Naval Capability  Acquisition and Management – the Challenges

Keeping Pace with Requirements.
Recent history demonstrates that the security threats faced by any nation and, thus, the missions required of its defence forces can change drastically in a very short space of time. A focus on bipolar Cold War tensions was followed by a shift to peace support and stabilisation and operations to counter the rise of mass terrorism and transnational crime. Force structures acquired and postured for the former had to be adapted to the latter.

The strategic wheel has now turned full circle, and liberal democracies are again faced with the possibility of large-scale inter-state conflict between peer or near peer competitors without any reduction in contingencies requiring stabilisation and humanitarian intervention capabilities.

Exploiting Transformational Technology.
Transformational technologies, including autonomy, open architecture computing systems, and highly advanced weapons and sensors, are increasingly available. Exploiting these technologies can enable defence forces to accomplish almost any mission, provided the technology is backed by sound doctrine and a committed, values driven workforce. However, it must acquired in sufficient quantity to be available when and where it is needed. Enabling this availability is one of the main challenges facing modern navies.

Managing Obsolescence.
Warships have traditionally been designed to carry specific systems for specific missions – the ship’s structure, propulsion, and general platform systems are tightly coupled to the weapons and sensor (or mission) systems it is designed to carry. Although almost all warships have a weight and stability growth margin built into their initial designs, actually modifying a ship with new systems for new missions or to exploit new technology is a risky, expensive, and time-consuming business.

Systems can be iteratively upgraded in situ to some extent, but for the most part, the obsolescence clock starts ticking as soon as the design of a traditional warship is fixed, which is usually years before it enters operational service. 

Obsolescence can usually only be comprehensively addressed by half-life upgrade programmes, the duration of which is measured in years and the cost in hundreds of millions of dollars, pounds, or euros.  Costs almost always escalate as the true scale of the integration task emerges, and schedules are almost always exceeded.  As with initial design, systems installed in half life refits start to become obsolescent as soon they are selected for installation.

A warship’s mission systems usually wear out or become obsolescent well before the life of the ship’s structure and platform systems has expired. If a way could be found to de-couple the life of the ship’s mission systems from its platform systems, it might be possible to extract a longer life and, thus, greater value from the former. US aircraft carriers are a case in point. The air groups they embark on are their mission systems. By the time the ship de-commissions, it will have operated several generations of aircraft while operating the aircraft mix best suited to operational missions at any one time. 

Effectiveness and Efficiency – Value for Money.
As indicated above, geo-strategic policy drivers and, thus, the missions that navies are required to perform can change significantly in a relatively short space of time. Ships equipped primarily for ASW missions with tightly coupled platform and mission systems can be (and often are) employed on stabilisation operations in which the main task is Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO), but this wastes the very substantial investment made in their primary systems and in the people who maintain and operate those systems. Opportunities to maintain ASW proficiency are likely to be few and far between during stabilisation operations, causing the capability to decay rapidly. 

Conversely, a ship designed purely for low-threat operations also represents a significant investment for a capability that can only be used for a narrow range of missions. Patrol ships may be cheap when compared with combatants, but whether they represent value for money is a question that could be asked, particularly when naval workforce costs are considered. The ideal naval platform would be able to operate effectively and efficiently over a wider arc of operational missions than the dedicated, high-end combatant and the low-capability, relatively low-cost patrol vessel.

Cost Escalation. Over the last 60 years, the procurement cost of frontline naval combatants has increased at an annual rate in real terms of between 3% and 6%. High-end frigates and destroyers can cost in excess of USD1B, making it very difficult for the navies of those countries that support the international rule of law to afford enough naval platforms for even the most essential missions. These navies face significant numerical overmatch in relation to potential adversaries with almost no prospect of being able to redress this imbalance through traditional naval combatant design and procurement practices. A means must be found to enable high-quality naval capability to be fielded in sufficient numbers to match potential threats.

Work Force Effectiveness.
A traditional multi-mission combatant generally carries with it all the people needed to maintain and operate the systems with which it is fitted, regardless of the nature of the missions it is undertaking.  The ship is, in theory, ready to respond to rapidly evolving threats in all dimensions with little warning. In practice, however, a frigate that has been deployed for MIO for five months will have very seldom had an opportunity to practise ASW operations.

