Into the contested littorals: Navy prepares for complex operational environment
In his recent address at the Navy Monument ceremony, Prime Minister Harper stated that “Canada’s economy floats on salt water.” With that simple phrase, he captured the government’s understanding of how important the world’s oceans are to Canada, now and in the future.
In this globalized era, Canada’s navy will be required to protect our three ocean approaches at home, as well as to keep good order at sea abroad. It will be required to render humanitarian assistance and relieve distress in response to events, and also to promote goodwill among populations. The Royal Canadian Navy will continue to be called upon to suppress criminal activities at sea, and to help other coastal states secure their home waters, and it will continue to play a crucial role in building trust and confidence to prevent conflict at sea.
However, regardless of how Canadian seapower is employed in these opening decades of the 21st century, it is the fleet’s ability to fight that will and must continue to underwrite everything we do across the spectrum of operations.
The experiences of last year off Libya point to the challenges ahead. Many observers, I believe, will look back at NATO’s Libya campaign as the prototype air-sea battle of the 21st century, in what we have been describing publicly as the “contested littorals” – that relatively narrow zone astride the world’s coasts that encompasses the vast majority of humanity, and where massive social disruptions are already playing out with strategic consequences.
In the future, the RCN must be prepared to operate alongside our allies in the contested littorals against much more formidable maritime adversaries than the former Libyan regime.
Imagine an adversary able to operate modern submarines, for example, or deploy sophisticated anti-ship missiles from launch sites ashore, perhaps, as Hezbollah did in 2006, from the back of a truck. Imagine that future adversary having highly trained maritime special forces at his disposal, or highly motivated irregular maritime forces willing to mount “swarm” attacks in large numbers in a bid to overwhelm the defences of a task group. Imagine an adversary who may also have acquired highly advanced asymmetric weapons, such as anti-ship ballistic missiles.
Picture yourself confronting such an adversary in an enormously complex physical environment, where sensors and weapons must cope with a wide array of propagation and environmental effects, as well as with background noise and clutter that are orders of magnitude greater than they are in blue water.
Imagine standing at your console in the operations room, knowing that your adversary enjoys the advantages of local knowledge – at least initially – and will use every ruse of warfare and every feature of coastline, bottom topography and ocean acoustics to close and engage.
The picture I am painting here is the naval equivalent of urban warfare at sea. But the contested littorals also encompass warfare ashore.
Indeed, across the width and depth of a littoral theatre, joint and combined forces will be engaged in operations designed not only to defeat the adversary’s land, air and sea forces, but also to protect populations and to help restore civil services and governance.
In the contested littorals, Canada’s maritime forces will need to play a greater role in supporting operations ashore, beginning well before any initial exchange of weapons fire until well after the last shot is fired, if at all.
What’s clear is that the RCN must evolve from the navy that today remains capable of decisive action at sea, to a globally deployable navy that will be able to act decisively at sea and contribute to decisive action ashore. This future transition is not unlike that of the early 1990s when we took a blue water, Cold War fleet and deployed it in the littorals of the Persian Gulf, the Adriatic and, most recently, the coast of Libya. The difference is that we need to go deeper into the littoral than ever before so as to have a decisive impact ashore and not to be bested by what lies inland.
Let me take you into new territory – an operational level description of the contested littorals, where the linkages to future fleet requirements will become much more apparent.
Weapons and sensors
Let’s start with maritime weapons and sensors. In the 1990s, we introduced into service through our then new frigates and just modernized destroyers an ability to deliver lethal effects at range and with great precision at sea, significantly extending the reach of the Canadian task group in relation to the “steamers” our new ships had replaced.
In Canada’s next generation of naval combatant, a similar jump in capabilities will be required to address the threats we envisage in the coming decades, as well as the challenges of a vastly more complex, congested and cluttered battlespace.
In the contested littorals, the ability to deliver lethal effects at range and with great precision will be required at sea as well as from the sea. Moreover, there will also be a need to employ new non-lethal means both at sea and ashore as part of a comprehensive scale of graduated response and effects across the joint force – a capability that is likely to be crucial to maintaining the legitimacy of international intervention with populations at home as well as in the theatre of operations.
