Sunday, 1 September 2013

August 2013 Thoughts: Network Centric Warfare and the Royal Navy

Networked warfare is nothing new as a concept or practicality; a hunting party of early homo-sapiens using grunts to communicate could be considered to be working in a network. At Sea there have been many famous examples of networked warfare; Nelson’s Band of Brothers communicating by flag, hailer and shot – the different ships working in harmony, the frigates which before battle were charged with finding the enemy, during the battle became communication nodes repeating signals for the Admiral to the other ships which might not be able to see the flagship as it would be obscured by cannon smoke. During World War I the entire British war plan at sea was based upon a network of distributed different components working together in harmony thanks to the magic of radio telegraphy. In the Falkland’s war that network was to an extent regressed by the fortunes of fate and the bugbear of necessity; with some ships having to receive their orders by helicopter dropped ‘chit’ as they either were not fitted with, did not have a working set of or was so ancient it would be more dangerous to use communications system; but still it was a network. So if there have been so many networks, and it’s been around for so long, what is network centric warfare and why is it different?

Well, whereas it used to be that the network was just part of the force, a fabric of the structure but not something concentrated on itself, now it is. The idea goes that with all the parts of a network exchanging information with each other it allows all the ships commanders and most importantly the force command to achieve a level of knowledge of the battlefield, and therefore ability to co-ordinate their forces to best deal with the enemy that will revolutionise wars. The idea has been taken by some theorists to mean that it no longer matters how capable any ship is in any specific area as it is the capability of the ‘network’ as a whole which will win the battle. It’s a great theory, and when on land where resupply/replacements/reinforcements are just down the road must make a lot of sense especially for officers and ministers in charge of a cash strapped military. However, at sea ships are often on their own, thousands of miles from home and resupply, let alone replacements or reinforcements, is days if not weeks away. So upon that point network centric warfare would seem to have nothing to offer a fleet- but in reality it does, it’s just some of its principles have to be flipped. 

Instead of a fleet of specialists, interlinked together but facing the constant risk that if one ship is sunk it’s no more air defence; the network centric fleet is a four tier fleet of: 

·         ‘Capitals’; the Aviation & Amphibious ships – they are adaptable but require escorts, and mainly exist to exert direct influence on land events, although in the case of aviation ships can of course, providing they have the right aircraft, directly affect events at sea as well,

·         ‘Generalists’; the larger surface warships – which are flexible in terms of being quite good in all roles,

·         ‘Adaptables’; the smaller surface warships – which can be fitted with some sort of modular system allowing them to be easily adapted to specific roles; these are instead of having minor warfare specialist ships (i.e. Mine Counter-Measures vessels, Ocean Patrol Vessels, Oceanography Vessels and Littoral War Fighting units)

·       ‘Focuseds’; these are vessels like Submarines and Auxiliaries, but also the Aircraft that operate with the fleet - flexible within their brief but are confined within that, i.e. a Submarine can do Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) and Land attack if fitted with Tactical Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs), it can do them all but it can’t be easily changed or even easily integrated within the network.

If a networked Task Force/Group[1] were a human body, then the Capital ships which are the nodes of any networked fleet would be its brain, receiving and communicating with all the other units. The Generalists are the bones around which the body is formed it’s strongest parts, they provide the core structure from which all operational strength will at some point spring from and depend upon. The Adaptables are the fleets muscle, they work in a symbiotic relationship with the Generalists relying upon their strength to support their movement, whilst the Generalists rely upon them provide flexibility & dexterity. Focuseds are the eyes, the ears and the organs of the fleet, they are key to providing it with information about what’s going on around it, and are also capable of producing an impact in a more limited way…just like a glance of the eyes can silence a room. The point is all are capable and in their own way flexible, but most importantly they all need to be present for the body to work.

The point is though that all these vessels have a role when not in the task group, an Adaptable is perfectly useful as a presence/patrol ship[2], the Generalists are useful as Guardships[3]/medium status visitors, the Capitals are of course high status visitors[4] and the Focuseds; well, what they do in war time is just a faster paced higher stakes version of what they do in ‘peace’ time. The point is also that none of them are specialists, none of them if absent due to destruction, damage, or delay would cripple a fleet’s capability to act; yet when combined by the multi-bit communications systems the cumulative sum is far greater than the constituent parts on their own. However, this is a situation which is now thanks to developments in technology can be replayed upon a lower level as well.