Even with onboard simulation, the skills of the ASW operators will decay to the point where the ship is by no means actually ready to deal with an ASW threat. In addition, carrying people aboard deploying ships whose primary skills are not required for the mission at hand can be a major dissatisfier, increasing attrition in highly skilled branches and trades.

Readiness and Flexibility.
The wide range of missions required by many smaller navies creates severe challenges in determining the most appropriate fleet structure. Combat, patrol, and force projection capabilities are often all required, and they must often be operated over very wide oceanic spaces and in very challenging environmental conditions.

Using combat platforms for patrol missions is wasteful and inefficient while using patrol platforms on missions where there is a risk of combat creates unacceptable risks (and could actually invite attack from hostile actors). To date, this has meant the acquisition of a diverse range of platforms and systems, which creates major sustainment challenges, as outlined below.

System Diversity.
Fleets comprised of a number of different specialised ship types are usually faced with the support of a range of different systems performing the same function in different ship types. This creates multiple supply chains and training pipelines and increases the cost of spare holdings. Different systems become obsolescent at different rates. As they are replaced at different times with modern systems, diversity is perpetuated. The problem is amplified for small navies operating multiple ship types.

The Naval Capability Challenge Summarised

In maintaining sufficient naval capability to meet current and future security challenges, governments and defence planners are faced with the following:

  • Geo-strategic capability drivers that evolve more quickly than the capability procurement cycle.
  • Identifying ways in which rapidly evolving technology can be exploited so as to achieve and maintain strategic, operational, and tactical advantage.
  • The management of obsolescence such that capability keeps pace with requirements without costly, risky, and time consuming mid-life refits.
  • Acquiring capability that represents value for money by effectiveness across a wide arc of missions.
  • Acquiring capability of sufficient quality in sufficient quantity in the face of cost escalation, finite defence budgets, and competing priorities.
  • Making the most effective use of the available workforce and minimising dissatisfaction caused by unnecessarily high deployment tempo.
  • Multiple ship types create system diversity that amplifies training and support challenges.


There is no such thing as a panacea solution to naval capability requirements. However, a strategy known as modularity has evolved that goes a long way to addressing the challenges identified above. In brief, a modular ship is essentially a standard platform able to receive capability “modules” tailored to the needs of specific operations. Modules are based on standard containers, which might contain anti-submarine warfare sensors, autonomous vehicles for mine countermeasures, long range surface strike missiles, or other specialised capabilities. Modules are integrated with the ship’s physical and computing architectures by standardised interfaces to the ship’s structure, digital backbone systems, electrical power, cooling systems, and ventilation.

Modularity is a feature of almost all contemporary naval ship designs. Some feature modular spaces as an adjunct to primary fixed capability and are thus variations on the traditional tightly coupled naval design theme. Others, however, feature modularity as the primary capability concept, with almost all effector systems being contained in modules. The extent to which a navy is able to benefit from modularity is a function of the extent to which its platforms feature modular capability for primary mission systems, but even a less extensive adoption can deliver greatly enhanced mission flexibility.

The high-level benefits delivered by modularity are detailed below in relation to the challenges described above.

Rapidly Evolving Capability Requirements.
As indicated above, geo-strategic circumstances can evolve more quickly than procurement processes and defence budgets can deliver capabilities able to meet them. For example, the decline of the Soviet submarine threat saw NATO navies divesting in ASW capabilities and switching emphasis to stabilisation operations and the platforms needed to support them.

Submarine threats have now re-emerged, albeit in a different and arguably more lethal form.  Baltic navies divested in anti-surface capability and are now faced with the re-emergence of a significant surface threat. Whereas a traditionally designed combat would require expensive and risky modification to meet new threats, a modular platform can exchange one type of capability for another and remain relevant in the face of evolving missions. New modules may be required, but not new ships.

Exploiting Transformational Technology.
The development cycle for transformational technology far outpaces traditional procurement cycles. Modularity allows new technology (such as new forms of autonomous vehicles) to be fielded, tested and experimented with much more quickly than with traditional platforms, which would likely have to undergo structural modification to field new systems. Technology can be rapidly and repeatedly inserted using modules as testing processes are carried out, improvements made, and doctrine developed.

Managing Obsolescence.
Upgrading traditional tightly coupled platforms to deal with emerging threats and missions generally requires that they be taken out of service for risky, costly, and lengthy refits, as detailed above. Modularity allows obsolescence to be addressed by upgrading systems contained within a module or by replacing the entire module. In either case, the host platform remains available for other operations.

