The Combat Information Center of the future
On a daily basis there is news about new weapons, new unmanned systems, new sensors and new platforms. Threats are constantly evolving. But how can a Combat Information Center (CIC), the heart of a warship during operations, handle these new threats in the future?
Combat Information Centers (CIC) are slightly different in every navy and in different types of warships, but they are broadly the same. This is where information comes in from the radars, sonars, cameras, electronic warfare systems, etc. Operators see information presented on their screen, process the information and share this information with their colleagues in the CIC and with other air, surface or submarine units . The CIC staff get this information from different sources so they have a tactical overview and they can make their decisions. If they decide to engage a target, the use of weapons will be coordinated from the CIC as well.
The CICs as we know them today often do not differ much from those from the 1970s. Obviously the computing power has much been improved, the displays and sensors are much better, but the concept is still the same: display, keyboard, headset, information to gather and share, and a human.
But the threats have changed more rapidly in recent years. Thales is therefore looking at the CIC of the future and Marineschepen.nl interviewed Didier Flottes, former French Navy captain. Didier Flottes spent twentyseven years in the French Marine Nationale. Didier Flottes was Commanding Officer of two ships and many times as staff officer in the CIC aboard various frigates and an American destroyer.
“At Thales, we are continuously exploring the possibilities of the CIC of the future,” says Flottes. “It’s an outline of the possibilities in the future and we look at what technologies we can use to face the threats of the future.”
Faster, smaller, more
The threats that naval vessels may face in the future are as follows: “We are seeing very fast missiles, especially hypersonic missiles that are already in use by the Russian and Chinese armed forces,” Flottes says. “You can also expect missiles from all directions, sea skimming missiles, but also missiles coming straight from above. And relatively new are the small UAVs that can be used in swarm attacks. One UAV is not a big threat, but a swarm can be.”
“Also the operational tempo is much higher. This can become a problem if you have to take decisions so quickly that human brain is not capable to do it. In addition, there is much more information to manage. The elements you gather are a mix of real time and older information.”
“Another point to take in account is that ships will no longer be alone at sea in the future. They will always operate with unmanned systems, which implies very good communications and capacity of control.”
You must also face a globalisation of the warfare domains.
“In the past, there was a distinction between antisurface warfare (ASuW) and anti-air warfare (AAW), but now they are increasingly intertwined because the battle rhythms acceleration and the mixing of conventional and asymmetric threat.” Flottes says. “The threats act in a coordinated way which implies to mix all above and underwater domains, including also Electronic and Cyber warfare.”
Threats evolve faster and faster, but ships are not designed for quick adjustments. “It takes years for a ship to be built and then it has to last 20, 30 years or even longer. Adapting to the threat is in that case not very easy.”
“In order to challenge these evolutions, you need sensors with a longer range, because you want a bigger picture of your tactical environment,” Flottes says. “At the same time, your systems and sensors have to be very precise. You also have to share a greater amount of information with other units. All this has to be done quickly.”
Isn’t this possible within the current CICs? “To a certain extent yes,” Flottes replies. “You can adjust the scale on your screen so that you can see further, if your sensors allow it. But many things can be improved thanks to new technologies.”
CIC of the future
What could the CIC of the future look like? The first adjustment would be the presentation of the information coming from the sensors. “The way you visualize the threat,” Flottes says. “Now that just happens on computer screens, but that may change for some people in the CIC. Not for everyone, if you are only responsible for one weapon system, it is not important to have the total picture and then you can focus on the information about the system on your screen.”
“But for the people who work at a higher level in the CIC, and ultimately the Commanding Officer or the Flag Officer,” Flottes says, “they need to have a global view of the tactical situation around the ship. So it is about displaying sub-surface, surface and air contacts that have been detected. This can be done, for example, with a much larger screen on the wall, or by placing transparent screens with information all around. Or by presenting the surrounding situation in goggles. Every person will see the information that is relevant for him or her. On the other hand, it is also not a good idea to present everything in 3D goggles. So methods should be sought for 3D visualizations without the use of glasses.”
“Since the threat can come straight from above, or from below, you need a full view of the bubble around your ship. Your sensors must be able to do that, but this information must also be visualized.”
This does not mean that Flottes thinks replacing the bridge with a closed room with screens is a good idea. “If you can see it with your own eyes, it’s faster and you always have a better field of view than through a camera,” he explains.
Man as a delaying factor
During the conflict of the future there will be less time. Not only because missiles fly faster, but also because targets are more difficult to detect. “People become the weakest point,” says Flottes. “For very fast incoming threats you have to have some kind of automatic defense mode. But that is very complex to manage to avoid fatal mistakes such as firing on friendly assets.”
“There are many companies that claim to use artificial intelligence in their systems,” says Flottes. “From a marketing point of view, that sounds good. Thales is also working on it. And civilian companies also use it a lot, but if transfer that to a military environment, you have to be very careful. Because even if it is technically possible, what do you put in that AI? Are you also able to qualify it on a legal basis? If it’s just to detect and classify a contact faster, then a lot is possible. But more is needed for the automatic use of your weapon systems.”
More units and more information to share
More information will be needed in the future to get a better picture. Merging information may then be necessary. “Maybe some radar plots are not of enough quality to see a target that is difficult to detect. By merging information from other units and other sensors, you may be able to detect a contact that would otherwise go undetected. We call it data fusion. But that requires powerful computers and the help of artificial intelligence will be most welcomed.”
These more powerful computers will not be the main problem in the future, Flottes thinks. “We are moving towards a situation in which we are going to share a lot of sensor data with each other. The challenge is how units can share information quickly and securely. You need wide bandwidths. This is partly possible via satellites, but they will be the firsts to be destroyed in a high intensity war situation. Other solutions will therefore have to be found, but the limitation will be in the means of communication.”
This is also a challenge due to the increased use of unmanned systems. A frigate that now only has an helicopter and a RHIB can be equipped with numerous unmanned systems in the future.
This also requires a legal common approach. “For example, if you’re working with an unmanned system, which originally came from a ship in the task force from another country, and something happens during an operation, it’s today legally complex to determine what are the responsibilities.”
Another feature of the CIC of the future, if it is up to Flottes, is flexibility. “Perhaps at one point you are operating with a NATO task force close to an enemy coast, but you know that the adversary has no submarines. Then you can decide not to use four or five consoles for anti-submarine warfare, but just use one console and the other for surface or air threats.”
“The consoles in the CIC have to be multifunctional, so that the focus in the CIC can be adjusted to the threat from one moment to the next.”
An extension of the flexibility is also the possibility to adjust the Combat Management System (CMS). “If you are operating thousands of miles from home and there is intel that the opponent has a new type of missile, you may want to adjust your sensors or your CMS so that this threat can be detected earlier. In such a situation, you want to be able to download a patch via a secure connection to adjust the algorithm.”
“In addition, it is important to schedule regular updates, for example annually, to keep the CIC up to date.”
Despite the technologic improvements, humans will still play a role in the CIC. “Although there will be more use of unmanned systems, data will be shared faster and more work will be done by algorithms, the people in the CIC remain the most important. And they will have to continue to work together as a team, that will not change.”