Cannon Fodder

This is an article published in our April/May 2016 Issue.

France’s Nexter manufactures two ultra-light naval mounts, the 15A and the 15B. The company believes the market for naval guns is increasing. (Nexter) 

Guns have been a key element of naval warfare for hundreds of years. This remains the case today, when a combination of cost factors and technological advances is bringing about a renewed level of interest in naval gunnery.

Naval gun systems range from the small to the extremely large: from the 7.62mm or 12.7 mm machine guns found on Finmeccanica’s HITROLE light, to the Raytheon Phalanx family or Thales Goalkeeper Close-In Weapons Systems (CIWS), to the BAE Systems’ 155mm Advanced Gun System for the United States Navy’s ‘Zumwalt’ class destroyers. Within this wide field, a number of new trends are emerging, and new technologies are being developed that could change the way we think about naval gunfire support, from rail guns to lasers. “There are still a lot of advantages to guns, and moving into the next fifty-year period, guns have the potential to have an even greater impact than they have had for generations,” said Eric Wertheim, a naval expert and author of the US Navy Institute’s Combat Fleets of the World. “They could really play a very important role.”

BAE Systems’ Mk.110 57mm naval gun
BAE Systems’ Mk.110 57mm naval gun is pictured here. The company believes that naval guns are becoming increasingly relevant to modern warfare, with a demand for systems that can combat multiple different threats. (BAE Systems)

Germany’s Rheinmetall specialises in calibres between 20mm and 35mm. It has two main systems in the 20mm arena: the Oerlikon GAM-B01 20mm, which is a manually-operated mount with a 20mm cannon, and a new product called the Oerlikon Searanger 20, which is a remote-controlled gun. Beyond this, in the 35mm category, the company offers the Oerlikon Millennium Gun. Craig McLoughlin, senior vice president, naval systems at Rheinmetall Defence, told AMR that the basic concept behind naval guns was much the same now as it was a century ago. “The technology behind your typical cannon with a bullet inside . . . it is hard to make it any better, and in fact some of the older designs are really as good today as they ever need to be … I do not think we will see in the future new players designing new cannon systems because the infrastructure you need behind it and the experience that is required means there are few companies that can manage that any more, and it is actually not economically viable if you just want to develop new cannons.” However, Mr. McLoughlin said there were a range of areas in the systems surrounding and supporting the cannon in which progress was continually being made. For example, Rheinmetall supplies propellants to ammunition manufacturers around Europe, and the company sees this as an area of potential future innovation. Mr McLoughlin also highlighted the continual advances in stabilisation and sighting systems. “The best cannon in the world is useless if your sighting system is not very good,” he argues.

John Perry, business development director at BAE Systems, echoed Mr McLoughlin’s comments, saying that “even though the fundamentals of how a gun operates and how it looks have not changed over the years, the technologies under the weather shield and inside the projectiles have.” BAE Systems manufactures a wide range of naval guns and ammunition, from 25mm up to the aforementioned Advanced Gun System, which fires the extended-range precision Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP). In addition, its 40mm Mk.4 and 57mm Mk.3 naval guns are used on corvette and offshore patrol vessels, and it also manufacturers the 25mm Mk.38 and the 127mm Mk.45.

BAE Systems provides the Mk.4 40mm naval gun
BAE Systems provides the Mk.4 40mm naval gun, which is used on corvettes and offshore patrol vessels. The UK-based company manufactures a wide range of naval guns for navies worldwide. (BAE Systems)

Mr Perry said that in this age of stretched defence budgets, the company had to develop cost-effective solutions to meet the evolving needs of navies. One way of doing this was through developing multi-mission precision munitions. He pointed to the company’s Standard Guided Projectile (SGP) and the Hyper Velocity Projectile (HVP), both of which are under development for the US Navy, which could provide a capability against different types of targets. The nature of the threat is changing, Mr Perry argues, with navies having to consider the growing danger posed by a proliferation of low-cost threats. This increases the relevance of naval guns and boosts the demand for systems that can be used to combat multiple different threats. “The changing nature of threats to naval platforms is driving the need for multi-mission capabilities from naval guns,” he explained. “With the proliferation of low-cost, high-volume threats, the demand for precision effects and multi-mission capabilities has grown substantially. Customers are now looking to augment missile-only engagement capabilities with multi-mission, high-volume precision effects from naval guns.” He continued that there have been significant technological developments in naval gunnery in the last ten to 15 years, including automated ammunition handling systems, fire control software and sensors, targeting systems, gun propellant and barrel technologies. However, he drew particular attention to advances in gun-launched guided munitions, saying that they offer a cost-effective alternative to missiles across multiple missions. “Compared to missile solutions, gun-launched munitions are lower-cost, provide much larger magazines, can be rearmed at sea, and often times the effect they deliver is more appropriately matched to the target.”

The Debate

The potential of guns as an alternative to missiles in certain scenarios, particularly in these cash-strapped times, was also highlighted by Mr. Wertheim, who highlighted the potential of 114.3mm 127mm guns to be used for naval gunfire support operations instead of missiles. “You have got to get in close, that is the danger with guns as the range is not as big as missiles. But the benefit is you have much deeper magazines, so you have a much bigger amount of ammunition; hundreds of rounds before you run out, and the cost is much, much less compared to multi-million dollar missiles.”

Still, the potential for guns as an alternative to missiles should not be taken too far, says Mr McLoughlin. “It is not that guns are trying to do the job of missiles, but there was a time when missiles were really proliferating, and the missile is not so great for the close-in last 1.6 nautical mile (three kilometres) surrounding the perimeter of a ship,” he said. “That’s where guns have their function … from my point of view the right argument is when is it good to have one system, say a gun, and when it is it better to have a missile.”

