Building Modular Motherships: Denmark and Singapore Lead the Way

By Robbin Laird

The Danes are shaping a second generation of their modular ships. The first-generation flex ships provided for wide beam ships with enhanced payload for a combat ship and modules for the weapon systems as a means of providing for flexibility in capability by mission set.

The next generation modular ships are being crafted in the new age of autonomous systems, both maritime and airborne. These systems provide for the possibility of a new approach to power projection to the point of operational interest, and with flexible payloads one can use the same hull form for a wide variety of missions.

And in this second-generation effort standardization of modules is a key part of the approach. With the focus on using 20- and 40-foot containers and then working with sensor and weapons manufacturers to build to this common standard, a virtual payload revolution can be unleashed.

But how do you build a ship to do so?

At the recent DSEI show, I had a chance to sit down with Kåre Groes Christiansen, the CEO of OMT Group to discuss their approach to designing this new class of ships, the mother ships enabled by automated systems operating within the new approach to modularity.

Also, at the DSEI show, I met with Rear Admiral Torben Mikkelsen who is Executive Director, Navy Programs, Defence Command, Denmark, to discuss the new class of ships being built for Denmark. We discussed the first ship in the new “mothership” class is a patrol boat designed to operate in the Baltic and the North Sea.

It is being built with a clear eye to building out other types of boats all able to operate common payloads to enable both operational flexibilities, and the possibility of a new approach to the arsenal of democracy. With the modules being built around standard 20- and 40-foot container dimensions, Mikkelson argued that Denmark along with its Nordic allies, for example, could build modules in common which could be swapped across a fleet of modular ships.

This allows not only collaborative production across an allied production base but allows for rapid specialization by a particular ship on a mission by swapping in the relevant modules. And these modules could clearly be shared by nations in the area of operation.

This is how OMT Group website describes this new class of ships:

“The Danish Ministry of Defence Acquisition and Logistics Organisation (DALO) has signed an agreement with Danske Patruljeskibe K/S – a consortium founded by Terma, Odense Maritime Technology and PensionDanmark – on the scheme design for new naval vessels for the Danish Armed Forces.

“With the agreement, DALO has chosen Danske Patruljeskibe K/S as full-line supplier and responsible for the development of modern, future-proofed naval vessels to the Danish Armed Forces through a groundbreaking new cooperation model that will ensure a strong security of supply to The Danish Armed Forces.

“The Government and a wide majority in the Danish Parliament have charted a visionary course for the procurement of Denmark’s new flexible vessels. A course founded on the long and proud tradition of Denmark as a shipbuilding nation. This project will involve a wide range of Danish companies and create a lot of Danish jobs securing that world class maritime skills in Denmark well into the future”, says Jes Munk Hansen, CEO of Terma.

“The agreement includes a detailed design and construction strategy process ensuring that the new vessel type will meet the demands of The Danish Armed Forces while establishing the base for the purchase and production of the new naval vessels through a broad-based cooperation with all relevant industrial players. By these means, The Danish Armed Forces will get the right vessels and national security of supply critical to security, simultaneous with the creation of a multitude of Danish jobs.

”OMT has obtained very strong skills within modular vessel design from, among others, the involvement in a British led, international partnership on total supply of naval vessels to the UK. We will bring the experience and skills into play on the domestic front to consider Denmark’s specific needs for new naval vessels while ensuring that we utilize and develop the unique skills of the maritime industry,” says Kåre Groes Christiansen, CEO of Odense Maritime Technology…”

But the Danish approach is not only for Denmark – by having a modular approach built on international standardization the approach can be adopted by a wide variety of allied nations. The first to do so is Singapore which is building six new mother ships. The design is provided by Saab-Kockums, based on the Danish design approach.

Christiansen started the discussion by focusing on payloads. In fact, one can characterize the Danish approach of re-thinking shipbuilding from the perspective of “Payload Centric Platform Modularity.”

He emphasized that legacy shipbuilding has not focused on maximizing payload flexibility. The float and move function have dominated with only about 15 – 30% of the total displacement open to combat payload. The Danish focus is upon how to ramp up payloads on combat ships and to leverage a new modular payload approach to provide for expanded payload flexibility.

