The Payload-Utility Function and the Kill Web Concept of Operations: The Case of the Cube System

By Robbin Laird

In our book published earlier this year and entitled A Maritime Kill Web Force in the Making, my co-author highlighted the importance of focusing on the payloads to mission dynamic, rather than focusing on a platform-defined concept of operations, or task force organization and designation at sea.

According to Ed Timperlake: “Payload utility can be a driver for understanding the future development of combat systems. To understand Pu with full honor to John Boyd, it can be noted that Observe/Orient (OO) is essentially target acquisition, and Decide/Act (DA) is target engagement.

“Thus, there is a very simple formula, better and better TA and TE =more effective employment of all payloads available to the battle commander. It is the process of understanding the huge complexities in such a simple formula that is the challenge.

“Understanding the technology and human dynamic through an analytic filter of a Payload Utility function consisting of weapons (kinetic and TRON) and the dual components of Target Acquisition (TA) and Target Effectiveness (TE) effectiveness in a fighting fleet engaged in high intensity combat in the unforgiving cauldron of battle maybe a war winner. Either in one platform, or melded into a unified fighting Fleet to bring all different types of appropriate “weapons on” for the kill shot is a powerful concept.”

How then does one move payloads to the point of interest?

And to do so fleet wide rather than simply locating them on a particular platform, whether it be an OPV, frigate, destroyer, or carrier?

One answer to that question is shaping modular ships which can deliver a variety of effects in the battlespace. Another way to do so is to expand modularity to include an ability to swap out on ships in a combat fleet – now expanded to include the sustainment side of the equation – a variety of modular payloads.

That is where the Danish company SH Defence comes in to play. I first heard of the company and its approach when visiting Copenhagen earlier this year.  During that visit Rear Admiral (Retired) Nils Wang highlighted how the Danes were looking at the next phase of modularity with regard to shipbuilding and maritime operations.

Let me return to that discussion and highlight the SH Defence approach.

As I wrote after the meeting with Wang: “The opportunity for much better Nordic defense coordination and working integrated concepts of operations provides a significant challenge for the Nordic nations.

“The ability to respond to the opportunity would be attenuated in Wang’s view by “legacy” military thinking that is focused simply on “more of the same” building out traditional platforms, rather than focusing on force integrability or in my terms how to do the core missions with the required payloads through the kinds of platforms which can accelerate force integration.

“He then provided a detailed look at one way to do so, namely, by building naval platforms of an OPV size, which were built around payload modularity.  He laid a conceptual design case for a vessel of 80-85 meters with a five-meter draft which had on the front deck up to 32 cells in Mark 41 launchers. One portion of these cells loaded with the ships organic self defence missiles and the remaining portion would be launched by third party platforms, e.g., the F-35, and contribute to an integrated firing solution from a national or command center decision making matrix.

“The arsenal set-up could include Deep Strike capability based on TLAM. The ship would be designed with modules to launch autonomous systems of various types – air and maritime – and to do so within the context of standard ISO dimensions.

“He highlighted a Danish company, SH Defence, which he noted had developed the Cube™ concept to hold e.g. a variety of smaller unmanned systems and platforms which could be launched from what in effect is a small “mother ship.” These “mother ships” would have robust self-defense systems but would be pushing out into the battlespace long range effectors and smaller platforms which could contribute to and empower a maritime kill web force which would provide enhanced capabilities for Danish and potentially Nordic defense.

“This would lead in Wang’s perspective “to a paradigm shift in the way we would label naval platforms.”

“Rather than simply using the legacy labels – corvette, frigate, destroyer, etc. – we would focus on “mother ships” and what capabilities they could enable in the battlespace through integrability.”

At the Euronaval exposition held during the week of October 16, 2022, I had a chance to attend an SH Defence unveiling of a new mine laying module that used their Cube™ system. I also had a chance to talk with the CEO of the company, Renè Bertelsen.

Two analysts who attended the unveiling event provided insights into the basic approach of the Cube™ system.

According to Justin Katz of Breaking Defense: “A Danish defense company here announced today it had launched the second iteration of its unique system designed to rapidly move containerized payloads on, off and around warships. The system, produced by SH Defence and dubbed “The Cube,” uses steel tracks and hydraulic pulleys to quickly — around 10 minutes — load and place containerized payloads onto a ship equipped with the system’s infrastructure.