Finmeccanica’s HITROLE system
This picture shows Finmeccanica’s HITROLE system. The Italian company became a major player in the naval gunnery market following the integration of OTO Melara into its broader corporate structure. (Finmeccanica)

There has also been a shift in demand, according to some of the major suppliers, with an increasing emphasis on small vessels. This has an obvious impact on the type of calibre sizes that are demanded. “Small, fast boats, sometimes built by newcomers having experience in the civilian market only, are requested by navies, coast guards and police,” a spokesperson for Finmeccanica told AMR. “Typically they are equipped with small calibre systems.” Finmeccanica is one of the major European suppliers of naval gun systems, following the integration of OTO Melara at the beginning of this year. The company’s main focus for naval guns is on the 40mm, 76mm and 127mm calibres. The spokesperson continued that the market had changed in recent years, “with a reduced demand for big and medium-calibre guns, (caused by) the reduced number of big ships, but with an increased (demand for) small calibre guns, from 12.7mm to 40mm.”

Nexter’s Narwhal remotely-operated system
Nexter’s Narwhal remotely-operated system comes in two variants, the 20A and the 20B. The Narwhal is currently in service with the French Navy, among others. (Nexter)

These were being used to equip small boats used by navies and police in different regions of the world. Finmeccanica sees the Asia-Pacific as a possible avenue of future growth in naval gun sales, given the increased budgets in the region. The spokesperson also noted the growth in Africa, but said “the accessible market could be limited due to the presence of Chinese players.” A spokesperson for France’s Nexter also noted an increasing demand for smaller systems, particularly in the 12.7mm and 20mm domain. The company believes that “the market for naval guns is increasing, particularly for light remote-controlled systems”. Nexter manufactures two ultra-light naval mounts, the 15A and 15B, as well as the Narwhal remotely-operated system, which has two variants, the 20A and 20B.

France’s Nexter manufactures two ultra-light naval mounts
France’s Nexter manufactures two ultra-light naval mounts, the 15A and the 15B. The company believes the market for naval guns is increasing. (Nexter)

Future Shock

There is much work being carried out on the future of naval gunnery, with a number of new technology types coming into focus. An example of this is the Electromagnetic Rail Gun (EMRG), which uses electricity instead of gunpowder, and could launch projectiles at speeds of between 3609 knots (7240 kilometres-per-hour) and 4865 knots (9010.4km/h), according to a report for the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) by Ronald O’Rourke, the CRS’s specialist in naval affairs. BAE Systems is working with the US Navy on the development of this weapon. Mr Perry said that “getting on the right side of the cost curve with this type of technology will put a tremendous burden on an adversary’s ability to respond and overcome.”

According to Mr. O’Rourke’s report, as the US Navy worked on developing EMRG, it realised that the guided projectile it was developing for the system could also be fired from 127mm and 155mm powder guns. This could massively increase the speed of projectiles fired from these guns. For example, when fired from a 127mm powder gun, the projectile can reach Mach Three (approximately 2000 knots/3704km/h dependent on altitude). While this is about half the speed it can achieve when fired from the EMRG, the report stated, it is more than twice the speed of a traditional 127mm shell.

A third area for future development is laser systems. The US Navy tested a prototype Solid State Laser (SSL) between 2009 and 2012 against Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in a series of engagements; in 2010 and 2011 it tested another prototype, the Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD), in tests that ended with MLD engaging a small boat, according to Mr. O’Rourke’s report. There is now a Laser Weapon System (LaWS) installed on the USS Ponce, a test bed ship, which is operating in the Persian Gulf, “to conduct evaluation of shipboard lasers in an operational setting against swarming boats and swarming UAVs.”

A number of the companies AMR spoke to highlighted laser systems as an area of particular interest. Matt Pryor, director of business development at MSI-Defense Systems said, “We anticipate disruptive technologies like laser effectors complementing or replacing cannons in the 20-30 year time frame as lasers and their associated power controls reduce in size and weight.” MSI-DS manufactures the Seahawk naval gun systems, which comes in three models: the original Seahawk mount for 25mm, 30mm, and 40mm cannons; the Seahawk Light Weight (LW) mount for 14.5mm, 20mm, 23mm and 25mm cannons; and the Seahawk Ultra Light Weight for 7.62mm and 12.7 mm machine guns.

Likewise, Rheinmetall and Germany’s Bundeswehr (the unified German armed forces) successfully tested a High-Energy Laser (HEL) installed on a German warship in February. The company said it mounted a 10-kilowatt HEL effector on a MLG 27 light naval gun, and carried out a test programme in which the laser tracked potential targets such as very small surface craft and UAVs. The HEL effector was also tested against stationary targets on land, Rheinmetall said.

Finmeccanica’s 76mm calibre range
The 76mm calibre range is one of Finmeccanica’s main focuses. This image shows the 76/62 Super Rapid (SR) gun mount, a light-weight rapid-fire naval gun. (Finmeccanica)

Mr McLoughlin said he believed that countering low, slow and small threats such as UAVs would become an increasing priority for naval guns, and that air-bursting ammunition would have an advantage in this regard. “You have got two aspects. Firstly, can you see (the target)? So you need systems that can detect the UAVs reliably and effectively … then how are you actually going to be able to hit that thing? The odds of getting one round through the bullseye are not so great. That is why I think people are looking more and more to alternative ammunition types like air bursting.”

Mr Wertheim cautioned that the new technology types being pursued in the US and elsewhere are still at an early stage. However, he said that over the next decade it is possible they could have a significant impact on the way navies think about naval gunnery. “We are not there yet. This is all very much theoretical. But we will know within the next five-to-ten years and we are right at the point where we are pretty sure.”

by Gerrard Cowan