Navies Ride the Digital Transformation

Issues Details: 
Vol 11 Issue 2 May - Jun 2017
Page No.: 
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How the ‘Digital Wave’ is Bringing about Technological Changes that Major Navies Need to Adopt
Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Navies have been in continuous process of technological transformation and envelop of warfare at sea has expanded. In the 16th Century, when cannons came to be carried onboard ships, gunnery duels took place within visual range; but today the standoff capability is symbolized by Tomahawk type of missiles which can be launched at targets on land from as far as 3000 kilometers in the sea. The assent of techno-naval transformation is on information technology and several navies are exploiting the benefits of the information revolution, developing new strengths in warfighting. They are shifting from platform-centric to network-centric warfare that pivots on complex integration of platforms at sea, in the air, underwater, ashore and even in the outer space.

There is strong evidence of desire and quest among navies to achieve technological proficiency and translate information technology into operational competence, so that the enemy could be engaged further out into the sea and on shore, resulting in a new type of victory. While that is true in the case of small and medium navies, advanced navies have already begun to ride on the new revolution that is marked by smart devices, intelligent systems, autonomous devices, artificial intelligence, and cognitive technologies. They also see Big Data as a solution to a number of combat and non-combat operations.  

Exercise Information Warrior 2017

Early this year, the British Royal Navy in partnership with a number of NATO navies hosted Information Warrior 2017, a training exercise to counter threats and challenges arising from cyber warfare. The exercise involved 35 platforms including warships, submarines, fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, belonging to the navies of US, Norway, France, Denmark, Germany and Belgium. During the exercises, the Royal Navy introduced a new Artificial Intelligence system called STARTLE designed to enhance situational awareness, monitor and evaluate potential threats and response times to various insecurities at sea. The STARTLE comprises complex sensors suite that use artificial intelligence for a fitting response. Importantly, the software of the system is designed to perform the way the human brain works and reacts to ‘human fear’. In essence, it is a ‘digital colleague’ that allows the ‘command team to make more informed decisions, at a much faster rate, thus saving vital seconds in combat’. Further, AI would enable platforms to be “safer and more effective in fast-moving, war-fighting situations” and fight in a high risk cyber environment.

The five key themes of the Information Warrior 2017 were (a) Artificial Intelligence for the fleet to operate faster, better and more effectively; (b) Developing the most efficient and comprehensive computer system for Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (C4I); (c) Exploiting open source information effectively for Information Exploitation (IX); (d) Cyber and Electromagnetic Activity (CEMA) for offensive and defensive cyber operations to protect national interests; and (e) an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) based on unmanned systems for an  intelligence picture  enhance command decisions.

Earlier, in October 2016, the Royal Navy along with 18 other navies hosted the Joint Warrior 2016, a semi-annual United Kingdom-led training exercise to enable NATO and allied forces operate in a multi-warfare environment for global operations. It focused on autonomous vessels and the United States fielded ten promising technologies during the exercise. Significantly, these technologies were brought out from the laboratories to test these under combat conditions to understand the operational viability in real-world scenarios. This also helps in identifying and provide solutions to the gaps and limitations before putting them into combat use. One of the important technologies for demonstration during the exercises was Airborne Computer Vision (ACV), a semi-autonomous targeting system aboard a Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which, as claimed by its owners, can potentially “affect future naval operations significantly.”

Emerging Trends in Naval Warfare

The cyber-led transformation has had a variety of positive impacts; however, it has several banes which led to the development of a number of defensive systems, solutions and approaches such as anti-virus, firewalls and hacking protection. In essence the cyber domain has generated software and hardware that can be both offensive and defensive including offering a number of spinoffs such as predictive technologies that not only can preempt cyberattacks, but also quickly respond by means of counter attacks. These technologies have created a new digital ecosystem built around cyber-physical-human, taking warfare to new frontiers.

A number of terminologies such as smart, intelligent, predictive and, cognitive have been added to the lexicon of the cyber world, and digital technology developers who have chosen to name these as autonomous platforms and machines, robots, wearables including person-embedded sensors and human mounted computers. Also, Big Data, Cloud Computing, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Intelligence, Cognitive Computing (CC), Internet of Things (IoT), Internet of Everything (IoE) are gathering momentum and finding usage among military technology developers.

Navies have been keen to harness the benefits of the ongoing transformation in the digital world, comprising of ‘mobile and wearable devices’, ‘digital sensors’, integrated robotics and Artificial Intelligence, as part of their warfighting menu, by way of operational support functions or even for the management of the battle space.  

At another level, militaries are embracing commonly used and commercially available communication devices such as smart phones, tablets and hybrid devices. These are faster, cheaper and flexible devices and supplement the existing high-speed wireless equipment and other sophisticated communications technologies. Perhaps, wearable devices such as smart watches, smart glasses, health monitors, and activity trackers are changing the way people access, use and exchange information to enhance the effectiveness of existing technologies. For instance, modern day soldiers carry micro-UAVs as portable gear, and this fall into the category of wearable technologies.

While that may be very exciting, it is useful to mention that smart phones and IP devices have inherent challenges such as interoperability and security. Wearable technologies for military purposes are still in infancy and evolving, but have enormous potential for the armed forces. The US military has taken the lead and is developing smart clothing and wearable devices which are ‘hands-free’, and some of these are ‘head-mounted with recording, transmitting and computing capability’.  For example, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on Google Glass-like augmented reality which allows transmission of tactical battlefield picture to a soldier’s helmet, thus obviating map or wearable computer device.

Artificial Intelligence and Naval Operations

In the above context, it is not surprising that advanced navies are investing enormous technological and operational capital to respond to a new era of warfare through digital tools, tactics and methodologies for warfare at sea. These are not necessarily defensive systems but possess offensive capabilities which can be put to use proactively to help improve on existing strategies for responding to threats and challenges at sea. For instance, the Royal Navy acknowledges the fact that the “pace and scale of technological change in the world today is breath taking. The Royal Navy is no less affected than anyone else by the challenges of cheap, smartphone computing power with high-grade encryption. And more is coming in the Internet of Things…Artificial Intelligence, robotics, automation and quantum computing are all future uncertainties.  As a result, the Royal Navy, priding itself on its long history of world-leading innovation, is focused on the implications for maritime and littoral warfare in the Information Age.”

Cyber Warriors

Although the ongoing naval transformation is driven by information technology and autonomous machines and devices, the role of humans in the transformation is inescapable. The two intertwined as eventually,  transformative and disruptive ideas, innovative choices, and new theories, are conceptualized and advanced by humans pivoting on perceptual and cognitive, physical and virtual, social and societal understandings and practices.

Several militaries have established Cyber commands and the navies have taken the lead. For instance, in 2010 the US Navy announced the Fleet Cyber Command which is responsible for the Navy’s cyber warfare programs. In 2016, a Center for Cyber Security Studies was set up at the U.S. Naval Academy ‘in recognition of the critical importance that cyber operations play in our national defense and to facilitate the expansion of the Naval Academy’s cyber program’. The importance of cyber warfare in US naval thinking can be best understood by the fact that it is part of the curriculum for Midshipmen training.


It is true that digital technologies are transforming naval warfare, and this belief is gaining greater credence and acceptability among naval leaders and operational commanders. They are formulating policies and instituting mechanisms for better understanding of the digital transformation. Naval personnel would have to get into the habit of using portable and wearable technologies, which would require specialized training so that a ‘digital comfort’ is developed among users.  Also, changes and modification of these technologies would have to be ensured to meet stringent military requirements of secrecy and confidentiality. 

Military Technology