Managing modularity and through life costs on naval vessels

Contributor:  Samantha Tanner
Posted:  05/03/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Tags:   naval

Defence IQ speaks to Captain Edward Lundquist to find out about how modularisation affects the design and through life of surface combatants.

Defence IQ         Captain Edward Lundquist, principal science writer at MCR Federal LLC, thank you for joining me today.

Captain Edward Lundquist           Thank you very much.

IQ           So, just to kick us off on this podcast, how do you think that modularisation will affect the role and nature of the surface combatant?

EL            Modularity refers to a capability within a ship where you can change the capability by changing modules, update the weapons or sensors, or exchange mission packages. That keeps the ship flexible, it allows it to be updated more readily, and it allows it to have, for that reason, a longer service life because you don’t have to tear the ship apart to update its capability.

Also for many years, we’ve been building ships in building blocks. That’s modular ship construction. But we’re seeing that more and more, and there’s a lot of reasons that you would want to build a ship in a modular way, and not the least of which is, nowadays, with fewer ships being built, war ships being built, I think you will see that in order to maintain an industrial base, and in order to take advantage of the skills and capabilities that exist at the shipyards that are out there now, you will see sections of ships built in different places and brought together, perhaps that one final yard for assembly and integration. A good example of that, for example, would be the DDG 1000 destroyer being built at Bath Iron Works in Maine, but the entire superstructure and aircraft hangar is being built a 2000 mile sea transit away in Gulfport, Mississippi by Huntington Ingalls at their centre of, Composite Center of Excellence, and in fact it’s made out of a whole different material. The ship itself is a steel ship, but the assembly being built down in Gulfport is a composite assembly. In fact, it’s the largest composite structure ever built. I think this is a trend that we’ll see more and more for all kinds of practical reasons: economy, efficiency, and also necessity.

IQ           So how are naval forces leveraging technological advances to increase warship self-defence and survivability?

EL            Well even the biggest warships, like aircraft carriers and the big amphibs and cruisers, they need defence against a small boat. The small boat threat is something that can’t be ignored. The world saw what a small boat did to the USS Cole, the world has seen what a small boat did to a tanker off Oman, and so a small boat is a real threat. So even if you have the ability to conduct large scale naval warfare, you still need to be able to deal with an asymmetric threat. So we’re going to see all kinds of integrated systems, where radar, infrared, electro optical can be incorporated to include lethal and non-lethal systems, remote control guns, long-range hailing devices, things that can detect threats, determine intent, address those threats should they press on to an attack, so I think that that’s something that exists today, and I believe that will become more and more integrated. You’ll see today, perhaps, sensors that have been integrated, but the systems to deal with that such as a gun would be, maybe, manned, and as somebody with a sound-powered phone being told what to engage. We’ll see more and more of that being integrated and these systems being unmanned, because the last place you want a guy to be standing if you’re worried about being shot at by small boats is on the deck manning a gun.

I think the off board systems are going to be more and more prevalent, whether it’s underwater, an unmanned surface vehicle, or unmanned aerial vehicles. I think ships today and in the future will need to be able launch, control, recover, and certainly integrate the capabilities of these systems running. And then all of that needs to be networked with the rest of the force, so net-centric warfare truly starts with the most remote node in the network.

IQ           So how can naval forces look to upgrade their aging fleets with the dilemma currently faced by managing costs versus capability?

EL            Well there’s a whole different subject of, you know, designing ships from the beginning to be, have great life cycle costs, that’s a whole issue of itself. But today I think we’re finding that some missions, for naval forces, are changing or evolving, so that the ships that were built for a particular mission, say, ten years ago, may find themselves performing other missions.

For example, ballistic missile defence. There are, there is a threat, a ballistic missile threat that exists in Europe, in Asia, in the Middle East, and what we’re finding is that warships, particularly we’re talking about guided missile warships, with a very good integrated, air defence combat system, and primarily I’m pointing to the Aegis combat system found on many warships, but there are others that have that capability as well. These systems turn out to be a very good platform for detecting and engaging ballistic missiles. So we’re going to see ships, I think, becoming upgraded to have that capability, and the issue of how you upgrade these ships while managing cost, there’s a lot of different approaches being taken, but it’s going to be difficult for nations and navies to upgrade all of their ships. They might find that they’re going to have to selectively upgrade part of their fleet and try to reduce their manpower costs of trying to provide more automation, so some of their ships are going to get these kinds of upgrades.