Value for Money.
An Offshore Patrol Vessel is much cheaper to acquire and operate than a multi-mission frigate. However, it is only effective across a narrow arc of missions. A fleet comprised of platforms that are cost-effective to both acquire and operate across Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HADR), patrol, and combat operations represents greater value for money than one which consists of specialised HADR, patrol, and combat platforms. 

A modular platform can be switched from combat to patrol by removing combat-related modules and inserting modules for extra boats and autonomous vehicles optimised for surveillance, while the space freed up by module removal can be used to carry HADR stores and equipment should the need arise. This flexibility represents significantly greater value for money when compared to a fleet made up of diverse platforms. The smaller the fleet, the greater the value for money delivered by modularity.

Cost Escalation.
Modularity offers a way in which high-quality, high-cost mission systems can be acquired and fielded in sufficient quantity. Instead of acquiring sufficient numbers of multi-mission combatants permanently fitted with high-quality, high-cost mission systems or having to compromise on the quality of permanently fitted systems in order to afford them, modularity allows navies to acquire only the number of mission systems needed for concurrent operations in that mission. 

For example, a navy’s concurrent mission requirements may require six combat-capable ships, but perhaps only two of those ships are ever likely to be required to carry out concurrent ASW missions. Only two (or perhaps three) modular ASW missions need to be acquired, as opposed to the six a traditional combat fleet would have. The ASW modules can be rotated between ships as required. ASW systems and trained people are not carried by ships not performing ASW missions or training, leaving module space for other capabilities, such as anti-ship missile decoys, close-in weapon systems, or extra boats for special forces support or MIO. Assuming platforms are standardised, an effective modular fleet can be acquired at a significantly lower cost than a fleet comprised of traditionally designed combatants.

Work Force Management.
All navies are searching for ways to improve workforce efficiency and remove dissatisfiers that lead to attrition. Two of the most significant are high operating tempos and barriers to attaining and maintaining proficiency in primary competencies.

A multi-function frigate carries with it everywhere the systems and the people it needs for every mission to which it might be assigned. As indicated above, this means that people trained to maintain and operate mission systems not required by the mission at hand are underemployed, leading to skill decay and consequent dissatisfaction. They are also separated from friends and family without job satisfaction, which might partially compensate for that.

A modular ship needs only to carry the systems and people that it is likely to need for the missions it is actually assigned and those for which it needs to maintain a high degree of readiness. This allows new workforce concepts to be considered. Instead of being permanently assigned to a ship, mission system operators and maintainers could be assigned to a module, deploying at sea with the module when it is required for operations and training and maintaining and training with the module at their home naval base when it is not. Their operating tempo is reduced, and their ability to maintain proficiency can enhanced by using high-functioning simulation injected into their module system, which does not incur the wear and tear that results from permanent installation in environmentally hostile shipboard environments.

Naval people have traditionally identified strongly with the ship to which they are assigned. Such identification is critical to morale, and a module-based manning system would have to recreate it. This could be done by establishing a unified, shore-based home for module teams under traditional naval leadership structures.

The operating tempo for those people not assigned to modules would need to be addressed in parallel with module-based manning. Some navies have had success with dual crewing or with “three watch” systems in which ships are crewed with sufficient numbers to allow a third to be ashore for respite and training at any one time. These models could be applied to platform crews so that their operating tempo remained within acceptable limits.

A workforce model such as that outlined above would probably not reduce the workforce demand signal. However, onboard automation for propulsion, damage control, and other platform numbers is steadily reducing the numbers required for ships to operate safely. This reduction, coupled with a module-based workforce concept, could deliver significant improvements in workforce efficiency and retention.

Minimising System Diversity.
Modularity allows the adoption of standard platform types to operate effectively over a wide range of missions, allowing the number of ship types in a given fleet to be reduced. Platform systems can be more readily standardised, reducing supply chain diversity and training pipeline complexity. Operators and maintainers can be more readily moved between ships and become immediately effective. This has safety implications for many shipboard functions, such as navigation and bridge watchkeeping, as the likelihood of errors caused by lack of system familiarity is much reduced.

Article by Andy Watts in collaboration with SH Defence on maritime mission modularity