Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/03/24/self_assembly_floating_fortresses/

US Navy plans self-building floating fortresses

Swimming, stacking ISO containers: Just add SEALs

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 24th March 2010 12:39 GMT

Iconoclastic Pentagon paradigm-mangler boffins at DARPA have done it again, unveiling plans for cunning floating modules which could be tipped off cargo ships out at sea and then drive about and snap themselves together to form floating offshore bases.

The new DARPA plan is called Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform (TEMP). According to the Pentagon warboffins:

The TEMP program will investigate and develop modular technologies and macroscopic modular systems that leverage ubiquitous International Organization for Standardization (ISO) containers and the intermodal transport system to deliver flexible operational capability from unmodified commercial containerships.

We all love the intermodal transport system of ships, railways, lorries and so on which whisks ISO containers about the world with such impressive speed and economy.

A merchant ship making creative use of containers in the Falklands War. Credit: CPO Bob Gellett

Container vessel at war in 1982. Choppers and jumpjets* could take off and land at the pad forward.

Certainly it can look particularly impressive compared to conventional naval methods of dominating a stretch of ocean, which generally call for large numbers of scarce, expensive, highly specialised warships which may not really be much use for the likeliest missions.

Everyday tasks for navies today include such things as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief ("HA/DR", as it is apparently known in the US Navy) or "maritime domain awareness and interdiction operations" - that is, detecting and stopping such activities as piracy and smuggling of weapons, drugs, sanctions-busting cargoes etc.

But normal warships are ill-suited for such jobs, being designed for high-intensity warfare against high tech enemies. They can make a useful effort at disaster relief, and a less useful one against pirates or blockade-runners, but they are so expensive and thus so scarce it's difficult to get much done with them.

Thus TEMP, which seeks to deliver effective sea power using humble container vessels rather than hecamillion- or multibillion-dollar purpose-built warships.

Firstly, there will be a relatively normal effort to create a snap-together instant ISO-box kit which would turn the host ship into a useful platform.

The right mix of ISO-sized modules would then allow a conventional containership to be temporarily acquired and staffed for a useful military function which relieves the burden on conventional force structure. A certain set of modules would be required for any TEMP mission, such as military communications, command and control, expanded habitability functions, expanded power generation, damage control, and self-defense / force protection. Another set of modules would be mission specific, allowing the ship to be converted to a platform capable of accomplishing a specific mission, such as HA/DR or maritime domain awareness and interdiction operations.

This much has more or less already happened. The British fleet at least is already well accustomed to carrying out various military tasks using (often temporarily) modified merchant ships. Sometimes these ships are in regular Ministry of Defence service as Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, but sometimes they are just hastily converted merchantmen, as happened in many cases during the Falklands War.

But having a ready-made ISO container set all ready to go would be very handy. A set of modules could be kept parked up on road trailers, ready to be hauled out to a container port and swiftly put aboard ship for deployment. As DARPA points out, some would be standard for every job: comms shack, command cell, living quarters, power and so on. Others - perhaps pop-up weapons stations, UAV or aircraft hangar/pad units etc - would be added depending on the job.

A fleet of cheaply-chartered container ships kitted out with helicopter-pad and marine boarding team units would be able to fight the pirates of the Horn of Africa far more cheaply and effectively than frigates and destroyers can, for instance.

But DARPA wants to do more. It is also interested in building floating bases out of ISO boxes offshore:

Modular Sea Base is a concept for large, at-sea logistics structures formed from standard 20-foot ISO container-sized modules. Each module, deployed from a commercial containership, would have self-contained propulsion, a means of connecting to other modules, and low-level autonomy algorithms allowing the modules to self-form structures in the water.

Ten modules could theoretically be arranged in a 40-foot by 40-foot pad with 170 tons of collective buoyant capacity, enough to serve as an ad hoc helicopter landing pad. Since even smaller containerships would be capable of carrying thousands of modules, if individual modules could be produced at a cost low enough to justify procurement, larger numbers of modules could form more interesting structures such as large scale joint force deployment bases.

The self-assembling modular seabases could also, as DARPA notes, provide docking-bay facilities for useful inshore craft such as the Mark V Special Operations Craft gunboats and other vessels favoured by the US Navy SEALs, or the various hover and landing craft employed by the US Marines.

Concept for floating offshore base assembled from semi-submersible oilrig style independent units.

The old-school version.

More ambitious concepts in the past have envisioned locking together a line of oil rig-sized specialist units which could cruise to the target area on pontoon hulls, then part-flood and submerge these so that only the support pillars were battered by waves. This would allow a row of units to be mated together and form a mighty floating fortress that could even include a runway for jets.

This would be a rather slow-to-deploy and unwieldy affair, however, compared to DARPA's ISO-container idea - modern container ships are much faster than mobile oil platforms, and the Modular Sea Base units would be tipping off their carrying vessels and forming into a unit while the big flood-up flood-down jobs were still weeks away.

The oil-platform service barge Hercules serving as a base for US special operations forces.

Now picture this, built out of snap-together ISO containers.

There's a real-world precedent for this general kind of caper too - Operation Prime Chance and Operation Nimble Archer during the 1980s tanker wars in the Gulf. US special-ops units used two converted civilian oil-servicing barges as bases for helicopters and SEAL gunboats, effectively crushing covert Iranian mine laying efforts directed at the tanker traffic in and out of the Gulf.

DARPA doesn't mention it, but the TEMP Modular Sea Base concept is plainly aimed to produce a modernised version of the platforms Hercules and Wimbrown VII, which did such effective work more than thirty years ago.

The Falklands, too, was a long time back. In many ways the TEMP programme serves more to illuminate just how slow and reluctant western navies have been to move away from their World War II force structure than it is an example of DARPA being forward-thinking. ®


*Though the Harriers couldn't get airborne vertically with a useful load of fuel and weapons: they need a short runway (and ideally a ski-jump ramp) to do that. This was a plan for ferrying the Harriers to war, not to create an operational sea-base in their case.