“The upgrades between the first and second iterations allow for modules to be loaded directly into the mission bays from side of the ship as well as from the stern and the top. The utility of a system such as “The Cube” comes from the diversity of payloads that can be installed in the containers. Renè Bertelsen, the company’s CEO, told Breaking Defense in an interview that the 300 payloads currently available range from torpedoes and anti-torpedo torpedoes to unmanned systems to mine countermeasures and anti-submarine warfare.

“We make a lot of agreements with [original equipment manufacturers] and it’s not an exclusive” deal, he said. “Everybody comes with their OEM product and we integrate it into our modules. The idea is to have a module standard where you’re able to replace whatever kind of equipment you have, and modules into that platform. That’s the key.”

And according to Dr. Lee Willet in a piece for Naval News and published during the show on October 19, 2022:

“As shown with the mine-laying demonstration, the Cube concept offers a contemporary approach to capability modularity at sea. “The Cube is two things. It’s first and foremost a modular system able to adapt to different kinds of technology. In these times when technology advances so fast, having a system that is not fixed to the superstructure of the ship is of benefit to navies,” Peter Liisberg, sales and marketing manager at SH Defence, told Naval News at Euronaval.

“Second, is the infrastructure to handle these modules, because if you don’t have access to the three domains – surface, sub-surface, and air – then filling up a platform with capabilities is just storage,” Liisberg added.

“Drawing on Denmark’s original ‘STANFLEX’ concept and targeted particularly at frigate and offshore patrol vessel programmes, The Cube is based on the idea of loading equipment in standardised container sizes, and making the capability available at sea to function when needed, Liisberg continued. Space requirements at sea are a mission bay fitted with twist locks, with the Skidding System using hydraulic or electrical power to move the containers. The Skidding System can operate in conditions up to Sea State 5, meaning that payloads and deployed capabilities can be switched at sea.

“In a way, we would rather not talk about containerised modules, because … people start to think we are loading containers. No: we are loading payloads,” said Liisberg. The concept is also payload-agnostic: “We provide the base frame equivalent of [certain]-sized shipping containers, but on top of that basic frame …, that can be any equipment provider,” assuming the payload is able to fit on the base frames (including through the use of a container, if required), he explained.

I had a chance to Bertelsen during the show and we focused on the potential impact of the Cube system on operations. We started by focusing on the importance in a crisis of getting the right payloads at the right time and in the right place, and the need to change those payloads rapidly when the crisis or combat situation changes.

This is how Bertelsen put it: “Our navy needs to get the right equipment to a hotspot at the right time. Rather than thinking of traditional categories of ships, such as an OPV or a destroyer, the task is to get the right payload to the area of interest, not simply a narrowly defined class of ships. We are looking toward multiple-payload vessels rather than defining them as multi-mission organic ships.

“In other words, we are focused in building or reconfiguring different classes of ships to be capable of handling a variety of different payloads. And our system can allow them to do so without returning to port or a naval base, but able to swap out from standard containers – 20 or 40 forty – at sea.”

In a way, this creates a Rubik-cube fleet enabled by a diversity of payloads which can swap out rapidly ashore or afloat. This also has the advantage of strategic deception as once in the container, the adversary cannot identify what is in the containers which means that the payloads could be for strike, ASW missions or enabling maritime uncrewed systems to add to the fleet or to support existing capital ships already engaged in the battlespace.

This also has a major impact on the way ahead for shipbuilding. Missing from the Euronaval exhibition was a core focus on sustainment and logistical support. But without significant enhancement in ways to do so for a distributed maritime operations fleet, this will be difficult to do.

The Cube system could open up the way to build a new class or type of ship, namely, one focused on loading, transporting, and delivering Cube modules to operational fleets. Indeed, Bertelsen suggested that this change was already underway in building what might be called a Maritime Combat Ship.

According to Bertelsen: “Coming back to your point that we might need a new platform is focused on delivering new capabilities to the warship at sea in a sustainment role, we are in a program together with a Navy in the Far East where we are developing such a platform.

“This means you will be able to put X number of modules on a standard commercial offshore vessel, transport the modules to a Navy platform which will have the equipment to pick up the new payloads from that ship and employ it in operations.”

Such a capability can contribute significantly to an expanded concept of sustainment or the flexible and mobile basing roles which sea bases could play with land and air bases, a subject which I have devoted much attention to this year but will revisit next year as I address the importance of sustainment and mobile basing in shaping a kill web concept of operations.

Featured Photo: Rear Admiral Torben Mikkelsen speaking at the Cube launch of the mine laying module at Euronaval with Renè Bertelsen watching the presentation.