Christiansen also emphasized that the Danish approach is built on a factory system to build ships relaying on extensive use of robots. With a factory system it is possible such as in the F-35 program to have distributed production among allies thereby being able to ramp up production rates. With the Chinese outproducing the West, he argued that distributed manufacturing might be the only feasible solution to build the numbers of ships the West needs to protect their interests.

The Chinese have created the same shipbuilding eco-system to build military and commercial ships. And this ecosystem allows them to have a steady rate of production. We need to shape a distributed manufacturing model to compete, or put another way, we need to change our shipbuilding eco system.

Christiansen noted that on the Danish class of the mothership approach “we are designing software that basically will allow these modules to integrate into the ship systems. For example, if you install a new laser gun, the gateway with the ship will allow the laser gun to plug into the energy production on the ship.”

The Singaporeans want to build a ship that reduces the numbers of personnel on the ship but expands the payloads to be operated or launched from the ship.

Obviously, the only way to do so is through the ability to manage a variety of autonomous systems. One description of the Singapore Navy (RSN) new Multi-Role Combat Vessel (MRCV) highlighted the modularity approach. According to a 4 May 2023 article by Andrew Wong published in The Strait Times:

“The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) will acquire six new multi-role combat vessels (MRCVs) to replace its ageing fleet of Victory-class missile corvettes (MCVs), which have been in service since 1989.

“The newer vessels will not be a like-for-like replacement, said the RSN.“The MCV was designed for the 1980s and served its purpose very well. But the threat environment in the 1980s versus the threat environment in 2040 will be very different,” said RSN Major James Lim, the operations lead of the MRCV project, in a media briefing on April 27.”

How will they be different?

First of all, they will be designed to operate a variety of autonomous systems. “In addition to being capable fighting ships, the MRCVs will act as a mothership for unmanned systems.

They function as a force multiplier for the navy fleet, as unmanned drones positioned on the ship expand the area that the ship can oversee. The unmanned systems can range from air to surface to underwater vehicles. “But at the baseline, the unmanned systems on board the MRCVs will include surveillance capabilities,” the RSN added.”

Secondly, they will be built around the modularity principle. “The RSN is building a modular platform that will equip the MRCVs with the capability and versatility to handle multiple situations.”

The Australian Navy builds its ships with a common combat system, namely, the Aegis combat system to provide for enhanced integration. What the Danes are doing its building out a new shipbuilding approach built around a new standard of modularity for payloads, which is their approach to enhance integratability and sharing of combat and security functions across a modularity fleet.

What the projected 9,000-ton Singaporean MRCVs are introducing is significantly new capability to what historically have been considered more or less auxiliary ships to the combat fleet. But now with the arrival of the new autonomous systems such ships can add significant combat capability to the feet.

Nothing less than a revolution in shipbuilding and security and military operations is envisaged.

The featured graphic is an artist’s conceptual design of the MRCV for the Singapore Navy.


Appendix: World-class Danish Naval Vessels

29 September 2023

Odense Maritime Technology

Danish frigates have taken part in innumerable international missions far from Danish shores, and they have been an effective and safe base for many deployed personnel. The frigates have been held in great esteem by NATO allies for their strength, capability and endurance. And the design of the Danish frigates is now also forming the basis for frigates currently on order by the United Kingdom, Poland, Indonesia, and others.

The five Danish frigates have been in operation with the Royal Danish Navy since 2010, and they were designed and built by the former Odense Staalskibsværft shipyard, which was owned by the A.P. Møller-Maersk Group until it closed in 2011. The design of the frigates has been further developed and lives on at Odense Maritime Technology (OMT), which is Denmark’s leading designer of naval vessels and which today develops and sells naval vessels for the whole world. Together with Terma and Pension Danmark, OMT is in a consortium tasked with designing and delivering new patrol vessels to Denmark.

Absalon was delivered in 2010 as the first of five frigates, and since then Danish frigates have been on innumerable missions in maritime trouble spots around the world, where they have been a solid and safe platform for many personnel deployed by the Royal Danish Navy, the Frogman Corps (frømandskorpset), the Royal Danish Air Force, etc. Among other operations, they have helped secure sea lanes for Danish and international shipping against piracy. On this type of mission, the frigates have to be designed and equipped to perform military duties, and they must also act as a base and home for the deployed personnel.

According to Rear Admiral Torben Mikkelsen :“The ships have to be a nice place to stay. In other words, a good place to be as a human being, because they have good facilities and there is space for privacy if necessary.”

