10 seconds, compared with 30–60 seconds before.
To protect the most high-value warships (aircraft carriers, helicopter carriers, amphibious assault ships, etc.), the first thing to do is to minimise the time it takes to detect a threat. To control as wide an area as possible, this means deploying a combination of radar picket ships, unmanned air, surface and underwater systems, manned aircraft, helicopters and submarines that can operate at long distance while remaining within the range of communication systems. And to detect attacks early enough to respond, sensor quality is paramount.
Most importantly, we need to speed up the tempo of information exchanges to optimise the effectiveness of our sensors and effectors. Ships and their sensors need to interact in real time if they are to fully exploit the enormous data flows generated by today's digital sensors.
Which capabilities need to be developed to achieve this?
I see four main types: secure connectivity, data security, data storage and analytics, and artificial intelligence. These technologies are the key to processing huge and growing volumes at the speed of light. We must focus on guaranteeing the resilience and autonomy of a naval force at sea. That translates into a need for distributed ship/shore architectures, with onboard data hosting and processing capabilities and equipment that is reliable, robust and easy to deploy and use.
Are crews ready for these new challenges? Can they deal with this time pressure?
The question of crew instruction and training is extremely relevant. Until now, frigate crews, for example, underwent training at sea several times a year under real operational conditions. Today it is no longer conceivable for every crew of every ship to be trained to respond to a salvo of hypersonic missiles, for example, in the same way.
Training at sea is still indispensable, of course, but it needs to be complemented by sophisticated simulation systems. The only practical way to train ops room and bridge personnel is to combine at-sea training with simulator-based training ashore and alongside. These interconnected training solutions are crucial to the crews' ability to deal with new threats.
*1 knot = 1 nautical mile per hour (1,852 m/h).