With the development of modern unmanned systems, every ship can become a ‘capital’ with mini-task group. Unmanned Aviation Vehicles (UAVs) whilst not making every vessel an aircraft carrier can provide enough aviation capability (in terms of numbers/reach) to allow them to maintain a real time picture of what is going on beyond the horizon, unaffected by the curvature of the earth. Further to this they can of course provide communications without the need to use satelites, enabling the vessel to use ultra-secure line of sight communication systems to communicate with allies and its unmanned systems. Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) enable the ship to expand its ‘bubble of security’; they are a weapons platform that moves so can provide a ship with a second towed array for it to work with and double up the data for ASW, or another Close in Weapon System (CIWS) that can be deployed up threat to chew into any Anti-Ship Missiles (ASMs) that get through the Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) screen – simply put they are an Escorts Escort; possibly thanks to jammers and other Electronic Wizardry (more usually referred to as Electronic Countermeasures or ECM) fool the incoming attack into thinking it is the ship. These unmanned systems multiply the impact of a single ship, they can’t at the moment replace the ships (for some roles they never will), but they can give it a better chance of success in its mission.

Fitting these mini-networks into the larger Task Group Network will be complex; blue-on-blue issues have always been a problem, thankfully the real-time data network should work with this to help it. Although that itself could present a problem of data management and raise the very real possibly of information overload[5]. The reality hopefully will be the maximisation of defensive and offensive layers[6]; multiplying the probability of interception of enemy attacks and therefore the likelihood of their defeat. A result which of course in turn increases the likelihood of the naval force succeeding in its mission.

So in summary Network Centric Warfare and the Royal Navy means change, since the 1920s its has been a force growing in specialisation, with increase percentage of the force being specialist vessels with a strongly defined purpose. This is great for arguments with the Treasury and other departments of state when it comes fighting for the limited available funds as it provides an easy metric by which each ship and each class can be measured; but for ‘peace time’ patrolling, guarding, presence/diplomacy, trade protection & conflict deterring this provides a very mixed capability which is not helpful and in war time it producing an unbalanced force – high tech world beating destroyers that are only capable of Area Air Defence[7], frigates which are worn out and submarines which are world leading but are so advanced & focused they rely upon their torpedo tubes to launch TLAMs instead of Vertical Launch System and are so expensive that the fleet is shrinking dramatically. What the fleet needs, and what network centric warfare will enable it to utilise best is force of  Generalists and Adapabtles built around enough Capitals for a flexible force to be in place and with enough Focuseds that it can accomplish its mission.

Further Reading:

·         Hill, J. R. Air Defence at Sea. Shepperton: Ian Allan Ltd, 1988.

·         The Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), Transforming Naval Anti-air Warfare - Case Studies in National Security Transformation Number 11, William D. O’Neil, August 2007

[1] A Task Force is the entirety of the vessels sent – these will be divided into Task Groups each formed around a Capital ship for their role, i.e. the Carrier Battle Group is centred on a Carrier, an Amphibious Task Group will be centred on an Amphibious Aviation Ship (either a Landing Platform Helicopter, LPH, a Landing Helicopter Attack, LHA, or a Landing Helicopter Dock, LHD) and a Landing Platform Dock (LPD) plus assorted Landing Ship Logistics (LSLs – basically Auxiliary LPDs that focus on specialist troops, specialist amphibious functions or logistics), a Raiding or Stabilisation Task Group would be centred on (preferably) a LHD or an anti-submarine/trade protection group would be centred on a Carrier with a different Air Group
[2] For the RN this would be the Caribbean, the East Coast of Africa, Indian Ocean and maybe South East Asia & Australasia to demonstrate UK commitment to the 5 Power Alliance and the nations continued interest in such an important economic, cultural and strategic region. Further they may well be used to increase the level of presence where a Guardship is, such as in the Gulf and the UK.
[3] For the RN this would be the Falklands, Gulf and the UK (of course), although possibly it might be sensible to add the Mediterranean (Gibraltar) to the list.
[4] Even in peace time at least one Generalist and a couple of Adaptables would be kept with; forming a ‘mini task group’ for training with allies.
[5] Good warfare and intelligence officers are going to be more important than ever to sift through the data and bring important/overlooked things to the attention of commanders.
[6] Something which would make hill very happy, POST ON ANGLOSPHERE THEORISTS
[7] These have the capacity built into them to become generalists, they just need the 16 MK41 VLS cells to be added in, and it could carry the Anti-Ballistic Missile SM-3, or more importantly for recent missions the Tomahawk (& and it’s successor) TLAM.

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