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Naval innovation in a maritime century

In 2018, James Mattis, then US Defence Secretary, observed that innovation needs to ‘deliver performance at the speed of relevance’ and ‘success no longer goes to the country that develops a new technology first, but rather to the one that better integrates it and adapts its way of fighting’. His words offer a warning to technology-intensive navies intent on mastering technological change to further operational success.

A technology-driven imagined future is fraught with risks since it might not survive the capricious nature of international affairs. The Ford class of supercarriers, the Zumwalt class of destroyers, the Littoral Combat Ship programme, totems of an imagined fleet of the future from the dominant position of the early 1990s, all struggle to deliver the requisite capabilities for a more contested maritime present. Technology is not, therefore, the analytical focus of the quest of innovation. Rather, it is a dependent variable which has to be reviewed against an attentive analysis of the demands of the strategic context of tomorrow.

What does such a context look like? We live today in a maritime century. The ocean underwrites global physical and digital connectivity, bringing countries closer together and driving economic prosperity. It is also a resource which is reshaping its sustainable management and exploitation. Further, it remains the largest staging platform for the projection of capabilities that empower states, or coalitions, with the choice to extend the use of force for the purpose of statecraft beyond their borders. This maritime century is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Whilst the economic and political significance of the ocean has expanded, its use to advance national objectives through military influence is more diffused and less obvious. On the one hand, the ability to extend the reach, lethality and sustainability of maritime forces already redefined diplomacy and war in the 20th century. Sea control was instrumental in the victory of the maritime alliances of the two world wars, whilst deterrence at sea set the pace of the Cold War. Today, expeditionary operations – from crisis response and disaster relief to counter-piracy – and ‘wars of choice’ have hardly undermined the sea’s value as a means of power projection.

On the other, as the demand for ocean governance increases, so do the opportunities for state actors to exert degrees of influence. The emergence of UNCLOS as the main framework to determine sovereign rights at sea has led to competing claims with some countries resorting to armed coercion to assert ‘rights and interests’. Besides undermining UNCLOS, this form of behaviour risks planting the seeds for revisionist actors such as the PRC, Russia, or North Korea to leverage peacetime claims to enhance sea control in wartime. Artificial military outposts in the South China Sea are not merely markers of a claim, but down payments to assert command of the sea.

Constraints on national warfighting capabilities are likely to demand greater efforts in innovation to deliver partnerships capable of creating military effect timely and seamlessly.

Thus, in a maritime century, what does successful innovation look like? First, naval innovation should assist the demands of a contested peace. Fleets will operate more, for longer times, across a wide spectrum of missions, with diverse sets of partners, and over greater distances. Warships are likely to become more important in delivering persistent forms of engagement in the constabulary space, whilst having to retain the ability to ‘fight tonight’. Trends in modularity can increase both adaptability over lifecycles and flexibility of missions, but support will have to match operational demands. More warships and deeper ammunition stocks should also be a matter of priority, with Artificial Intelligence and three-dimensional printing enhancing development and production processes.

Likewise, innovation should help address the growing importance of underwater spaces to both maritime governance and naval combat. Undersea sensors and submarines are likely to play a much greater role as opponents target underwater cables and the digital connectivity they provide. Those who can, will seek to leverage technology to make the sea more ‘transparent’. Innovation which allows technology to operate deeper and to enhance platforms’ autonomy, availability, support, and integration with other military forces will offer a crucial strategic edge.

Within this context, it is no surprise that navies are grappling with the issue of integrating uncrewed systems of various sizes and functions. These assets are already proving themselves in Ukraine and those of the contested waters across the strait of Taiwan to be of help in denial and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance functions. Uncrewed capabilities may give commanders more options, but only if they are reliably able to work with a fleet. This, in turn, invites the desirability for efforts in innovation to produce resilient command, control, and communication systems that can also operate across partner navies.

Finally, there is a sense of unease among strategists which stems from fears that technological change is not necessarily on the side of advanced navies. Indeed, the availability of technology would appear to be on the side of willing competitors which are investing in new asymmetric capabilities – from cyber to space and missile programmes – to reduce the qualitative and quantitative gaps with the most technologically-developed powers. 

In a contested peace in which interstate war is a real possibility, naval innovation is first and foremost about how technology can help maximise the effectiveness of the ‘habits of the mind’. It is about how innovation enhances a navy’s operational mentality and approach. Change is made by human beings for the purpose of securing agendas that serve human beings. The men and women that crew, plan, and support fleets are the most precious capability which innovation needs to foster.

In this regard, constraints on national warfighting capabilities are likely to demand greater efforts in innovation to deliver partnerships capable of creating military effect timely and seamlessly. Similarly, distributed lethality calls for professional navies to instil a mentality among crews, marines and officers to maximise the effect of peacetime engagements, to inspire and reassure partners, and to outline what it means to be a leading naval power. In an age of competition, lethality has to start in the mind of each ship’s captain, each commando brigade, and each crew.  Thinking about how innovation can help navies to better prepare for war might once more very well help prevent it while delivering performance – whatever the circumstances – at the speed of relevance.

Alessio Patalano is the Hebert Richmond Associate Fellow in Maritime Strategy at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also Professor of War and Strategy in East Asia in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Emma Salisbury is the Robert Whitehead Associate Fellow in Military Innovation. Undertaking a PhD at Birkbeck College, University of London, she is also a senior staffer for a Member of Parliament and an Assistant Editor at War on the Rocks.

Embedded image credit: Royal Navy (Open Government Licence v3.0 cropped and overlaid)

This article formed part of our conference programme for the First Sea Lord’s Sea Power Conference 2023.

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