The Royal Danish Navy pioneered this concept in the 300ton Flyvefisken-class corvettes.
Like the ships now planned, they were conceived as replacements for a larger number of single-function ships ranging from missile- and torpedo-armed fast attack boats to surveillance units and even minehunters. The key innovation was a new kind of flexible combat direction system, Flexfire (a version of the Swedish 9LV Mk 3), which could control a wide variety of weapon suites. Weapons and most sensors were containerized, and a ship's function could be changed within 24 hours, most of which was probably required to align weapons and sensors properly. The capacity of the combat direction system was set by minehunting-its most demanding task.
The Danes achieved flexibility by linking multiple computers with a combat-direction data bus. System functions, such as track keeping and weapon direction, are implemented in separate computers. To change system functions (or weapons or sensors), software in some-but not all-of the computers is changed. The bus buffers each computer from the others, limiting their effects. Distributed systems may seem obvious, but they have become common only over the last decade or so.
The interfaces between programs running together can cause enormous problems. In the civilian world, incompatibility between programs running together sometimes shuts down a computer-an intolerable situation in a combat direction system whose time-shared programs must be very carefully integrated. As a consequence, it is difficult to adapt a single-computer combat direction system to changes in a ship's weapons and sensors. Quick adaptation for routine changes in configuration would be entirely impractical.
Bus capacity is the limiting factor in distributed systems; the bus determines just how much information a sensor can insert into the system, and also how detailed commands to a weapon can be. That is why so much effort has gone into the design of the bus (actually the network) incorporated in the U.S. Navy's New Attack Submarine, which, like the Danish ships, uses a distributed combat system. In the U.S. case, the issues are operational flexibility and ease of upgrade over the long life of the ship.
The Flyvefiskens' other important innovation is their ability to plug elements such as sensors and weapons directly into the combat-system bus, which makes fitting different equipment relatively easy-an architecture that contrasts with the conventional hard-wiring of sensors and weapons to a vessel's combat-direction system, where, in complex units, it is difficult to rip out earlier hardwiring, and the ship's displacement inevitably increases as the ship ages.
The potential for easily modification already has been demonstrated. The first Flyvefiskens were equipped with a British radar, the Dolphin (AWS-6); later, the Royal Danish Navy decided to adopt a rather different German radar, the TRS-3D. In conventionally wired ships, such a change would have been a major, expensive integration task. In the Danish ships, it passed virtually without comment.
The minehunting role also exemplifies flexibility in that it involves a remotely-controlled boat that had not even been chosen when the first Flyvefiskens were completed. Yet no reconstruction or redesign was needed once the boats were delivered.
The Flyvefiskens were intended to replace a large fleet of small coastal units used by a Danish Navy that was specializing in the defense of the coast and the Denmark Strait for a NATO war. When they were conceived, the Navy was about to discard its two large Peder Skram-class ocean-going frigates. The residual deep-water role was fishery (and other resource) protection around Greenland. Ironically, the primary roles envisaged for these remarkable ships disappeared with the end of the Cold War just as they were completed. For the Greenland role, the Navy already had applied its flexible concept to the Thetis class-conceived as fully convertible to frigates in wartime-but the Danish Parliament rejected that approach. The Thetis-class vessels can be upgraded, but they lack a fully flexible combat-direction system.
As envisaged by the study committee, the Large Standard Vessel will have six to eight containers. Present programs include a Minor Standard Craft and more fishery protection frigates. The Navy plans to replace its present force of five small coastal submarines with four new ones in 2001-2006. The Royal Danish Navy already has assigned one of its small submarines to the NATO Rapid Reaction Force. Clearly it cannot travel very far on its own bottom, but the Navy assumes that the submarine will have to operate only in a relatively small contested area. It can be brought there aboard a float-on/float-off merchant ship, much as Russian-built submarines recently have been delivered to China. The new out-of-area orientation was revealed in a decision that the next-generation submarine should be capable of operating in hotter climates. It is also to have some form of air-independent propulsion.
The Royal Danish Navy also is about to buy its first lightweight antisubmarine torpedo, a collaborative project with Sweden. The Danish decision has been interpreted as reflecting the capability of new acoustic seekers to distinguish submarines, even in the very difficult conditions of the Baltic Sea. It can also be argued, however, that a Royal Danish Navy seriously contemplating out-of-area operations will need such a weapon, and that the Swedes may feel similarly. Most places in the world offer better conditions. On the other hand, if the new torpedo actually can deal with a submarine lying on the bottom, then it may turn out to be a necessity for any navy contemplating operations in shallow Third World waters.
