Embracing TACTICOS – the Royal Navy’s new combat management system

The Thales TACTICOS Combat Management System (CMS) will be a critical aspect of the Type 31 programme. In this article, we look at the project to develop and integrate the fighting heart of the frigate.

As mission systems integrator for Type 31, Thales will supply the CMS, the communications, navigation and bridge systems for the ship. From an RN perspective, TACTICOS has been seen as something of an outsider, with BAES supplying the CMS throughout the fleet until now. This dominance was recently eroded when Thales won the Oceanographic Reconnaissance Combat Architecture (ORCA) contract to fit its TACTICOS-based M-Cube command & control system on the Hunt & Sandown class minehunters.

Made in Britain

Although a French-owned multi-national, Thales operates in 68 countries with a large footprint in Britain, having acquired many UK defence technology manufacturers over the years. Their communications and sensor systems are widely used throughout the fleet but the selection of TACTICOS is a source of particular satisfaction for one of the RN’s largest suppliers. Around 6,500 people are employed by Thales in the UK, and in line with their involvement in Type 31, are moving their TACTICOS development from the Netherlands to their sites at Crawley and Bristol. This will create a significant number of new high-tech jobs in Britain and in the wider supply chain.

Thales have invested in a new Naval Combat Management Centre in Crawley that will be used to refine the system for Type 31 and other users around the world. This includes a mock-up operations room used to test new software, conduct simulations and allow customers and end-users to give feedback. Effectively the UK has acquired a sovereign capability within the TACTICOS product line that can directly support the RN and potential Type 31 exports. An important aspect of the arrangement is that within the open architecture of TACTICOS, sensitive elements of the code that are RN-specific can be restricted in their release. (Incidentally, until reconfigured for its new role, the facility at the Crawley site housed a complete replica of the Thales-supplied QEC aircraft carrier communications system for testing and development purposes, prior to installation.)

Thales involvement has recently led to some absurd claims that the Type 31 was being “built by the French”. Like nearly all UK defence projects, the supply chain will involve companies in Europe and beyond but the vast majority of expenditure and people employed on Type 31 will be in Britain. Type 31 is directly contributing to the ‘prosperity agenda’, with companies all over the UK involved in the project. TACTICOS may have begun life in the Netherlands but is now a global product with many nations participating in its development. (The word “TACTICOS” sounds particularly pleasing when pronounced with a Dutch accent.)

Speaking recently at Thales’ Crawley facility, Rear Admiral Paul Marshal, SRO Type 31, said: “TACTICOS offers an opportunity to think differently about fighting the ship… The RN is delighted with the result of the Type 31 competition but it is now up to industry to build, integrate and deliver on schedule”

A global ecosystem

The RN is the 27th navy to adopt TACTICOS which is now fitted to around 200 warships worldwide. Buying into such an established ecosystem has the benefits of accumulated experience of integrating the CMS with a very wide range of naval weapons and sensors. Essentially some of the costs and technical hurdles have already been surmounted by overseas navies, saving time and money. The RN can also decide to share costs with others or request bespoke integration for new systems. There will also be some potential new interoperability benefits with allies and TACTICOS can, of course, share data with any other RN or NATO platform through standard protocols. Some years ago Thales changed their development cycle from project-driven to product-driven. Instead of tailoring the CMS for each warship, the core product is continuously updated on a 6-monthly basis with customers free to install the latest software release as frequently as they wish.

Through-life support of equipment is not included as part of the Type 31 contract Babcock has with the MoD and will be subject to a separate arrangement. However, Thales will supply a single TACTICOS reference set to the RN for land-based use. Negotiations for equipment and plans for the cross-training of warfare personnel on TACTICOS, presumably at HMS Collingwood, have yet to be concluded.

The Type 31 Operations room has been designed in outline and continues to be developed with input from the MoD and RN warfare specialists. TACTICOS for the RN is currently in the initial functional design phase, detailed design, production development and manufacturing will follow.

In the ‘gloom room’

The TACTICOS consoles fitted in the operations room do not appear especially futuristic but consist of standard screen, keyboard and trackball mouse. Each console is multi-purpose and can be configured for anyone to use. This allows for flexible positioning of personnel in the space so specialists may be moved around depending on the task. For example, the gun controller may be seated next to the Principle Warfare Officer (PWO) for a particular mission while on another mission he might be replaced by the Electronic Warfare operator. A series of individual consoles are supplemented by much larger screens on the bulkheads that may be used to present a general tactical picture for the command team.

TACTICOS can be easily tailored to suit the requirement and warfare doctrine of any Navy. A great deal of investment has gone into making the Human Machine Interface (HMI) as simple and user-friendly as possible. Many of the principles and functions are common to other CMS and an operator experienced on other platforms should be able to understand TACTICOS without difficulty. An operator can pre-set a series of rules that will allow the system to monitor potentially hundreds of contacts simultaneously but will only alert him to threats within certain range, aspect or speed parameters or if something departs from usual behaviour. In complex environments such as the Gulf where friend or foe may be hard to distinguish and threats may materialise rapidly, to an increasing degree, the code and data processing software that underpin the CMS are as important as the weapon systems. The quality of the people is still the biggest single factor in success but equipping them with the tools to make rapid decisions may be the difference between life and death.

In lean-manned warships, it is exhausting and difficult to keep the crew closed up at high readiness at extended periods. Greater automation and instant readiness weapons offer a way of reducing the personnel needed in the operations room and new models for manning and operating the ship are under consideration. Like BAE Systems’ CMS development teams, Thales is looking at ways to counter swarm attack by unmanned aircraft or small craft and how autonomy and artificial intelligence may be harnessed. There is a big difference between automated systems that retain a human decision-maker in the loop and entirely autonomous systems. Hypersonic missiles, swarm or saturation attacks present the kind of scenario where a human can not react or decide on a solution in time and further automation is a certainty for the future. TACTICOS provides many autonomous capabilities, but human authorisation is still required to open fire from the CO who retains master weapon release control on his console.

The relatively light (initial) armament of Type 31 has led to criticism that they are just “glorified OPVs”. The capability of a warship should never be judged purely on its weapons. Besides the basic platform design, the sensor, electronic warfare and communication fit is just as critical. The primary sensor will be the NS110, a highly capable AESA radar which offers especially good situational awareness in littoral environments and in many aspects is superior to the Artisan radar that will equip the Type 26 frigate. The two MIRADOR Mk2 Electro-Optical mounts are also key observation systems for distant optical investigation, as well as providing laser-range finding and gunnery fire control. Collating and managing the ever-increasing volume of data and intelligence received by the ship is a vital part of its effectiveness. At its heart, Type 31 will be equipped with a first-class frigate-grade operations room, providing the decision making tools and controls needed to operate a modern warship.