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Future Submarines

The current political and economic climate is placing intense pressure on many nations to ensure that specialist defence assets such as submarines represent value for money.

14 April 2015

Defence and Security

Future Submarines

Although there is still a strong desire to maintain an affordable, highly capable and safe submarine fleet, some countries are also looking for innovative ways to help maintain a performance advantage. As such, designers have an opportunity to radically re-consider the manner in which defence capability is delivered and offer an alternative perspective on what future submarine platforms could look like compared to traditional designs. 

The introduction of manned and unmanned off-board vehicles into host submarines and warships for example, is fast becoming a real opportunity to distance operators and high value platforms from threats, and extend the host platform's sphere of operations. The ability for off-board vehicles to operate independently from high value parent platforms offers clear advantages in certain scenarios and should help meet the aspiration of doing more with less.

Tim Hardy, Head of Naval Engineering and Ian Parker, Submarine Business Development Lead at BMT describe how the BMT submarine team are considering the current underwater landscape from a future design perspective. They highlight how novel design concepts such as the recently developed Ship Submersible Host (SSH) concept could, in the future, enhance the capability of submarines and provide that all important performance differential. 

Navies across the globe continue to require a covert, rapidly deployable and relevant underwater capability. This places pressure on defence budgets at a time of economic uncertainty. In the West, as submarine fleet numbers shrink with economic pressures and reduced defence expenditure, there remains a demand to maintain, and in some cases increase, the net capability delivered. To achieve this, platforms must be more available for operations as opposed to being tied up alongside in maintenance periods and be more adaptable and flexible to meet operational demands. Despite the squeeze on the public purse, there is also the need for incremental safety enhancements in new submarine classes and preservation of survivability levels as threat levels increase. 

The number of nations with a credible underwater capability is likely to grow over the next two decades. Such nations recognise the inherent stealth and capability characteristics that submarines offer, and realise the potent political and military influence submarine operating nations have. Many nations that have benefited from rapid economic growth over the last 30 years now have the desire and more importantly, the fiscal might to become serious players within the underwater domain. 

With a growing number of nations operating more highly capable submarines, the current performance advantage that "friendly navies" have may start to be eroded. The global reach provided by nuclear powered submarines will not be challenged by the Conventional submarines such nations are procuring, but performance areas such as stealth and sonar advantage may be less robust, particularly when submarines are operating in the littorals. It appears that in the medium to long term, governments will need to seriously consider a departure from the normal manner in which underwater capability is delivered in order to sustain their net performance advantage.

Looking ahead there is little doubt that future missions will continue to require a wide range of submarine capabilities, including Sea Denial (Anti-Submarine Warfare and Anti-Surface Ship Warfare); Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance; Land strike; Force/Task group protection; Special Forces operations; Anti-piracy, anti-smuggling and coastguard duties and Mine-Counter Measures, but with an increased level of complexity and need for inter-operability.  However, current fiscal constraints demand that maximum use is made of what is inherently an expensive, high value asset. Delivering effective capability in all these aspects may not be best achieved in a single platform. Designing bigger, better and perhaps more expensive versions of what we have today is unlikely to deliver best value, without taking a serious look at all the alternatives and considering what opportunities technology development could unlock. 

Submersibles in many forms are beginning to play a greater role in many non-defence related sectors. Performance is improving and technologies are being developed as the capability of this equipment grows. Consequently, there is an increasingly common view that the growing influence of Manned (MXVs) and Unmanned Off-board Vehicles (UXVs) could offer an alternative means to help meet operational requirements. These systems provide the opportunity to distance operators and high value host platforms from threats and extend the host platform's sphere of operations. In addition, MXVs and UXVs could be operated without the support of a high value parent platform in certain scenarios, therefore satisfying the aspiration to do more with significantly less. In the defence sector, initial development of these types of vehicle has commonly taken place independent of the parent submarine and furthermore, existing platforms don't really have the capacity within their designs to host or operate high capability off-board systems. Torpedo tube interface, wet & dry deck hangars and vertical launch systems are all reasonable solutions to the problem, but taking a homogenous view and designing a platform with integral features for MXV and UXV operation will certainly deliver a far more efficient and cost effective design in the future.