In some cases it might even be an experimental upgrade. For example the USS Truxtun is getting a hybrid electric drive propulsion system. That’s a refit, it’s being placed on that ship more as a prototype, or as a test, but there’s a lot of systems that have been evolved and need to be placed on older ships because we can’t afford to build all new ships to mount these systems. So I don’t really have an answer as to how you do it, and manage the budget for all of that. I think it’s something we really need to talk about at the conference, and I’m hopeful that some people have some suggestions. I think we’re going to see less and less money available for operations, and for maintenance, and for acquisition, so it becomes a real dilemma. But perhaps they’ll defer new ships and try to do what they can with older ships.

IQ           What are some of the materials that will be used in future warships beyond steel, and how will this help with their size and capabilities?

EL            Well you know, steel is still the material of choice for most ships, and for warships, but we are seeing aluminium becoming a material, it has some real benefits. You know, we built some aluminium ferries 20, 30 years ago, they were a novelty, and today aluminium ferries are quite common. High-speed catamarans built from aluminium. So I think aluminium is going to grow in its use in ship construction. It’s lighter, doesn’t have the same corrosion problems as ferrous metals. If you look at the Littoral Combat Ship, one of them, LCS 2 is all aluminium, and the joint high-speed vessel, both of those ships being built by Austal, they’re all aluminium, and so they’re building a state-of-the-art new production facility that’s all aluminium. LCS 1 being built by Marinette in Wisconsin has a steel hull but an aluminium super structure, so we may see, sort of, hybrid construction methods that take advantage of the properties of those different materials.

Composites also have a lot going for them, you can basically create a mould or a pattern, and it’s very repeatable. You can repeat the process over and over. So you can build a mould for a hull for a patrol boat, for example, and then reproduce ships, ship hulls, using that mould. And large scale structures, like the hangar in deckhouse for DDG 1000 like I mentioned are now becoming a possibility. Composites do not rust, and one of the interesting features in composites is, particularly for a deckhouse is you can literally build antennas and other objects into the structure. The Visby class Corvette, built in Sweden, is an all-composite warship, right down to the shaft.

Another material worth exploring is titanium. It’s something that people think of as very expensive, and it is, but there are production methods that can reduce the cost of titanium to create a marine grade of titanium that might be different than what we think of, of the very expensive aerospace titanium. And I think we can see that efforts to improve the fabrication process and the production method would made a strong business case for titanium because again, it’s a nonferrous metal, does not have a magnetic signature, it doesn’t have rusting issues, it’s lighter and stronger than steel, so that changes the way you can design and build ships. Lighter weight gives you greater speed, so you might have a higher upfront acquisition cost, but it could reduce the overall life cycle cost because a ship could last 60 years, perhaps, or more, as opposed to 40 years, which is pretty much tops what you get out of a warship today, more like 30.

IQ           Some really great points in there, it’s really good looking at what the future compositions will be of future warships, and also whether these will happen as well with the budget constraints, and whether this will get better. So just to finish us off, what are some of the questions that you would like answered at our upcoming Defence IQ conferences?

EL            You know, I hemmed and hawed about the capability versus affordability issue. I’d really like to find out how people are addressing that, because it’s the real conundrum that everybody faces. I’m interested to hear about modularity. I’d like to find out some other methods that people are using to adopt modularity. There’s a lot of discussion about whether a ship like Littoral Combat Ship, which has, in which the modular combat capability can be completely exchanged very quickly, and an entire new mission can be assigned to that ship in what amounts to a matter of hours. Not everybody is sold on that idea, it’s not really a fully tested idea yet. I’d like to hear people’s thoughts on it. And of course one of the key tenants to that kind of a capability for the Littoral regions, Littoral warfare, is the importance of off board systems, primarily unmanned vehicles, and I’d like to find out how nations are going to be adopting that.

One of the things I learned at the IQPC Offshore Patrol Vessel Conference in Hamburg last September was most nations that have navies with offshore patrol vessels are finding that the ideal combination is a ship that doesn’t have extremely high speed, but has a helideck and has the ability to launch and recover an interceptor boat. That’s what they’re finding is the best choice for them. And I want to see if that concept, sort of, applies to larger ships, perhaps like Corvettes, and Frigates, and Destroyers.

A lot of ships are spending… a lot of ships are at sea, conducting patrol operations, even larger ships, not just offshore patrol vessels, and many of them are conduction boarding operations constantly. I think that that’s one of the most important missions and systems that a ship has today, and it’s a very simple thing, right? It’s putting a boat in the water, putting men in the boat, or putting crew members in the boat, and having them go aboard a ship, either a compliant or a non-compliant boarding, and after seamanship evolution, it’s not what we think of as a totally high-tech evolution, but it’s really what ships are doing every day. They’re not shooting missiles at enemies every day, but they’re out there boarding and inspecting all the time, so I’d like to see some of the new developments that can make it a safer, a more secure, a more effective operation when we put people in the water in those boats, and they have to go over to a ship, board it, and conduct an inspection.

Samantha Tanner Contributor:   Samantha Tanner

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