The future of warships revealed

Stealth technology, laser defence weapons, advanced gun systems. Discover how tomorrow’s navies will rule the waves

Today, navies have an assortment of warships that they can call upon to tackle any situation, whether it’s providing security for other vessels, responding to humanitarian disasters or attacking an enemy submarine hidden beneath the water. As new ships are developed, speed, efficiency and cost-effectiveness are key, with increased automation helping to shrink crew sizes. For fleets of the future, only a few crew members may be needed on board, as computers, drones and unmanned boats carry out the difficult and dangerous duties instead. Advancements in technology could also bring back battleship-level firepower, with electromagnetic railguns and even laser weapons replacing heavier, more expensive firearms in the navy arsenal. Scroll down to learn more about the amazing technologies and visions for the navy vessels of the future.

Sea power today

meet the fleet

The current shape and size of naval capability

 What will naval fleets look like in the year 2050?

The Royal Navy has asked this very question, challenging young British scientists and engineers to design the fleet of the future. Their vision is the Dreadnought 2050 concept, a high-tech trimaran vessel built for speed, stability and efficiency. Named after the 1906 HMS Dreadnought, which was also a revolutionary vessel in its day, the sleek ship is almost fully automated, cutting today’s crews of 200 down to 50 or 100 members.
Renewable energy technology could also give the ship unlimited range, allowing it to sail the world without stopping to refuel, and advanced weapons will enable immense firepower in battle. While some of the technologies envisioned for the Dreadnought 2050 are not yet achievable, others could realistically be incorporated into future designs, lowering the cost and manpower needed for the next generation of warships.

dreadnought 2050

The Dreadnought 2050 concept, the Royal Navy’s plans for a high-tech warship of the future. Click to see full-size.

Meet the colossal new centrepiece of the US Navy fleet

Aircraft carriers are often the capital ships of a nation’s navy, helping the air and maritime forces work together to project air power worldwide. The US Navy currently has ten enormous nuclear-powered supercarriers in its fleet but a long-overdue upgrade is on its way. The first of the new Ford-class carriers, the USS Gerald R Ford, is currently undergoing the final phases of construction and testing, and is set to join the Navy’s fleet in 2016. The USS Gerald R Ford, also known as CVN 78, will be similar in size to its predecessor Nimitz-class ships, but as the first aircraft carrier to be completely designed using 3D computer modelling, it will be lighter, cheaper and more powerful. Increased automation will mean between 500 to 900 fewer crew members will be needed on board and for the first time, air conditioning will be available throughout the ship, making life at sea more comfortable. The carrier can hold up to 90 aircraft at a time, but instead of launching them using the steam-powered catapults found on modern day ships, an electromagnetic launch system will be used to fire them into the air. This works a lot like a railgun but uses an aircraft as the projectile.

R ford jpg

The USS General R Ford will be able to launch aircraft faster than ever before

The USS General R Ford in numbers

R ford stats

Click to see full size

The stealthy submarines that are undetectable in battle

They may be hard to miss when on dry land, but Improved Kilo-class submarines are able to travel unseen through the depths. These diesel-electric subs are considered to be the quietest in the world, leading NATO to nickname them ‘black holes’ due to their low noise and  visibility. Despite weighing around 4,000 tons, the subs can reach speeds of 37 kilometres (23 miles) per hour, and can patrol for up to 45 days at a time.
Once they have snuck up on the enemy, eight infrared-guided surface-to-air missiles can then be fired at targets above the water, or computer-controlled torpedoes can be deployed beneath the waves. The submarine’s array of sensors mean that it can detect enemy vessels at a range three to four times greater than it can be detected itself. This surveillance data can then be used by the onboard computer to calculate firing parameters and recommend manoeuvres and weapon deployment. The six stealthy subs in this class will be patrolling the Black Sea by the end of 2016.

The Stary Oskol is the third of six Improved Kilo-class subs being delivered to the Russian Navy


Drone boats – saving sailors from high-risk situations

With aerial drones already being used in military combat, it was only a matter of time before unmanned boats came onto the scene. The Royal Navy currently has a fleet of modified rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) in development that will be able to perform complex surveillance and reconnaissance missions, without putting sailors in harm’s way. Using an arsenal of sensors, including a navigation radar, a 360-degree infrared camera array and a laser range finder, the vessels will be able to operate autonomously while avoiding collisions, and are expected to provide added protection for the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers once they enter service. The US Navy is also developing similar unmanned vessels that will be able to swarm and attack enemy targets, and the US defence agency DARPA even has plans for an ‘Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vehicle’ that will be able to use artificial intelligence and sensors to hunt for enemy submarines.

The unmanned vessels saving sailors from high-risk missions. Click to see full-size.


Laser weapons – souped up laser pointers that destroy drones with pinpoint accuracy

The US Navy has turned science fiction into reality by developing a real-life laser gun that can blow up targets in an instant. Although they won’t be using it to fight space aliens any time soon, the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) has been successfully tested at sea, proving that it is capable of blowing up moving targets on aerial drones and small boats. The weapon, which has been installed on board the USS Ponce, consists of six commercial welding lasers joined together, and can deliver 30 million times as much power as a hand-held laser pointer. It is operated using an Xbox-style controller and can be used to simply disable a target’s sensors and instruments, or destroy it completely. As well as improved accuracy, another big advantage of LaWS is its cost, as the price of firing the laser is just 59 cents (39 pence) per shot, compared to the $2 million (£1.3 million) needed for a traditional missile.

LaWS is operational on board USS Ponce and can be used to defend against unmanned targets


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Plus, take a look at:

How an exocet missile works

US Navy demos laser cannon

HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s new behemoth

This article first appeared in How It Works issue 80, written by Joanna Stass