Navies, New Missions and High Tech

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When a rag-tag group of pirates in fast-moving skiffs seized the massive cargo ship Maersk Alabama off the Somali coast ten years ago – the basis of the blockbuster hit “Captain Phillips” – the asymmetrical reality of shipping was set against the high seas of drama. Hollywood embellishments aside, a simple truth can be derived from the story: the market for today’s ships is less big and heavy and more agile and fast. 

The threats and opportunities in international shipping have changed dramatically from just a generation ago. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the design of the U.S. Navy’s Zumwalt stealth destroyer, which cuts a Darth Vader-like profile unlike any other in its class – in much the same way as the U.S.S. Monitor must have in Hampton Roads in 1862.

Many experts believe the world’s navies should be smarter, investing more in advanced information systems and artificial intelligence, cutting-edge designs and materials, and breakthroughs such as hydrokinetics that shape hulls to make ships faster, more agile and more responsive while conserving fuel to sail longer. And increasingly, they are doing so. An example comes from shipbuilders like Privinvest, which apply advanced aerospace and automotive designs and software to small military boats.

In shipyards across Europe and the Persian Gulf, Privinvest is building automation and advanced technology into its designs for a range of vessels. Perhaps the most prominent of which is in the naval defense realm. Having delivered more than 2,000 ships to over 40 navies globally – including NATO allies – the Middle East-based Privinvest has embraced the new reality that naval defense is increasingly concerned with securing coastal waters and establishing high levels of competence when it comes to littoral warfare. 

Privinvest’s Corvette and Combattante models provide multiple applications from fast attack and naval defense to law enforcement and international search and rescue operations. In other words, they cover the panoply of needs faced by non-superpower nations. Innovations in their hulls reduce fuel costs and afford the kind of agility needed for such delicate tasks as de-mining. Its strike attack WP-18 looks like it could come straight out of a James Bond film. They combat smugglers, pirates, or the navies of emerging threat nations.

Through innovations in composite design materials, hi-tech radar and broadband for onboard operating systems – like its omnidirectional, meta-material antenna – Privinvest stresses smarts over size in its ships. Privinvest’s C.M.N. shipyard in Normandy, France, is applying advanced automated and robotic aluminum hull construction techniques and metallic adhesives to make sure its ships can move faster and more nimbly. It's also making boats more environmentally friendly with renewable energy technologies that reduce carbon emissions.

Ultimately, the Maersk Alabama was saved by U.S. naval vessels, which were able to come to its defense in the Indian Ocean. But that had more to do with luck than design. To secure today's seas, nations other than the United States must be able to fill the breach, secure their maritime waters, and cooperate to overcome hybrid and evolving challenges. That means the demand for once-thought-of-as-futuristic ships will only grow.

“I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast,” the father of the U.S. Navy, John  Paul Jones, said in 1778, “for I intend to go into harm’s way.” If he were alive today, Jones would no doubt look with admiration at today’s array of nautical accomplishments and would likely use the sleekest ships he could find. 

Gregory Tosi is an attorney practicing international trade law in developing countries. He also builds personal submersibles and small boats.

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