Centurion launcher could improve British warship capabilities
An innovative trainable launching system could help address an age-old naval problem.
Sometimes the best ideas come to you when you’re least expecting them. Richard Lord, a former commodore for the Royal Navy, has first-hand experience of how true this can be. Last year, a trip to the Imperial War Museum with his grandson resulted in a sketch of a new type of launcher that, if accepted by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), could dramatically improve Britain’s warship capabilities.
Fifteen months of hard work and around £1.5m later, Lord’s launcher has been built and successfully tested on Salisbury Plain. Named ’Centurion’, the adaptable launcher can fire 12-barrel, 130mm rounds of naval decoys without requiring the ship to manoeuvre into position. Currently, many static launchers are dependent on ship movement and the existing trainable (or moveable) launchers are susceptible to forces that push against them during missile fire, which can cause the balance to be off centre, leading to inaccuracy.
’The problem has been bugging me for some time,’ said Lord, who now works for defence technology group Chemring Countermeasures. ’We were frustrated by the fact that we were putting a lot of effort into improving our rounds but, to be frank, the sales weren’t occurring. Using a trainable launcher could be one solution but, when we looked at available designs, they were either heavy or ugly and I could never see them on a Royal Naval ship.’
Surrounded by decades of engineering at the Imperial War Museum, Lord believed that there must be a way to overcome the weight problem. What came to his mind was the Royal Navy’s 4.5in Mark 8 gun, which has a rotating carousel with its ammunition stored vertically. ‘I thought there’s something in this,’ said Lord. ‘Why do we have to lay it out at 45 degrees? Why don’t we store it vertically and, if it’s on a carousel, then it can actually point in the right direction. I think at that point my grandson wanted to move on to something else so I sketched the idea down.’
The next morning, Lord took the hastily drawn concept to Andrew Barlow, chief design engineer at Chemring, to see if there was a practical solution. Barlow was excited by the idea. He suggested that, rather than control the elevation of the rounds together, they could do it individually. He started looking at different designs, comparing the system with what was out there already. The base, he concluded, would require additional mass and strength to accommodate the forces from the grouped barrels. They adapted the design so that the line of force ran directly through the axis of each barrel, allowing the weight to be spread on different bearings.
By Friday that week, the team had produced a CAD drawing of the design and set to work on the first prototype. The idea was that, when an incoming missile was detected, Centurion would rotate its plinth so that the required round was on the right bearing. The barrel would then be depressed to a specific firing angle determined by the system algorithms. The entire process, according to Barlow, should take no more than three seconds. But, before work could be undertaken, the team was faced with designing a system that would effectively and accurately control the need to be heavy, difficult to load or restricted in accuracy.
The UK will be the first target market. According to Lord, if a product is introduced into a Royal Navy ship, it makes it a lot easier to introduce it elsewhere. If the MoD decides to use Centurion, then the next target market will be Japan. The team is also looking to Australia with its new destroyer and claims that the US has already expressed interest in its work.
With navies gaining more sophisticated systems, the cost of defending ships has increased dramatically. When complete, Centurion could be used to disrupt multiple anti-ship attacks from sensorbased missiles. Chemring believes, however, that, in the future, the design also can be used for alternative capabilities, launching almost any type of payload that may be required.
‘In 15 months we went from a drawing to launch,’ said Steve Kerchey, senior business manager at Chemring, ‘the project has driven us down some paths we wouldn’t have normally gone down in terms of design — it’ll be exciting to see where this will lead.’
Storing the barrels vertically appears to be a simple idea, but it takes some ingenuity, a fair amount of experience and the confidence in the concept to make it a reality. What was a sketch on the back of a napkin could now become an economic asset for the UK. As for going back to the Imperial War Museum for more ideas — ‘I’m not sure I will be,’ joked Lord. ‘I don’t think [the company] can afford any more.’