The other Scandinavian navies also are wrestling with the new orientation toward out-of-area operations. The Royal Swedish Navy decided to follow its large fast attack craft with the considerably, larger Visby-class corvettes. These still betray their fast-attack-craft origins, however, as they are substantially smaller than the big destroyers the Swedish Navy operated through 1982.
The Royal Norwegian Navy has two re-equipment projects in train: a new series of coastal fast-attack boats and new frigates to replace the Oslos. Continuing support for the former suggests that the Norwegian Navy has not yet abandoned its coastal role. The latter are likely to be substantially larger than the Oslos, specifically because they may have to operate far at sea; such ships may not be affordable. Because the Danish project lies even farther in the future it is unlikely that the two navies will collaborate on next-generation major combatants.
Southeast Asian Plans May Change
The containerized Danish combat systems naturally invite comparison with the only other modular system presently operational, that developed by the German Blohm + Voss yard, which long ago realized that many navies wanted frigates of about the same size, with about the same speed and endurance, but that few wanted the same sensors and weapons. The company's approach made it possible to adapt a common hull to the many desired combinations, with minimum redesign. The result has been a commercial success; examples include the NATO frigates built for Greece, Portugal, and Turkey and the Australian-New Zealand ANZACs.
Because the modular weapon system demands a somewhat larger hull, the Blohm + Voss MEKO series demonstrates that hull size itself need not raise the cost of a ship. That is a very important point, since a larger hull generally offers better seakeeping and higher speed in a seaway. It may also be more survivable. This should be instructive for those who equate displacement with cost.
Recent MEKO designs, such as the ANZACs, incorporate a combat system bus, which should make modernization easy and relatively inexpensive. That may be why the Royal Australian Navy felt free to begin planning for a combat system upgrade for the ANZAC class even before they had been delivered.
In mid-October, Blohm + Voss garnered another major commercial success. Malaysia chose its MEKO 100 design for its new offshore patrol vessel (OPV), essentially a coast guard cutter; 26 ships may be built. The Blohm + Voss success seems particularly significant in that an Australian yard, Transfield, believed it had the inside track because its design had been developed in close coordination with Malaysian naval officers.
Transfield had expected to build ships both for Malaysia and Australia, which needs 12 to replace its present Fremantle-class patrol boats. Again, size is valued for seakeeping and endurance. It apparently costs relatively little, since Australia will be replacing 200-ton boats with 1,200-ton cutters. As in other warships, key costs are probably those of sensors and weapons, which may not vary very much between the patrol boats and the cutters. The cutters presumably will have computer-driven combat direction systems, but its elements are likely to be quite inexpensive. Software will be the main cost of the system, but that will be spread evenly over the entire class. Quite possibly the distributed 9LV system, already used on board the ANZAC class, will be adopted (its developer, Celsius, claims that much of the software is easily adaptable).
Malaysia also has high hopes. The OPVs are to be built at a newly privatized yard. An important proviso in the Malaysian request for proposals was that the designer transfer technology to help industrialize the country. Presumably Malaysia hopes to compete with Korea for the world OPV market. As yet that market has been small, despite widely publicized hopes that navies would rush to protect the 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) guaranteed under the Law of the Sea Treaty.
The Malaysian government is particularly interested in OPVs to enforce its fishing rights in the South China Sea. For some time, it has charged Thailand with large-scale poaching.
The Malaysian order coincided roughly with the onset of an economic crisis in Southeast Asia. Malaysia and Thailand were hit very hard. Even Singapore, a much more developed country, is suffering. What happens now? All of the stricken governments probably will need large World Bank loans-which generally dictates the abandonment of big government spending. On the other hand, U.S. experience in the 1930s suggests that public spending can reduce the pain of recession and also build the infrastructure needed for recovery. The Malaysian government is saying that it will continue some of its ambitious precrash projects. That probably includes the naval program.
The Chinese threat lies somewhere in the next century. Resources to build local forces to meet it, however, are disappearing down the region's crashing stock markets. If the Chinese continue to seek domination of the South China Sea, will the United States increase support to local powers? Conversely, will the locals try to entice the United States or some other Western power into supporting them? Until the crash, it seemed reasonable to argue that countries like Malaysia and Thailand were building forces more quickly than the Chinese, and that by the time the Chinese threat became serious, they might well be able to resist effectively. Now, that is not quite so clear.