The US Navy’s futuristic Zumwalt class destroyer (Credit Image: Po1 Ace Rheaume/Zuma Press/PA Images)

January 4, 2018   2 mins

Europeans – and their press – have been looking the other way this past year as the shape of naval warfare to come has been evolving elsewhere. Indeed, the next decade is likely to see a “Dreadnought” moment in relation to war at sea.1

This “sea change” change will be stimulated by radically novel technologies, largely US-led but being cloned by Russia and China. These include a vast range of autonomous and guided unmanned vehicles, operating above, below and on the surface of the sea, linked to integrated data-sharing networks, artificial intelligence and a range of increasingly hypervelocity missiles.  Ballistic missiles will also enter the scene, not only capable of attacking land and sea targets, but also to neutralise space-based communications, reconnaissance and data-bearing satellites. Meanwhile, directed energy weapons (solid state lasers) are already operational and an electro-magnetic rail gun (projecting a high impact projectile at Mach 7 to over 100 nautical miles) has already passed the proof of concept stage.

The development of new technologies by navies across the world will require the US to invest heavily – or it will fall behind the likes of China

The shape of the future already exists in the US Navy’s three Zumwalt class destroyers (pictured above), which, at 14, 500 long tons, displace about the same as German pocket battleships.  Their futuristic (although surprisingly retro) hull forms will provide the development platforms, along with high volume electrical generation (up to 78 Megawatts), for directed energy and rail gun technologies.

Despite its massive superiority at sea, the US will have to continue to invest heavily to maintain its lead while other ambitious navies, notably China and Russia are likely to follow closely.  The rest will struggle to remain within touching distance, especially as they doggedly persist with traditional ship programmes well into the future.  As a result, the world will be divided into countries that can prevail at sea and those that, frankly, need not bother.

A related under-reported from last week by Robert Rozenkranz – also noted the development of defence technologies with the capability of upsetting the current global order: Hyper-sonic missiles that could transform warfare and the balance of global power.


Introduction to this Under-reported series.

Summary guide to all under-reported articles in this series.

  1.  Introduced in 1906, HMS Dreadnought’s revolutionary combination of multiple heavy gun turrets and high speed meant that she could out range, out gun and out run any existing battleship.  She effectively made every navy obsolete, thereby neutralising Britain’s existing, massive superiority in naval fighting power as both the Royal Navy and other navies scrambled to acquire ‘dreadnoughts’ from scratch.

Rear-Admiral (Retired) Chris Parry, strategic analyst and risk management consultant, lately chair of the UK Marine Management Organisation