7 June 2017
On Monday 29 May, British nuclear submarine HMS Torbay surfaced not far from Gibraltar in an apparent show of military strength, amid fears that the Spanish government might use Brexit as a pretext to stake a territorial claim on the Rock.
The following day, in Bremen, Germany, naval officers from all over Europe gathered for the first session of the annual Undersea Defense and Technology exhibition and conference. For three days, suits mingled with military uniforms, a few smart casuals, and a lot of security guards.
Academics and industry representatives were there to consider how the latest technology might affect, or even change, the role of undersea defense, with international relations increasingly unpredictable.
To the casual observer, the event, held at the Messe Bremen exhibition halls and the OVB Arena, which stages music and sports events as well as conferences, exhibitions and trade fairs, looked like any other trade show. There was no space for submarines or warships, but plenty of exhibition stands and meeting areas. And lots of banners proclaiming cutting-edge technology, market-leading innovation and other corporate buzz phrases that would have had George Orwell cringing over the death of his beloved English language.
Conference chairman Peter Hauschildt, from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, explained that recent geopolitical changes – conflicts in the Middle East, confrontations in the Far East, and nationalist voting in Britain and the US – provide opportunities for new underwater defense technologies.
What does the future hold?
Defense budgets are set to rise, according to conference speaker Rear Admiral Thorsten Kähler, chief of staff of the German Navy, as the US keeps pressing its European allies to do more around the world. Eighty exhibitors were there to take advantage.
Delegates discussed the role of unmanned vehicles, network capability, platform design, sensors, processing technologies, materials, new ways of storing and exploiting energy underwater, and operator and system performance. There were also experts at the conference talking about, and trying to sell, weapons systems. Just in case, with all the talk of defense and security, we forgot that submarines actually carry highly sophisticated and very deadly offensive weapons.
Tom Avsic, a hydro-acoustics engineer at ThyssenKrupp, spoke about how active sonar helps to detect submarines that give off less radiated acoustic noise. Henrik Berg, from the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, introduced his country’s operational simulation framework, Rattus. Matthew Gleed, an engineer from BAE Systems, shared his views on the challenges of operating submarines in an age when information and cyber warfare is increasingly common.
Reports last month claimed that several Asian navies – from Thailand, India, China, and even Myanmar – are expected to put 250 high-tech submarines into the west Pacific in the next eight years. Russia has in production the world’s largest submarine, apparently for Arctic research. And the Australian government recently said that it needed more submarines to ensure free passage for commercial vessels in the south Pacific, in the event of any future conflict. Then there’s President Donald Trump and his (alleged) gunboat diplomacy in North Korean waters.
Captain Herman de Groot, head of the submarine service of the Royal Netherlands Navy, told the conference that in the future submarines would need to be less like fast jets and more like aircraft carriers able to deploy on-board systems. Rear Admiral Kähler explained that navies would need submarines that can adapt to a variety of threats, both immediate and future.
And that’s just the tip of a very big and very lucrative iceberg.