Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum on The Future Battlefield—The Maritime Dimension submitted by Dr Eric Grove

  Much of the so called "Revolution in Military Affairs", the essence of which is the digitisation of the battlefield, the ability of modern sensors and communications to collect information and transmit it in digital form to enhance greatly the situational awareness those upon the battlefield, down to the lowest level necessary. The essence of this is the use of the term "battlefield" that implies operations ashore. To a considerable extent, the maritime battlefield, with its multi-dimensional threat axes and potentially catastrophic high speed threats, has been digitised form some time. As early as the 1950s the Royal Navy pioneered the electronic synthesis of tracks from sensor data and the digital transmission of plots to other units. These systems went to sea in the carriers Victorious and Hermes and the County class guided missile destroyers and were the inspiration of all current computerised action information systems. No modern warship is worthy of the name without such a system to compile a picture and data link it to other units.

  Special pleading by submariners and airmen would have one believe that the surface ship is obsolete, a mere target. In reality both submarines and aircraft can become targets in their own right in certain circumstances. An inability to move surface ships against opposition would have disastrous effects on the strategic reach and agility of the USA and its allies. The laws of physics have not been repealed; water provides by far the most efficient and flexible medium of deploying large and bulky items such as operating airfields, missile batteries and associated control systems, heavy vehicles or fuel supplies and other logistical support. Most of the world's surface is covered in water and most of the world's population lives close to the sea. There is thus enormous potential for maritime operations and support in the true, joint sense of the word "maritime"; in which the sea is a principal but far from the only factor.

  Modern systems allow the most intimate integration of maritime platforms with themselves and units ashore and in the air. The American "Cooperation Engagement Capability" (CEC) which has been under trial for some time converts a force so equipped into effectively a single radar system with the same picture on everyone's screens allowing at best remote engagements and at worst the receipt of precision cues enabling missile engagements at maximum weapon range. Ships receive fire control quality data far beyond the range of their own sensors. CEC also allows the integration of forces afloat with those ashore, experiments having been carried out with anti-tactical ballistic missile and anti-cruise missile systems with both ship based and shore based components. Given the future digitisation of land systems the potential for integration seems enormous, with warships afloat providing anti-air and surface strike capabilities capable of application many miles inland.

  The key to this is the acquisition of the required command and control technologies and the establishment of a high degree of compatibility to retain and improve interoperability both with the United States and other allies. CEC and related technologies also promise an enormous jump in capability even at national level. Just as navies without Link 11 are second class navies today, so navies without CEC will be second class navies tomorrow.

  Just as surface ships will have their capabilities transformed and extended other maritime platforms will improve their already existing leverage. The coming of improved short take off, vertical landing (STOV/L) variants of more conventional designs will reduce the gap between STOV/L and other types of combatant aircraft. In the longer term the uninhabited combat air vehicle (UCAV) offers the potential both to provide more aircraft for smaller carriers and perhaps extend the integration of air platforms with the surface fleet beyond the existing helicopter, flexible though those machines are. Amphibious forces will become even more useful as the potential of the hovercraft and the tilt-rotor are more fully exploited. Sea basing of attack helicopters such as the Apache Longbow would also greatly increase their flexibility and deployability, while the development of lighter scales of equipment—as well as increasing the marginal utility of airlift—could also significantly increase the inherently greater striking power of sea delivered forces.

  Although power projection is the essence of the foreseeable maritime future one should not ignore the enhanced sea denial capabilities available to future nations. CEC may cope with the missile threat but torpedo armed submarines will require enhanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities designed to deal with the quiet conventional boat. One can imagine distributed CEC type systems being developed to create multistatic sonar networks for advanced sonar operations, both passive and active. In the meantime SSNs provide an underestimated potential against conventional submarines. Advanced mines—and not so advanced mines—also require the maintenance of mine countermeasures systems and platforms if this cheapest of all modes of sea denial is not to prove at best embarrassing and at worst a serious problem, especially in the littoral context. This is a "niche" the British still most effectively fill.

  The future maritime battlefield will continue to be a challenging and dangerous place where threats can come from all three dimensions. Given the overall improvements in weapons, sensors and command and control systems, however, there is nothing in sight to prevent maritime forces continuing to exploit their inherent advantages in the future as effectively as they have done in the past. Indeed, the technological catching up a land warfare with naval combat promises the production of a truly integrated maritime battlespace in which navies will be even more useful than ever.

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Prepared 10 September 1998