"The free and open seas are progressively being locked down"
As the sea once again becomes an area for confrontation and power demonstration, naval forces around the world face an unprecedented set of challenges – massive rearmament programmes, a digital revolution, the rise of the drones, collaborative combat and the emergence of quantum technologies, to name but a few. On the eve of Euronaval 2022, Thales's Naval Defence Advisor, Vice Admiral (Rtd) Éric Chaperon, explains what is at stake.
Why are tensions so high in the maritime space today?
There is always a level of maritime tension, but a confrontation between great powers at sea is becoming more likely than ever. Today's international challenges (climate upheavals, the Covid crisis, the war in Ukraine, etc.) are a stark reminder of something we have anticipated for years: that the "common heritage of humanity" is reverting to its former status as a place of conflict and dispute. The economic stakes are high, with growing pressure on fisheries, energy and mineral resources, and a worrying return of predatory practices. In geopolitical terms, as anti-access / area-denial strategies gain currency, the freedom of forces to operate in contested waters is becoming more and more restricted. The risks are growing in terms of trade and communications, because global commerce and data exchanges rely so heavily on maritime transport and undersea cables. In all these respects, the free and open seas are progressively being locked down.
Where exactly are the crises and tensions appearing?
There are tensions all over the world. In Asia-Pacific, China is rearming at breakneck speed. The country has commissioned new warships in the last four years with a tonnage equivalent to France's entire naval fleet, and now has more vessels in service than the US Navy. In the Indian Ocean, there are continuing rivalries between India and Pakistan and pressure on energy resources is growing. Piracy is on the rise in African waters and the Gulf of Guinea. In the North Atlantic, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, we have seen incursions by Russian submarines into waters controlled by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. And of course in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, the migrant crisis and the war in Ukraine are disrupting the status quo across the whole of Europe. The events of 2022 have set off a shock wave, and the sinking of a country's front-line warship, for the first time in recent memory, has definitively closed the chapter on a previously carefree existence.
How can we deal with these growing threats?
By modernising our naval capabilities, spending more on equipment and systems, retraining our armed forces personnel and building our capacity to operate with our allies. With new dangers emerging alongside more traditional threats, it is a tough challenge to meet. The threat landscape has never been so diverse, ranging from assaults by drones or drone swarms to salvo attacks by long-range hypersonic missiles or super-torpedoes, as well as lasers and electromagnetic weapons, electronic warfare, cyber warfare, and now seabed warfare. And the number of weapons in service is constantly growing – China's new destroyers have a payload capacity of more than 100 missiles. That means we need to raise the game in terms of performance, mass and resilience, while at the same time finding the right balance between meeting current needs and addressing future requirements. To do so, we must spend more and forge closer ties between the different players of capability development – users, customers and industry partners. This is the only way to meet operational requirements and retain the technological edge of armed forces. Innovation will clearly play a central role in boosting performance and improving our ability to conduct multi-domain operations. At a time when most countries have downsized their navies, regaining military mass will be fostered by a closer integration of drones in naval forces and a higher level of allied interoperability than we have today. The European Union and NATO both have crucial roles to play in this respect. We also need greater resilience to ensure that units are better prepared to operate autonomously and face the hazards of naval warfare.
Are we really moving into the era of drone warfare?
No doubt about it. Underwater, on the surface and in the air, drones are going to be a permanent feature of naval warfare. They represent both a risk and an opportunity. We must anticipate engagements between drones or drone swarms in the near future. From a defensive perspective, the rise of unmanned systems – UAVs1, USVs2 and UUVs3 – is disruptive in two respects. In financial terms, it is possible to use kinetic weapons to counter a drone threat, but systematically choosing to engage a 5 000 euro drone with a missile costing a hundred times more will be a tricky argument to make. So we will need different solutions for different cases, ranging from laser weapons and high-power microwaves to more conventional artillery systems. Widespread use of unmanned systems is also going to disrupt military doctrine, because shooting down a drone doesn't have the same consequences as destroying a crewed vehicle. As a consequence, the lines between latent conflict and open hostilities are going to become increasingly blurred. We are also likely to see new threats emerging in other types of situations, because drones can also be a formidable weapon in the hands of non-state actors and criminal groups. Added to that, these systems are going to foster the control of ocean floor– truly the last frontier on the planet – and given its strategic importance in terms of resources and communications, we can expect to witness the dawn of a new era of seabed warfare.
