Navy to buy hi-tech torpedo shield

The Royal Navy has handed UK engineering group Ultra Electronics a £54m contract to plug a potentially lethal hole in the defences of its surface fleet. Ultra will be lead contractor in the development of the Surface Ship Torpedo Defence system.

Due to enter service in 2004, SSTD will form an advanced torpedo countermeasures package for the navy’s 65 surface vessels, which defence experts said are at present alarmingly vulnerable to submarine attack.

SSTD will use a combination of advanced software and electronics to detect and track incoming torpedoes and offer ships’ captains a range of options. These will include deployment of its various torpedo countermeasures and suggested evasive manoeuvres.

Precise details of the system are classified, but it will certainly include acoustic devices either to draw torpedoes away from the ship or to ‘swamp’ their guidance system so that they stop working altogether.

Another key component will be a long trailing detection device that can be laid behind ships to protect their stern, an area where surface vessels are particularly vulnerable to attack.

The navy has ordered 23 SSTD systems, but will have the capability to fit them on each of its 65 surface vessels as required by specific operations.

Protecting ships from torpedoes has become increasingly difficult as the weapons themselves get faster and more sophisticated. Joanna Kidd, naval analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the lack of an effective torpedo defence system, combined with the changing nature of naval operations since the end of the Cold War, had made the issue pressing. ‘The perceived threat from torpedoes has grown, and the navy has needed one for some time.’

Kidd said that the navy has lacked a viable surface ship anti-torpedo system for almost a decade after its existing system became largely ineffective for anything except training.

Navies around the world are increasingly favouring ‘quiet’ submarines able to operate stealthily in shallow coastal waters, rather than huge submersibles suited to deep-sea operations in mid-ocean.

Surface vessels themselves are also more likely to conduct operations closer to shore where sonar – a ship’s main method for detecting submarines – operates less effectively than far out to sea.

Andy Hamment, group marketing director at Ultra, said that the SSTD system would ‘fill a hole in the defence suite of our major ships’.

The firm claimed the modular nature of SSTD would make it simpler to move from ship to ship than other similar systems. These need to be far more integrated with a vessel’s overall weapons infrastructure, meaning once they are installed on a ship they have to stay there.

‘This brings the navy right up to date, and is as advanced as anything possessed by the US Navy,’ claimed Hamment.

Ultra hopes SSTD will be highly suitable for export to navies around the world once it has been developed for the UK.

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