Canada’s Next Generation Surface Combatant
May 15, 2012

The flagship program for the new National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy will be the Canadian Surface Combatant program, intended to deliver 15 vessels to replace the current Patrol Frigate (CPF) and Destroyer (DDH) fleets that form the backbone of the Royal Canadian Navy.

This will be a huge and challenging program which must aim to develop ships that can be expected to serve into the middle of this century.

Predictably, these ships will have highly advanced communications systems, capabilities to operate autono­mous airborne and underwater vehicles, a range of combat and surveillance systems, and many other state-of-the-art technologies. This article focuses on another issue necessary to ensure these ships are both affordable and effective – the need to adopt a very different crewing philosophy.

The current CPF is an approximately 5000 tonne vessel with a crew of 225. However, in reviewing some of today’s modern ship designs, we see a significant shift in the approach to crewing combat vessels. The new French FREMM, highlighted in FrontLine’s Issue 2 of 2012, is a 6000 tonne ship with fewer than 110 crew. The USN’s littoral combat ships (LCS) comprise two classes, each at around 3000 tonnes displacement and with core crews of 40 (rising to 75 with mission and air detachments embarked).

Putting people to sea for long periods is not only a strain on crew members, it is expensive. Accommodation spaces are a huge design driver, and the necessary hotel services ranging from galley facilities to HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) and waste disposal increase the impact on the ship. As the ship volume and weight increase, more power is required for propulsion, leading to higher fuel and other costs.

A CPF-sized crew requirement for CSC would be out of touch with the approaches being taken by our allies and other navies, as seen in the FREMM or the LCS. It would also risk making the ships unaffordable, on both an acquisition and a through-life cost basis.

The reasons for having a crew at all are, in essence, to do things – to keep things running, to fix them, and to train them to do all of the above. Modern technology can vastly reduce the number of people needed for most of these tasks aboard the ship.

For example, training ashore using modern simulator technology is not only less costly but can be much more comprehensive, and in some respects, more realistic. Scenarios that are too dangerous to attempt with the ship itself can be tested in depth. The air world, both civilian and military, relies on doing just this.

Manning ops stations.

Automation of many onboard functions is not only possible but necessary; and is applicable for routine activities as well as combat scenarios. The speed of engagement with modern missile systems or other threats is often just too fast for a chain of command. Running a task group as an integrated system may in many cases be better accomplished from a bunker in Manitoba than from an Ops Room on a command ship. There are certainly still some functions that can only be accomplished by “boots on the ground” – boarding parties, for example. It is less obvious that boarding parties should be drawn from a ship’s complement, rather than being considered as a form of mission-specific payload.

Modern equipment is reliable. In the current, highly competitive global marine industry, suppliers of unreliable equipment do not survive for long. The NSPS should facilitate the building of long-term supply chains using quality equipment. Developments in equipment technology will also change the nature of in-service support. Sensors are now built into many things and could be part of almost every significant piece of equipment on a Surface Combatant by the time these new ships enter service. Condition monitoring and remote diagnostics reduce the need for traditional routine maintenance, and can transfer much of the effort ashore.

Why does the RCN specify crew numbers as a requirement for any new vessel? An often cited reason is that navy ships are expected to be able to survive a high level of action damage, and be able to recover additional levels of functionality through damage control. However, survivability is a function of the design rather than the crew. Subdivision, redundancy, and automated systems for firefighting and other forms of emergency response can and should be part of the ship design. Putting additional people in harm’s way just to assist in emergency response does not seem altogether appropriate.

Minimizing the number of crew will require organizational change. Crews will become top heavy – with fewer but more highly skilled personnel. To reduce the toll of long deployments, warships may move to a system of crew rotations, which become easier as the number of personnel involved is reduced. Rotation has been used for years by nuclear submarines (and by our own Coast Guard) and are now being applied to the LCS. The Navy’s overall career structure will need to transition into a new model.

Fleet renewal for the RCN has been a once-in-a-generation challenge and opportunity. Our navy has a tremendous track-record – not only in adopting innovations, but also in providing technical and organizational leadership. Moving to a low manning model will drive a range of changes that can help sustain our own military capabilities and also our intellectual industrial base. More importantly, it will help to make the new CSC more affordable.

Andrew Kendrick is Vice President of Operations at Stx Canada Marine.
© FrontLine Defence 2012