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October 23, 2019: Norwegian defense firm Kongsberg has proposed a radical new approach to warship design. This would include using commercial shipyards and commercial shipbuilding standards for smaller (under 2,000 ton) warships. These would be corvettes and OPVs (Offshore Patrol Vessels), or even larger ships like frigates. Kongsberg has already applied these principles in building some coast guard vessels and now proposes a more heavily armed, with Kongsberg anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems. There would also be a small-caliber run in a stealth turret as well as one or more remotely controlled autocannon for smaller threats vessel. The ships would be stealthy yet still have a helicopter landing pad. Kongsberg calls this the Vanguard project and is designing a warship employing all the practices it has already pioneered. This includes using various types of standard shipping containers to hold many components and enable these containers to be quickly swapped out to deal with a malfunctioning system or to install an upgrade or a new feature. This approach has become common on commercial ships as well as military and commercial aircraft. This approach has been slow to find acceptance in warships.

Coming from anyone else, this Vanguard proposal might seem to be another fanciful but impractical idea on how to deal with the dire situation many nations find themselves in. The United States is an excellent example. The U.S. has to contend with a mess of its own making. That means overly expensive warships that take five years or more to build and are rarely completed on time. Vanguard can be built in under two years and be half the cost of a comparable ship built in a shipyard that specializes in warships. Using commercial ships for military purposes is not a new idea. The new American special operations support ships are modified tankers and container ships and have proved successful. Smaller warships these days are often described as eggshells armed with hammers. Moreover, Kongsberg believes it can provide military-grade damage control capabilities as well. The commercial design means more of the ship operation is automated and smaller crews are needed. Large (over 100,000 tons) tankers and container ships have crew of 30-50 personnel. On the Vanguard you can have a larger crew than in commercial ships to handle weapons and damage control. The larger, but less than half found on current warships, crew would result in less fatigue from overwork and more comfortable accommodations on board.

As for Kongsberg itself, it is a small ($1.5 billion a year) defense firm that has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to innovate and produce cheaper and more effective weapons. For example, a growing number of F-35 users are ordering the Kongsberg JSM (Joint Strike Missile). This missile is an air-to-surface version of the earlier 2012) NSM (Naval Strike Missile) surface-to-surface weapon. It proved easy to adapt the NSM to be launched from aircraft. Moreover, the size of NSM made it easier to create a stealthy version designed to be launched from the internal bomb bay of the F-35 (where two can be carried). The half-ton JSM, with a 250 kilometer range along with two-way communication, image recognition for homing in on a specific target and can  fly very low and take advantage of the local terrain to evade detection and interception. JSM is basically a small cruise missile using a small jet engine and pop-out wings to keep itself moving.

Kongsberg was also responsible for an innovative air defense system; the NASAMS (Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System). American firms manufacture many NASAMS components but it was Kongsberg that put them all together in an unexpected way. The United States is a customer, and still uses some of the original NASAMS to guard key sites in Washington DC.

Each NASAMS 2 (the latest version) battery consists of 12 launcher vehicles, each with six missiles. There are eight radar vehicles, one fire control center, and one tactical control vehicle. NASAMS often uses the American AMRAMM radar-guided air-to-air missiles but fired from a six-missile container instead of an aircraft. This ground-based AMRAAM weighs 159 kg (350 pounds), has a range of 30 kilometers and its radar can see out 50-70 kilometers. , NASAMs can hit targets as high as 21 kilometers (65,000 feet). What makes AMRAMM effective as a SAM (surface-to-air missile) is the capabilities of its guidance system, which is about two thirds of the $400,000 missile's cost. This ground-launched AMRAAM can also take down cruise missiles.

Kongsberg believed that the combat proven AMRAAM used by NASAMS was a good long term choice for air defense because the United States is constantly updating the missile. Kongsberg developed NASAMS in the early 1990s, deployed the first missiles and radars in 1995, and the original NASAMS entered service in 1998. Norway pioneered the use of AMRAAM as a surface-to-air missile and other systems have been developed using AMRAAM. But the Kongsberg version is seen as the best of the lot. Norway has six NASAMS batteries for its own defense. Spain, Holland, Finland, Chile, and the United States also use NASAMS. Finland Norway and Lithuania, all bordering Russia, have decided that NASAMS is a cost-effective defense against Russian warplanes and cruise missiles.

Kongsberg also pioneered the design and manufacture of the modern RWS (Remote Weapon Stations). The United States was the first major military power to recognize the usefulness of the Kongsberg RWS design and use it on a large scale. The U.S. Army continues to improve its RWS systems and lead the world in RWS use. RWS was one of the most important (in terms of saving lives) new weapons to appear since 2001. The first U.S. Army CROWS (Common Remotely Operated Weapon Stations) in 2004 used an American designed RWS and over 10,000 of these were purchased. But the army sought better RWS tech and in 2006 began using the Kongsberg designs from a pioneering Norwegian firm that has become the world leader in RWS design and manufacturing.

The concept of a modern RWS remote control turret has been around since the 1950s. But years of tinkering, and better technology, eventually made the remote control gun turret work effectively, dependably and affordably. This has made the RWS practical for widespread combat use. While some troops miss the feeling of enhanced situational awareness (especially being able to hear and smell the surroundings) you got as an old-school turret gunner standing up in a turret, most soldiers and marines have adapted and accepted the new system. What it lacks in the smelling and hearing department, it makes up in terms of night vision and zoom. And it's a lot safer, which is very compelling if you have seen old-school turret gunners get killed or wounded by all the fire they attract.

An RWS allows an operator inside the vehicle to control the gun and its sensors. Among the improvements added in the last decade are the addition of a green laser, which can temporarily blind people, and has long been used to stop drivers who keep coming at checkpoints despite other signals to stop. Used in an RWS, it enables the RWS operator to flash suspicious people with the blinding light, rather than opening up with the weapon. Another upgrade was the addition of cameras to the side and rear of the turret so that the operator can quickly check for activity all around without moving the turret (which sometimes alerts an enemy that they have been spotted.) Another addition was an IR Pointer, which at night enabled the RWS operator to put a light, visible only to those using night-vision equipment, on something suspicious, or otherwise important.

This now ubiquitous remote control weapon (usually a machine-gun) is seen on many vehicles (from hummers to MRAPs and tanks) as well as small warships. Kongsberg remains, since 2006, the main supplier for the United States and it has delivered over 20,000 of these systems so far. Most were for the United States but also to about 20 other countries. An RWS turret costs, on average, about $220,000 each. The remote control gun turret has now become a standard system on American combat vehicles. Now there are a lot of competitors, if only because Kongsberg could not keep up with the demand.

Because of the Kongsberg track record with novel ideas the Vanguard design has attracted considerable interest from many navies. At the very least this will probably lead to some more effective and cheaper OPVs and corvettes.

 


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