Friday, July 28, 2017

The Shape Of Things To Come

Today we have a guest post from a reader and frequent comment contributor.  Benjamin W. Oliver, B.Eng, is a British engineer with a slant on defense.  He currently works in Research and Development.

We all know about how great drones are and how they will change the face of naval warfare.  Will they? Why? And what is this new face going to look like? In ..

 “The Shape of Things to Come”

By Ben Oliver

Stealth - it’s all we ever hear when it comes to the future shape of nearly everything: planes, helicopters, drones and ships. Even my mobile phone seems increasingly difficult to find with new anti-glare coatings and smooth black on black on black design.
New technology invariably influences design, or it can if it offers a proven overriding military advantage, or a capability force magnifier that offsets all the invariably competing factors in designing a ship.

Now obviously this is just a bit of fun, but do new concepts in naval drones offer this advantage and how will this affect the systems layout and overall hull design of frigates and destroyers in the future?

Let’s look at some different types of UAV; these alone seem to have proliferated to a frightening degree. And we can clearly see a day when a good portion of a warships volume may be given over to their launch recovery and maintenance.

The Copters.

Such a variety here. We have the recon, scouring the seas ahead and around its parent vessel, the fire support finding land targets and assessing the success of an attack. Weaponization is now  ranging from light land attack to the full anti-ship missile equipped asset.

These things can launch and recover from a standard helo flight deck and seem ideal for use on small to medium surface combatants. Some are now pretty large and are beginning to be fitted with quite advance radar, including SAR and GMTI.

Fixed Wing

As we know fixed wing offers some major advantages over rotary - mostly speed, range and endurance.

As a remote asset we now see SAR radar and various sensor packages being deployed and we can see that in the future these will make for excellent spotters \ sensor and communications extenders and perhaps organic on board airborne early warning.

I can certainly see a future where we see UAV’s extending the sensor range of frigates and destroyers, flying a constant 24 hour cycle, 50 – 100 miles out.
Recent tests by the Royal Navy have communications fixed wing drones controlling groups of up to 6 other types of drones, extending over the horizon and far out from the control source but still with the advantages of line of sight technology’s.

BUT these come with the drawback of not being able to land and take off easily although some pretty imaginative solutions have been found to this.

Scan Eagles, Catapult come Arrestor the “sky hook”

A concept shared by his big brother “Black Jack”

I think we are starting to get dangerously near to my point though now. Let’s take a look at DARPA's new and exciting “SideArm”

Is that a full sized X47B …..?   No. I seriously doubt it.

For those of you who can’t, or don’t want to see the chintzy sales video, side arm is a self-erecting robot arm with long boom catapult launcher, and a kind of reverse catapult arrestor, that deploys itself out of the side of a ship ( once it clamps itself to your helo deck ). It catapults your large UAV into the wind, and then does the same trick in reverse to capture an incoming UAV, at what appears to be quite a speed.

Honestly you have to see it to believe it, if you didn’t watch the video.

Go on… live a little!

Hangers, maintenance facilities, aircraft spares and magazines plus jet fuel storage now make up a serious percentage of any modern destroyer or frigate. They have a large effect on the design of a warship and their omission is unusual in today’s world.

What of tomorrow’s world? How many types of UAV do we require, what will become essential? What kind of facilities do we require to support this increasingly large “air-wing”, launch them and recover them?

How many crew will man their control, how many maintainers, mechanics, computer and communications specialists? How many comms arrays and of what kind?

And although I’m sure one day we will have true drone aircraft carriers, I think what’s more interesting is in the shorter term, what will this do to the everyday surface combatant?


I think we are going to see the percentage of hull dramatically expand in terms of Air Assets. When every frigate or destroyer can effectively have its own airborne and surface early warning, why not?

Sensor range can be compensated for by numbers and with UAV mission duration being so long, we will see a constant steam of fixed wing assets circling 24/7 using SAR and GMTI to identify sea and land based threats as a ship transits.

Possibly we will start to see fixed wing ASW assets with magnetic anomaly detectors in that pattern too?

As a rough calculation Scan Eagle has a speed of roughly 60Kts and 24 hour endurance. With a service ceiling in excess of 19,000 feet, we could easily operate a good coverage @ 100nm with say 6 – 10 in flight UAV’s. Constantly rotating and moving with the ship. A relatively short sensor range by today’s standards would not allow anything through.

Due to the problems of large fixed wing launch and recovery I think rotary wing assets are likely to be used more for some strike, pinpointing targets for land strike, keeping ‘eyes on’ for damage assessment, carrying and launching the anti-ship missiles, the torpedoes and the glide bombs of the future.  They will likely utilise a variety of new weapons specifically sized for UAV's.  We have already seen the trend in lighter weapons with the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) and the Griffin missile (AGM-176).

To perform this expanded role, we are looking at permanent launch and recovery mechanisms for fixed wing assets. Let’s consider 2 “side arms” in recover mode deployed fast when needed from the top side of future ships and fixed wing launchers internalized in the style of “Battlestar Galactica”.  By this I mean ( if we look at the scan eagle launcher ), 2 or 4 heavy versions of this could be mounted amidships at 45 degrees forward and up, under relatively straight forward armored hatches. Rate of launch is already fine with a scan eagle’s pneumatic launcher being able to deploy and launch in just a handful of minutes, simple redundancy is all that must be considered.

