At the start of WWII, the British Royal Navy was the largest surface fleet in the world. However, just a few months into the war, the United States launched the Emergency Shipbuilding Programme to assist its allied friends in Europe. Within mere weeks, the ESP method of shipbuilding became so efficient that the time taken for a Liberty ship to be fully assembled, launched, outfitted, and delivered went from 240 days at the beginning of 1942, to just 56 days at the end of the same year.
Similarly, the Royal Airforce rapidly increased the manufacturing scale of Hurricanes and Spitfires to protect British skies during the Battle of Britain.
But now we find ourselves in a new century, a new decade, and, as such, we have found that the nature of threats to our national security have changed dramatically. Submarine incursions through the North Atlantic Gap are now at levels not seen since the Cold War. Meanwhile, heightened tensions in the Black Sea, Baltic and the South China Sea require a more urgent and extensive physical response. The reality is that without strategic investment in cutting edge technologies, Britain risks being sinking in the aftertow of its neighbours in the high seas. New aircraft carriers show a degree of intent, but China is launching more military ships a year than Britain's entire fleet.
According to the 2021 Integrated Review, by the start of the 2030s the Royal Navy will have 20 frigates and destroyers, aiming to grow to 24 with the introduction of the Type 32s. China, on the other hand, has a major combat fleet of over 350 surface ships and submarines, compared to the United States Navy's 293 ships.
And the carriers are in themselves part of the challenge. With two Frigates assigned to each carrier, this leaves one merely part-time Frigate covering 4.5m sq miles of UK territorial waters.
Alongside escalating tensions with China and its neighbours in the South China Sea, we are seeing increased intrusions and threat of espionage from bad actors, including, most dangerously of all, potential threats of disruption to our subsea and offshore infrastructure.
But does the UK have the manufacturing infrastructure to begin producing advanced defence hardware at scale for rapid deployment?
With the announcement in March 2021 of Britain’s new ‘multi-role ocean surveillance ship’, we saw a statement of intent and investment in protecting key underwater communication cables. However, this crucial vessel for guarding maritime infrastructure (such as Wind Farms, pipelines and telecommunication cables) will not be in service until 2024 - procurement cycles can take many years, if not decades. Even this three year wait for the M-ROS vessel is simply too long, particularly when the complexity and sophistication of threats to our nation evolve year on year.
The seismic shift in the very nature of war beckons an accordingly seismic shift in our defence technologies. However, we currently do not possess a sufficient physical presence in our own waters. Nor do we possess endurance capabilities to be in multiple locations at once. Nor do we have the speed and agility to cover large expanses of our borders.
A scalable solution is urgently required.
Rapid Autonomous Fleet Augmentation (RAFA)
One obvious solution is Rapid Autonomous Fleet Augmentation (RAFA), which provides the ability to scale up or down the production of autonomous “drone” uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) as and when required.
As we learned with the COVID-19 pandemic, having stockpiles of PPE may prove unsustainable, but having the means to produce and deploy solutions at scale is a matter of critical national security. It is not so much a matter of harbouring a pre-made solution as it is having the readiness to react to a threat and accordingly produce and deploy a solution when needed.
This is a dynamic approach already being developed by countries such as Taiwan, who do not have the economic resources to build, man and operate a sizable surface fleet to deter Chinese interests. Instead, they are focussed on an “Indigenous Defense Strategy”, centred around the deployment of dispersed autonomous USVs to augment their surface fleet. Instead of attempting to match China’s fleet of crewed vessels, they are adding a new chess piece to the game: uncrewed service vessels.
The thinking for the Taiwanese defense programme is that dispersed swarms increase uncertainty and cost to the enemy. At less than the cost of a torpedo, a USV could be used for persistent surveillance in high densities providing increased monitoring and therefore better data and targeting for capital ships. The Chinese military would have to waste multiple shots to bring down a full swarm, while any attempt to destroy these low cost surveillance points would mean an enemy giving away their position. The logic is almost infallible.
Certainly, this approach requires having both the technology and indeed the production facilities, materials and supply chains available to begin producing USVs at scale and pace, in addition to the IP, knowledge and ability to scale your workforce as required.
However, rather than waiting 180 to 240 days to produce existing USVs, ACUA Ocean aims to develop future production capacity enabling order-to-deployment of vessels in 30-40 days. Or less.
Modular defence capabilities for multiple use cases
The simple modular design of our vessel, its onboard power systems and its flexible payload configuration has been developed to enable a single vessel design for multiple use cases, and, of course, to be manufactured at scale.
Think of it as a pre-fabricated frame, with rack mounted systems and reduced maintenance requirements. The long endurance of up to 70 days at 5 knots makes it suitable for surveillance, safety and security monitoring of critical infrastructure, such as subsea communication cables, oil pipelines, borders and naval bases. It would also serve as a mine countermeasure vessel or be deployed as an escort vessel, or even to form a perimeter around a crewed fleet.
There is also the ability to add further AI integrations to gain maximum use out of radar and HD video, giving a disposable asset that can collect valuable intelligence on the frontline. Our USVs can be the keen eyes and ever-open ears of vast expanses of ocean.
At a scale cost of around £500k at scale (around 10-20% of the cost of existing alternative USVs and less than 1% the cost of a crewed vessel) these vessels will be low cost and expendable.
Need to invest in domestic innovation
Focus has already shifted from traditional battlefields to cyber security and autonomous warfare. If western governments (and NATO in particular) are to stay ahead of their adversaries they will need to invest in homegrown startups and new, inspired, cutting-edge innovation.
The US Navy is aware of the challenge and has targeted the Ghost Fleet Overlord program with developing unmanned vessel capabilities, training and data collection at scale.
The challenge is that hardware, unlike software, is by no means cheap.
Traditional government R&D contracts tend not to invest in early-stage, pre-revenue startups at TRL3 or 4, nor do Venture Capitalists, and when they do it is with nowhere near the cash needed to bring the next wave of defence technology into genuine fruition.
Software startups, meanwhile, often only need backing of £100k, whereas hardware, hardtech and deep tech startups need access to at least £1m to £2m, with reasonable time frames of one to two years, as well as continued support and access to supply chains in order to succeed.
But with the right financial support in the right places, the UK could once again be a world leader in the maritime sector. This once great shipbuilding nation should accept the challenge to move to ship manufacturing, joining the technological sea change to change our seas for the better.