Thales is actively engaged in the second quantum revolution. How will these technologies transform naval operations?
Quantum sensors and antennas will be extremely miniaturised and easier to transport. They will bring a step change in detection capabilities, for instance in the underwater domain. Quantum technology will also be a game changer in terms of cryptology, creating the potential for communication systems that are so secure they cannot be hacked. Quantum sensors will also enable surface ships and submarines to navigate with much greater precision and autonomy, overcoming the need for satellite positioning systems such as GPS or Galileo. Today, we really only have a glimpse of the huge potential of quantum technologies in the future.
Are information and data management going to be one of the biggest challenge we face in the years to come?
Absolutely. Data is knowledge, and knowledge is the bedrock of information superiority in military operations. As the threats we face become more discreet and harder to detect, we need to process the vast quantities of real-time data generated by sensors such as radars, sonars, optronics and electronic warfare systems – correlated with data from outside sources – to extract from them weak signals that can be used for early detection, classification and, if necessary, engagement. These kinds of processes combining big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning and cybersecurity technologies form the basis of the clouds that are now being deployed within the forces. In addition, the capacity to capture, store, archive and recall relevant operational data will have a positive impact on a whole range of applications, from personnel training to predictive maintenance and in-service support.
What are the benefits of collaborative combat for naval forces?
The threats we face are becoming faster, stealthier and more diverse than ever before. That means we need to raise the tempo of operations to be in a position to act earlier and defeat the threats more quickly. For that, we need to adopt a system-of-systems approach supporting closer collaboration between the assets deployed and allowing us to manage our resources dynamically – and across multiple domains if necessary – as a situation unfolds. In a naval collaborative combat scenario, all the naval force's sensors and effectors will be connected, with low latency times, so that the best sensor can be matched with the best effector at any given moment, offering significant gains in terms of discretion, robustness and operational effectiveness. Collaborative combat will also foster integration of drones. Having an increasing number of highly manoeuvrable manned and unmanned platforms operating safely alongside each other without any blue on blue engagement will constitute a huge challenge. For example, when France's future aircraft carrier enters service in about 2040, it will deploy crewed and uncrewed systems of every shape and size, and the only way to manage this hive of activity effectively will be to design a collaborative system-of-systems, in turn relying on high-performance, integrated, secure connectivity solutions.
Will crews be ready to operate in an environment where staying ahead of the adversary will rely on split-second decisions?
Crew instruction and training is clearly a critical issue. Most naval forces have been stripped back to the bare essentials, and yet the potential for conflict is growing by the day. Under these conditions, it is no longer possible to train crews systematically at sea. Basic and proficiency training needs to be provided on shore, with the help of specially designed simulation systems, so that time at sea is reserved for higher-level training and operational missions. But as well as ensuring the operational qualification of crew members, there is a broader need to enhance the resilience of naval forces so that they can operate more autonomously and for longer periods. This will involve increasing the in-service support capabilities of deployed units to optimise fleet availability and maximise combat capabilities in case of engagement at sea. Performance alone is no longer sufficient: there is also a need for greater reliability, and that calls for systems that are more robust, easy to maintain and simple to operate. Industry partners have a central role to play in this process.
With its technology expertise and multi-domain experience, Thales is ideally positioned to support naval forces in their transformations and help them step up to the new challenges ahead.
1 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
2 Unmanned Surface Vehicles
3 Unmanned Underwater Vehicles