Significant improvements are already taking place in maritime weapon systems and sensors, as well as fundamentally new approaches to deal with the acute environmental challenges of the littoral environment.
Such developments, moreover, may raise new possibilities to extend the protective reach of the task group to forces ashore. For example, some navies have already deployed systems at sea to defend against both long- and short-range ballistic missiles, and the associated force-level air defence technologies will most assuredly continue to evolve.
In this case, the true science and art of force development lies in determining the extent to which such capabilities will be needed in future platforms and how they can be best delivered. However, the designers of our next generation of major surface combatants should anticipate a need to introduce evolving capabilities in a predictable way throughout the life of a given class, not just at mid-life as has traditionally been the practice.
Many of these new capabilities have profound implications for maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In relation to operations in the past or even today, operations in the contested littorals will need extensive – even exhaustive – joint intelligence preparation of the battlespace.
Such intelligence preparation is one of the means that the joint force will use to reduce the advantages of local knowledge that potential adversaries may be assumed to hold as any future campaign commences.
Commanders at all levels in the joint force, whether at sea or ashore, will continue to rely heavily on tailored fusion of all sources of data and information of a given region, collected from a range of classified and open sources.
We expect that much of this fusion and analysis will become increasingly automated in joint centres ashore and fed to commanders at sea within a joint and combined intelligence architecture that is likely to see significant evolution over the next decade.
Nonetheless, the highly integrated nature of joint operations in the littorals will require much higher levels of intelligence-driven decision support at sea. We envisage a need for dedicated personnel at sea with the knowledge and experience to support the commander’s immediate tactical and operational-level intelligence needs, including: the coordination of reconnaissance and surveillance collection plans; the planning and coordination of joint lethal and non-lethal fires; post-engagement battle assessment; and information management of tactical and operational-level intelligence systems.
C3: Command, control and communications
While individual platforms are the most visible part of the task group, the key to the task group’s combat power – both today and in the future – lies in its battle network. The battle network knits together commanders that are often separated by dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of kilometres to permit them collectively to “see” what each sees individually, from the ocean depths to near space, and throughout the electromagnetic and acoustic spectrums.
Each node in the future joint force, from major combatants through smart weapons and munitions, will become increasingly enabled by the battle network, as current sensor-to-shooter architectures permeate traditional service boundaries and are made increasingly robust, resilient and redundant in the face of cyber and physical threats that will likely emerge to target their integrity and performance.
Space-based communications will remain vital to all maritime warfare disciplines, but potential vulnerabilities and dependencies will need to be mitigated.
At sea, new techniques in combat information systems can be anticipated, ranging from new ways of visualizing the battlespace to deal with background maritime and air traffic and marine activities that are orders of magnitude greater in the littorals than they are on the high seas, to new learning algorithms that, for example, could be used to detect from subtle changes in background patterns of activity the presence of adversaries that will be using clutter and congestion to mask their location, movement and intent.
Commanders at the tactical level will need greater levels of decision support to deal with a battlespace that will become severely compressed, in terms of time and space, from adversaries that may be able to approach in close proximity, potentially in large numbers, among whom some will be armed with weapons of great velocity, precision and lethality. Automated detection, localization, tracking and targeting will remain a key requirement, as will the ability to automatically engage when so desired by the commander, or permitted by the legal framework of the operation.
In terms of protecting the force, future combatants will need to be equipped for self-defence in all maritime dimensions, using complementary and integrated active and passive systems to counter not only the increasingly capable weapons that our adversaries will acquire but also to frustrate their steadily increasing competence to employ those weapons throughout the entire “kill chain.” This includes stealth measures to reduce signatures, as well as systems to control and suppress them for tactical purposes.
Our future combatants will also continue to require an ability to operate for limited periods within a contaminated environment without risk to personnel. They will need to be designed not only to survive battle damage but also to remain operational having taken damage, fully leveraging advances in automation and decision support. We envisage future systems that can be automatically activated to isolate and contain the effects of battle damage, decision support for damage control teams, and combat, propulsion and power systems that can be rapidly and automatically reconfigured.
