Future Tech

Disruptive technologies will revolutionise maritime operations

Cmde Sujeet Samaddar (retd)Cmde Sujeet Samaddar (retd)

Disruptive technologies are on the horizon that will dramatically alter the way maritime operations are conducted in the near future. McKinsey in their report have suggested that these disruptive technologies can be identified as technologies in the sphere of Energy Storage, Materials, Big Data, Autonomous Vehicles, Mobile Internet and Internet of Things, Cloud computing, Advanced robotics, 3D printing, renewable energy etc.

In identifying a disruptive technology that will specifically impact naval operations, its force structure and composition the key criteria would be those technologies that change the dynamics of conflict or competition in ways that are revolutionary, profound and unexpected. Also, those that radically modify the concept of operations, define requirements of new skills, capabilities and capacities, impact the national defence industrial complex which in turn finally change the strategic naval balance between nations. Systems, sensors and machinery that go into future naval operations and new assets need to be carefully forecast to keep ahead of the technology curve and must also remain operationally relevant for at least a decade or two ahead after induction. This requires early recognition of emerging disruptive technologies that potentially can bring about yet another revolution in military affairs.

For this article I have classified relevant disruptive technologies into four baskets. Foremost are technologies that drive information and communications which is a critical element in designing the battle space and the conduct of war itself. Effective and secure communications, presently relying on radio and satellite technologies, are central and critical to all forms of maritime operations. With the emphasis on network enabled operations, highly capable and large capacity networks are becoming a sine-quo-non for modern command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems (C4ISR), which must function faultlessly, ensure secure and stable connectivity, interoperability between diverse platforms and widely deployed fleets and, yet, be robust to meet rising voice, data and video requirements in combat. The potential disruptive technologies for maritime communications could include high throughput satellite communications, big data analytics, machine learning and robotics, and new methods of securely sharing operational information through enterprise grade security architectures. Once blue laser technology is mastered to link submerged submarines with collaborating aircraft and can be generated at low cost and energy levels submarine communications as we know them would become obsolete. The Internet of Things (IoT) and techniques of cloud computing are futuristic technological innovations that would also disrupt the existing model of data transfer, information sharing and command control and communications.

Disruptive surveillance technologies are a result of revolutionary concepts of electronics particularly the huge potential that Terahertz electronics, nano-technology, smart materials and bio-computational and quantum computing techniques on the one hand and miniaturisation and the development of MEMS based EM sensors and Internet of Everything (IoE) on the other may offer. These will revolutionise the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop for data driven warfare as it gives the decision-maker access to real time broad spectrum artificial intelligence assisted/ aided decision-making command and control systems backed by Big Data, machine learning, cognitive computing, ultra-high speed computer processing and secure transmission technologies. These could disruptively change the navy’s existing Combat Management System (CMS) architecture, the sensor-shooter interfaces, the network of networks into a spatially distributive and yet temporarily concentrated force generation and application architecture riding on cloud computing and IoT. In turn, this will spawn cyber-attack systems and interference prevention technologies opening a new frontier in combat and presenting some challenges and opportunity for industry. This transformation to a real time data-driven, evidence based decision-making process will lead away from the current reactive and diagnostic Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) to a proactive cognitive Maritime Theatre Dominance (MTD) combat suite. But space, where much of this disruption would reside, will be increasingly congested, contested, and competitive and thus space-based systems would be subject to denial, degradation, or destruction to snip the ‘network of networks’ on which future navies would rely. At the other end deep sea technologies may spur a whole new suite of sea-based surveillance and response systems integrating pre-positioned sonars with autonomous torpedoes controlled from remote locations by the Internet of Everything (IOE).

A second basket of disruptive technologies that will reconfigure future forces are ultra-powerful, ultra-light, ultra-conductive meta materials, polymers, alloys and composites. Potentially, hulls of future ships may be graphene based whilst composite content could increase in superstructure/masts for ships. Submarines may also see increased applications of composites in hydroplanes, rudder, sail/fin construction amongst other structures and internal fittings that would reduce footprint and radiated signature. For industry, these are signals of alarm impacting shipbuilding steel demand and also pointers where new business opportunities are headed. Future materials will facilitate additive manufacturing which could potentially ‘print’ spares or even ammunition at sea and these technologies in turn will impact the way navies have looked at maintenance and logistics to support fleets at sea. Such a transformation has an immense impact on the electronics and telecommunications industry, the metals business, on welding technologies and even cables looms and harnesses business, all of which may not be able to survive this innovation.

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