I see a helicopter deck of today’s proportions but a vastly expanded hanger and with automated weapons handling facilities like the Queen Elizabeth Class or Type 26 Frigate. But it will now store not just a wide variety of UAV weapons but also modular sensor packages and parts for the 2 classes of drone:  fixed and rotary wing.

It’s likely the drones themselves will be modular and somewhat expendable to reduce maintenance requirements. “A control surface has done its hours, throw away the whole wing and pull another from stores”.

Let’s just thank F-35’s ALIS system for that idea.

I don’t think a frigate or destroyer will be issued an exact number of drones. I think its stores will carry modular common components designed to allow the construction, “maintenance” and replacement of a required capability for a required mission duration.

64 wing sets, 16 bodies, 24 GMTI Radar modules etc

Let’s not even get started on 3D printing. (A subject for another post maybe)

I don’t think we will see the loss of the manned Helo, there are too many jobs it covers. Too much man in the loop requirement. Its capabilities will change as UAV’s take some of the load but that just frees it up to do other things.

Undoubtedly the ship remains the thing. Heavy weapons will still be deployed from the ship. Even now the limitations of our weapons are bound by finding and targeting, not by range.

With TLAM, SM6 and LRASM we hold the keys to long range engagement through UAV data streaming. On land, in the air and on the surface of the sea huge advantages can be leveraged.

UAV is inevitable. We have laid the stage with our weapons development. Now we just need to fit the final piece to enable our surface combatants to multiply their power many fold, primarily as standalone assets but also as part of a highly extended new shape battle group. 

It’s a strange new world, but one we could be headed for sooner than we think.


  1. Rather than have that crane fouling your deck (how well does it handle bad weather), maybe it is time to think about "Battlestar Galactica" like launch and recovery pods on the sides down low close to the water so the Ship CG isn't ruined.

    Might be a form a armor in that a hit there doesn't kill the ship just degrades the UAV capability. It also isn't a Tri hull with the skittishness issues.

    1. OK, I take your point about "side arms" in high sea states for a small surface combatants. Certainly something to consider. Thanks.

    2. Isnt this just a repeat of the time just after WW1 when catapults for launching off gun turrets and then later mid hull were all the rage?

      Why not just get to the end point first- a small through deck ship, the italian San Giorgio class included amphibious capability in 8000t and 436 ft ( 133m)
      Without the amphib capability it could come down to 6000t +

    3. You seem to have revived the idea for a Sea Control Ship. Equipping a frigate or destroyer with a modest number of drones is, in my opinion, a Sea Control Ship in its most simplist form.

      The San Georgio class is a good start, though I would prefer something a bit larger, like Japan's Osumi-class LST. A ship that big could carry 12-14 helicopters and tiltrotors.

      Properly designed, a ship of that size could also double as a Commando Carrier or deploy a Company Landing Team.

    4. I follow your chain of thought.

      UAV carriers have been much debated. And will undoubtedly morph from conventional escort carriers of today. I agree with you there.

      But Frigates and Destroyers will still exist. And aside from the carrier centric. Surface Action Groups or indeed single ships will have to operate missions or patrols as they often do today.

      Missile and gun carrying vessels have a place outside the Battle group. And what interests me is ( just as the Helo Hanger has ) how do you make a hull that can ASuW and Land Attack like todays Burkes. But enhanced with organic UAV capability.

      What will “ordinary ships” look like in the future ?

    5. I had to trim this from the original article. But this is what BAE SYSTEMS thinks the future look like ;

      I don't quite agree. But it describes my point.

    6. That idea has been thought of before with a modified Spruance destroyer.

    7. There were a number of similar ideas in the late 70's/early 80's. One such idea was the Vickers Versatile Aircraft Carrier:
      I think some of these older designs should be looked at again as they would be useful as drone/ASW carriers.

    8. Wow. Love that clipping. Never seen that before ? Have you had that in you loft all these years ?

  2. Sixteen bodies, 24 wingsets, 24 GMTIs, plus launch/recovery gear and all the other spare parts and maintenance equipment sounds like a lot of kit for a frigate or destroyer to handle.

    1. The T26 mission bay is beginning to look very usefull indeed.

    2. Hi. Anonymous Type 26 (City class :S ) comment or. I think your following my chain of thought exactly. Frigates and destroyers will have to grow and internally change. The capabilities offered will justify the redesign.

      I'm not sure refit or retrofit will offer a realistic option ?

      But I'd like your thoughts ?

    3. The hangar and mission bays on the LCS variants are pretty spacious too.

  3. They had a different experimental sky hook with the Harrier back then :

    Skyhook is an idea for equipping frigates and destroyers with a computer controlled hydraulic arm that will be stabilised no matter how much the ship pitches and rolls'

    1. Nice reference. I nearly included that one ;)


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