“Creating synergy between the mission and the base on one and the same ship is precisely what has been done with the frigates. There is good space and good exercise areas and common areas for deployed personnel.” 

Good conditions for the crew are important to retain crews and attract new crews. Personnel on deployment often spend several months on the frigates, so it is vital that the ships are a good place to spend many hours when not on duty. Life onboard ship should be as close to normal life as possible, and for this reason digitalisation is also essential, so that the crew can maintain contact with their loved ones at home.

Like the personnel, military equipment also needs good space. Absalon and Esbern Snare have particularly large ‘baggage holds’, with space for mobile materiel such as cars, personnel carriers or tanks. The holds can also be converted to mobile field hospitals, detention centres or crew messes.

Rear Admiral Mikkelsen:  “The frigates have shown their enormous value because they have space to take onboard several and different functional contributions”

Functional contributions include the equipment required for a given mission, for example for teams of Frogman Corps, engineers and Military Police that are crucial to establish a world-class counter-piracy organisation onboard the frigates.

The frigates have been designed to manage equipment and craft for special operations, and to detain suspected and charged pirates and gather evidence. This means that “the frigates are probably one of the world’s best counter-piracy units,” says Torben Mikkelsen.

Compared with traditional warships, the Danish frigates have been designed to be more stable by giving them a wider beam. This ensures that, besides having space for effective weapons and sensor systems, the frigates also have space and stability to cope with very different functional contributions, depending on the type of the mission. Furthermore, the frigates are very seaworthy, which is important, no matter whether the ship is operating in the Baltic or the Atlantic. Finally, the frigates have ‘long legs’ with high range and endurance so that they can operate for many days over large distances without having to refuel.

These ‘long legs’ were a huge advantage during a joint Danish-Norwegian-British military operation in Syria in 2013, when 1300 tonnes of chemical materiel and chemical weapons were retrieved from Syria for disposal. Torben Mikkelsen led the mission, in which the frigate Esbern Snare took part. “On the RECSYR mission, we didn’t have to refuel, whereas I had to send back the other frigates in the fleet almost every week to refuel. We had a huge advantage with the range of our frigate; in fact our endurance was more a question of when we ran out of tomatoes,” says Torben Mikkelsen.

The frigates are often part of NATO’s standing maritime group and the Royal Danish Navy participate annually in Fleet Operations Sea Training (FOST) held by the British Royal Navy. This gives crews more experience and training with other nations. And as the Danish frigates are in the same design family as the future T31 frigates currently being built in the United Kingdom, there are huge benefits and synergies with regard to training and education. “This cooperation will give the Brits a taste of what it’s like to sail on this type of frigate, and in return we get feedback and input about their experience of the strengths and weaknesses of our units,” says Torben Mikkelsen. As the frigates come from the same design family, crews can sail on both Absalon and Iver Huitfeldt class frigates without major training challenges.

The product system and experience from the Danish frigates is important for the development of new and future warships, including the new patrol vessels for Denmark that, with input from the Royal Danish Navy, will be designed and delivered by Dansk Patruljeskibe. “The product system and similarity in design with existing Danish and foreign ships mean that the new technologies of the future can be integrated on a robust and secure design platform,” says Kåre Groes, Christiansen CEO of OMT. New technologies include climate-friendly propulsion systems, modularity, and drones, all of which have to be integrated with a robust and stable product system developed specifically for naval vessels.

OMT’s product system for naval vessels is also much sought-after abroad, and it makes it possible to sustainably design naval vessels for Denmark that meet the technological demands of the future while also forming a safe base for deployed personnel: Regardless of whether the vessels are to operate in Danish coastal waters, the north Atlantic around Greenland and the Faroe Islands, or in international maritime trouble spots.


In June 2023, the Danish Defence Acquisition and Logistics Organisation (FMI) signed a total supplier contract with Danske Patruljeskibe K/S – a consortium set up by Terma, Odense Maritime Technology and PensionDanmark – on the preliminary project for new patrol vessels for the Danish Defence. Under the contract, the consortium is responsible for the development of modern, future-proofed naval vessels for the Danish Defence according to a groundbreaking new partnership model that also ensures strong security of supply for the Danish Defence.

Article written by: Thomas Eefsen / CCO at OMT and published in this years ‘flagdagsmagsin’.