Existing and emergent submarine operating nations are faced with a series of difficult choices in how best to proceed in maintaining or developing their underwater capability. Nations that are currently operating submarines designed for a cold-war mission are finding that their boats are becoming less and less suitable for the demands of a 21st century world due to the change in operational requirements away from deep blue operations and towards a more littoral role. When constrained by mission parameters outside the scope of the original design, some of the bigger, more complex submarines currently in service are unable to deliver discernible performance benefits over their smaller rivals. The inevitable conclusion presents submarine operating nations with a challenging decision.  What do they want from their new platform? More of the same (i.e. left of arc), or something entirely different (i.e. right of arc)? The ultimate decision they make must be based on a balanced and considered view of all options.

BMT Defence Services' concept for a Future Host Submarine offers a vision for an alternative way of delivering capability matched with the flexibility for further adaptation to meet emergent future requirements. Optimised specifically for MXVs and UXVs operation, it demonstrates exactly what could be possible through the innovative use of contemporary technology. The Ship Submersible Host (SSH) delivers huge flexibility through its complement of MXVs and UXVs. By having a re-configurable and integral payload bay, the SSH could carry out missions as diverse as mine clearance, intelligence gathering and Special Forces operations. By utilising the remote capabilities of the MXVs and UXVs, the SSH concept platform can remain covert at a relatively safe distance, hundreds of kilometres from the threat environment, minimising energy consumption. MXV and UXV assets can conduct operations as diverse as minefield classification or Special Forces insertion. UXVs equipped with state of the art sonar technology could also extend the net reach and sensor coverage of the host platform, providing tangible tactical benefits.

The concept embraces the idea of "swing" role as an alternative to a one size fits all mentality that nearly always has to accept performance compromises. This also allows the SSH concept to be far less complex and consequently less costly in terms of both build and lifecycle costs, compared to other designs. 

Quite how an SSH concept would integrate with current naval doctrine is open to debate. What's clear is that any plans to increase the use of MXVs and UXVs will require a concerted development effort and dialog between the developers of such technology and submarine designers. It is unlikely that any government will commit to an SSH based submarine design without confidence that MXVs and UXVs will deliver the range of anticipated benefits. There will be a need for an intermediate de-risking stage where submarines begin to incrementally introduce such capability within the confines of more traditional submarine arrangements, incorporating weapon stowage compartment adaptations or Dry Deck Shelters. Such work will help governments to fully understand the key challenges of operation, communication, vehicle deployment and recovery. 

It would be disingenuous to imply that SSH could be a reality in the short term. It has been offered as an alternative concept to act as a catalyst for medium to long-term planning purposes and offer a glimpse of what could be. As navies across the globe begin to consider options for how underwater capability will be delivered in the future, fiscal prudence is likely to be a common watch-word. The team at BMT hope that some of the more "right of arc" concepts they offer provoke wider debate and encourage serious thought and consideration to be placed on alternative concepts that have the potential to offer an improved and more affordable method of delivering submarine capabilities.

Some of the technical features envisaged in the SSH concept would be truly ground-breaking. There would be a need for governments to invest in de-risking some of the key enabling technologies such that, submarine builders around the globe are encouraged and feel able to adopt such features in their designs with the confidence that they can still deliver against challenging performance targets and delivery schedules they are set. 

Collaboration is another watch-word frequently being used across certain groups in the submarine community. Perhaps whole platform design collaboration may be too ambitious, but concepts such as SSH offer the potential for more focused, joint government programmes that could aim to understand and de-risk common SSH enabling technologies. If such initiatives are deemed appropriate, independent companies such as BMT Defence Services have a key role to play as an independent third-party advisor with their wealth of knowledge and experience in whole boat submarine design. Leveraging the experience and knowledge developed through their concepts, the team at BMT are ready to help Clients and Governments around the world tackle the challenges they face.

Although there is still a strong desire to maintain an affordable, highly capable and safe submarine fleet, some countries are also looking for innovative ways to help maintain a performance advantage. As such, designers have an opportunity to radically re-consider the manner in which defence capability is delivered and offer an alternative perspective on what future submarine platforms could look like compared to traditional designs.

The introduction of manned and unmanned off-board vehicles into host submarines and warships for example, is fast becoming a real opportunity to distance operators and high value platforms from threats, and extend the host platform's sphere of operations. The ability for off-board vehicles to operate independently from high value parent platforms offers clear advantages in certain scenarios and should help meet the aspiration of doing more with less

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