At the level of the task group, force-level capabilities will permit the task group to make broader contributions to the joint force at sea or ashore. For example, the capabilities inherent in a future air defence system could permit the Canadian task group to defend joint assets or population centres ashore, or at sea to provide extended defence-in-depth for a joint sea base.
Finally, protection in the cyber domain will become as vital as protection in the physical domain, requiring measures that will assure the integrity and performance of our battle networks in the face of physical or cyber attacks.
From the perspective of platform design, hull and propulsion systems will undoubtedly evolve in the next decade toward greater efficiencies and reduced environmental impact. Crew optimization is also likely to emerge as a key driver across all future fleet platforms.
One of the key platform lessons we have learned from operations conducted over the past several years, from East Timor in 1999 to Haiti in 2010, is the need to improve our ability to support operations ashore. To date, we have performed such missions from ships that were never designed for such work. While we’re proud of what we have accomplished, it was achieved largely through improvisation.
There are a number of platform features that properly integrated into the design of our future combatants would significantly improve the ability of a ship’s company to render assistance and relieve distress when called upon to do so. Among such features we will examine include the:
• Design of more flexible deck arrangements;
• Larger and more versatile ship’s boats; and
• Incorporation of sufficient reserved volume for humanitarian stores and accommodations.
Recent operations have also underscored a need for the Canadian Forces to consider the acquisition of a dedicated platform to support operations from the sea, including for humanitarian operations and disaster response scenarios.
Even in relatively permissive environments, such operations will typically unfold in manifestly chaotic conditions – often in the absence of, or hampered by extensively damaged transportation networks and infrastructure, where local medical and social services have been overwhelmed through the sheer number of injured and dispossessed. In such circumstances, nothing can match the flexibility, adaptability, logistics capacity and strategic effect of a purpose-built amphibious vessel to render assistance: with a capacity to embark personnel, vehicles, force logistics and humanitarian materiel in volume and get them where they’re needed throughout a theatre of operations; an ability to embark/disembark cargo without the need of shore-based infrastructure, as well as to transfer cargo to other vessels at sea; and the deck space and arrangements that permit it to accommodate or operate large landing craft, as well as medium or heavy lift aircraft, each of which is essential to project, sustain and support operations ashore.
In our view, such a vessel – and the joint sea-air-land capabilities that it would have embarked – could be among the most heavily utilized assets in the CF inventory. Equipped with the space and communications facilities to act as a floating civil-military coordination centre, such a ship would be an ideal platform for joint action from the sea -– a platform for the Canadian Forces to contribute meaningfully, decisively and strategically to operations ashore.
Moreover, such a vessel could readily emerge as the Canadian Forces’ principal defence diplomacy asset, deployed routinely to regions of strategic interest with a range of CF capabilities embarked to strengthen regional partnerships, or more broadly to conduct diplomatic goodwill missions with other federal agencies and non-governmental organizations and assets embarked.
The task group
Regardless of the evolution of individual platforms in the decades to come, the Canadian Task Group will remain crucial to the future RCN as our “system of systems” – a network of ships, aircraft and submarines whose sensors and weapons are integrated into a highly cohesive and self-sustained “warfighting whole.”
The ultimate purpose of a task group is to control events at sea and influence events ashore. A naval task group permits Canada to act independently when it must defend its sovereign interests alone. A flexible naval task group permits Canada to lead international operations.
Ultimately it permits Canada to contribute to the collective defence of the global system in a strategically meaningful way – through its ability to act decisively at sea, and through the new combatants coming to the fleet, to contribute to joint action ashore.
Decisions to modernize and replace an aging fleet, deferred for many years, have now been made. Soon, new capabilities will be arriving, setting the stage for a fleet renewal that will be every bit as profound as the transition we undertook in the 1990s from the old “steamers” to today’s frigates and destroyers. We have a compelling vision for the future RCN and a plan to get us there.
We are at a moment of strategic renewal, an opportunity that is all but unprecedented in the 102 year history of the RCN. I submit to you that our collective challenge is to seize this moment together.
Rear-Admiral Mark Norman is deputy commander of the Royal Canadian Navy. Previously, he commanded the Canadian Fleet Atlantic and has served in a variety of headquarters posts. This article is adapted from a presentation to the Naval Association of Canada.