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Deployments that last several years, what does that mean for crews and onboard systems?

Warships years away from home, that sounds like something from the past. It is however also a future possibility. More and more navies are looking at very long deployments, with rotating crews. Some navies have already started doing this. But what does that mean for the ships and the systems?

Deployments such as those of the UK Carrier Strike Group and the deployment of the German and French navies in the Indo Pacific have the classic form: ship and crew depart together and return together. A few years ago, the Dutch OPV HNLMS Groningen left for the Caribbean for three years, with rotating crews. COVID-19 and damage to the propeller shafts caused the ship to return early, but sailing back and forth to the West every four months by ship and crew seems to be a thing of the past. That concept was also applied to the Dutch Alkmaar-class minehunters when they were operating in the Persian Gulf in the eighties, but that was a shorter period.

© Photo taken by crew member of HNLMS Groningen

However, both classes of the ships mentioned were not designed for the rotating crew concept. The new German F126 frigates (MKS 180) are. 

But if a ship stays thousands of nautical miles from its home port for two years, what does that mean for the support of the ships and systems, for example? Or for countries with a coastline that is more than thousands of kilometers and they want their navies to operate a ship from a small port far from the maintenance base, how does that work?

"Far from home you lack the support that you have in your own naval base," says Berend Jongebloed, who works at Thales' support branch, which deals with these kinds of issues. "There are precautionary maintenance that have to be performed at set times. Those tasks can be planned. That has become less and less of a problem with modern systems, they require less precautionary maintenance."

"It mainly concerns emergencies far from the homeport," Jongebloed continues. "Do you have the knowledge and skills to solve this on board? And do you have the spare parts on board? So the support of the systems takes on a completely different dynamic. A support hub in or near the mission area offers a solution."

Of course, part of the problem would also be solved by having more technicians on board. Dutch submarines that operated around the North Cape or in the eastern part of the Mediterranean in the 1970s also had to solve many of the technical problems by themselves. There was not much contact with the homeport and it was sometimes necessary to solve problems underwater near Soviet ships. They had to make do with what was available on board, but the submarines of the time had 67 crew members.

Navies are faced with a staff shortage, especially among technicians, and are looking for solutions with fewer crew members. New ships will sail with fewer technicians than their predecessors.

A different approach: more data

"For long-term missions far from home", Jongebloed says, "you need a support system that can also be deployed worldwide. In the Netherlands, a ship is supervised by the Maritime Operating Center of the Royal Netherlands Navy in Den Helder. That is where the issues come in and then specialists from the homeport provide support. If they can't figure it out, the industry will be called in."

Providing remote support is becoming easier thanks to modern means of communication. The future Dutch and Belgian ASW frigates will share much more information with Den Helder. "Provided you have sufficient internet bandwidth, you can help remotely, just like an IT department can. Of course there are risks when you send data. You have to be very careful and very selective with it. Cybersecurity is essential."

What also helps is using data that the sensors on board record about the systems. This has been used for some time for propeller shaft vibrations, for example, but Thales is now also working on applying additional sensors in its systems. Jongebloed: "You can analyze that data and distil deviations from it. If you can identify those deviations early, you can tell a crew 'this particular element will malfunction in the future. Just go ahead and replace it."

"Besides sending data, you can also let the crew perform some technical tasks by using Augmented Reality."

"So there are various technological options that can offer remote assistance. It depends on how we set it up for each customer. If you want to make this happen, you have to forge an entire chain from a ship to the maintenance department and the industry. That's not easily done."

Other requirements

For the industry, this concept means that the systems must be available for a longer period of time. "Reliability requirements will be higher," says Jongebloed. "Designers must know how users will use the system, to adapt the system for long term operations. Also graceful degradation and reconfigurability are important. The first means that a system does not immediately fail completely if certain parts fail, but that a system continues to work with a reduced performance. This has already been achieved to a large extent by the scalability of technology. Reconfigurability means that a system also reacts when there is an error, by changing its settings so that the loss of performance is minimal."

© Photo taken by crew member of HNLMS Groningen

Modern systems already require less maintenance because of their digital nature. If there are malfunctions, it is more often in high-end electronics. With a good design, plug and play is possible very quickly: when a unit is designated as defective, exchange it and designate the defective unit for repair."

The SMART-L MM radar for land applications, for example, already has a high operational availability, says Jongebloed: "The availability requirement is already very high for land applications: 24/7 and 365 days of use. For maritime applications, a different operational profile applies. Navies can probably use it continuously for three weeks, get to a port and then carry out maintenance there. On the other hand, the complexity of systems has also increased and if there is a problem, it can sometimes take a lot of knowledge to find the cause. This should also be taken into account when setting up maintenance."

Copy at home

It also helps if you have exactly the same systems in the home base as on board. "I know that Germany always has a copy of the ship's installation ashore. They use it for testing new software releases, for example, but also for double-checking systems on board if something is wrong with it."

"Also the Royal Canadian Navy ", Jongebloed continues, "is buying two extra systems from us for testing, but also for training personnel."

A so-called Total Ship Trainer is one of the options for educating and training crews in the rotating crew concept. Such a trainer consists of, for example, simulators of a bridge, command center and technical center, just like on board the ship that is thousands of miles away. Real sensors can also be added to such a trainer, says Jongebloed.

Perfect packaging 

Of course, this is also a logistical issue. "How do you get the spare parts on site?", Jongebloed asks. "Countries that have short missions will order a different package of spare parts in advance than countries that sail longer missions. They need a more extensive package to be able to cope with emergencies at sea. So-called mission packages are also possible."

"Of course, a naval vessel comes back periodically for maintenance and the opportunity to combine this with a thorough modernization. Technology and the threats are developing faster and faster, which can create threats that did not exist at all when the ship was built."

System life-cycle approach

Jongebloed thinks that an approach is needed to design tailor-made solutions. "This approach must answer the question: 'How can you best fulfill this increasing importance of support?'"

"This requires an integrated approach and preparation," says Jongebloed. "This is not limited to the individual systems, but relates to the entire ship. It starts with the operational objectives. These can be translated into a desired usage profile, such as "operate longer in the mission area". The technical design of the systems is based on that usage profile. Subsequently, training, maintenance and supplies are also set up accordingly. The period of major maintenance offers the opportunity to assess these topics and possibly introduce new methods."

"This integrated approach is supported by ILS. This is currently developing, with an increasing emphasis on an approach in which the entire lifespan of a system is central. To give substance to the question of how maintenance concepts should be adapted to changing ways of deploying ships, new technologies and developments in the service and logistics world, it is important that industry and customer jointly implement these new standards."
 

Author: Jaime Karremann