Since the start of 2017, naval movements have barely been out of the news. In April, for instance, the Royal Navy ship HMS Sutherland escorted two Russian warships through the English Channel, a routine operation that nonetheless highlighted the frosty relations between London and Moscow.

Around the same time, US President Donald Trump claimed to have sent an “armada” of ships into the Korean Peninsula and the US continued to launch military strikes against Syria.

With tensions continuing to escalate in various parts of the world, we can no doubt expect to see more stories of this kind. From the perspective of naval commanders, this means a wealth of new challenges – how can they best respond to deployment orders in today’s fast-changing geopolitical landscape?

It goes without saying that new technologies – hard and soft – have a significant role to play.

Unmanned underwater vehicles

Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) – otherwise known as underwater drones or ocean gliders – hit the headlines in December 2016, when a Chinese warship seized a US drone stationed in the South China Sea. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense stated that the naval vessel had merely wanted to check that the “unidentified equipment” did not cause any navigational safety issues and initially had not realised that it was a US drone. It was later returned to the US following “friendly consultations”.

This drone had been collecting data about the salinity, temperature and clarity of the water, and belonged to USNS Bowditch, an unarmed oceanographic survey ship. Other UUVs have been developed to discover and terminate underwater mines, inspect ship hulls or help find adversarial submarines. In fact, the range of uses is broad: as early as 2004, a US navy master plan listed 11 mission categories for UUV operations.

These kinds of vehicles, first developed many decades ago, are becoming increasingly prevalent in modern warfare. They can be divided into two categories, remotely operated and autonomous, with the latter holding particular importance for navies.

Unfortunately, their military implementation has been hampered by technological limitations. In terms of maturity, they are around two decades behind airborne drones, and they face particular difficulties with communications systems and battery life.

This looks set to change, however, with the need for next-generation UUV technologies becoming increasingly critical. The threat of armed enemy drones is very real and better detection strategies are required if naval assets (for example, ships stationed at harbours) are to remain intact.

The UUV market is therefore expected to see major growth in the years ahead, with a large number of companies looking to gain a foothold in this fast-expanding sector.

Of particular note is the Massachusetts-based firm Open Water Power, which is working on creating aluminium-based batteries that could last much longer than the current alkaline-based equivalents. If successful, they could increase the range of a UUV from around 100 to 1,000 nautical miles. Then there is New-York-based North Atlantic Industries, which is creating modular UUV architecture to enable more rapid response to emerging threats.

In December 2016, it was reported that the US Department of Defense was planning on investing as much as $3 billion in building UUVs for surveillance operations. According to head of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Rear Admiral Mathias Winter, ONR plans to develop an “Eisenhower highway network” of UUVs – complete with underwater charging stations – that will map the ocean floor and “go out for decades at a time”.

Additive manufacturing

Otherwise known as 3D printing, additive manufacturing could revolutionise naval supply strategies by enabling parts and equipment to be printed aboard ships. Should the ship lack an on-board printer, command supply officers will be able to order these parts for rapid production, with order times plummeting from months to days or hours.

As well as saving time, the technology could save considerable sums of money, essential at a time when budgets are coming under scrutiny. In one recent project by engineers in Virginia, a 3D-printed valve cost $500, compared with $50,000 for the original system.

It may take some time before additive manufacturing reaches its full potential. Quite aside from engineering issues, there are business questions to consider, not least those relating to intellectual property laws and contracting strategies. However, the technology is maturing fast, to the point of manufacturing fully functional – albeit miniature – aircraft. The implications for navies could be significant, particularly for ships stationed in remote locations.

Russia’s Zircon missiles have been widely touted as ushering in a new era of hypersonic warfare, which will force navies to improve their missile defence arrays.

Hypersonic missiles

In March 2017, it was reported that Russia’s new Zircon missiles could travel at up to 4,600mph, around six times the speed of sound. The missiles, which could be operational as early as 2018, may render two new UK ships obsolete as their Sea Ceptor system is only equipped to shoot down missiles at half that speed.

The missiles have been widely touted as ushering in a new era of hypersonic warfare, which will force navies to improve their missile defence arrays. Counterstrategies might include high-powered lasers that can target and intercept missiles shortly after launch, for instance. However, these might not be ready for up to a decade and it may be important to seek out other strategies in the meantime.

The US is also developing hypersonic missiles, although these are not yet at the production stage, with an early programme having stalled in 2011.

Electromagnetic railguns

Dubbed “America’s supergun” by the Wall Street Journal, the US Navy’s electromagnetic railgun could have tremendous benefits. It can fire a shell at around 4,500mph and is capable of hitting a target 100 nautical miles away. It could also significantly reduce the costs of missiles and eliminate the need to keep dangerous gunpowder on ships.

Since 2005, when the electromagnetic railgun programme got under way, the Pentagon has spent more than $0.5 billion on the project and its capabilities have been widely hyped. Unfortunately, it may take a while before powder guns are replaced. The railgun has extremely high power demands, meaning only three ships (the new Zumwalt-class destroyers) will be capable of firing it at present.

Over time, it is thought that the gun will become more efficient, largely thanks to new capacitors, better pulse power storage systems and a more intricate design. Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems is working with the US Navy to develop solutions.

Meanwhile, the navy is working on two interim possibilities: a railgun that uses less power (such as one with half the speed and range) and a conventional cannon that uses the railgun projectile. These options could still be very useful and, perhaps, more suitable for existing warships.

Diesel-electric submarines

Nuclear submarines have long been the gold standard in front-line fighting ships. However, diesel-electric submarines are making a comeback in some parts of the world, with the Swedish Navy’s Gotland class having set the bar for what can be accomplished. Small, stealthy and easily able to evade detection, these submarines are known for their tactical agility and lethality.

In 2014, the French defence company DCNS Group unveiled a new diesel-electric submarine called the SMX-Océan. Capable of staying submerged and near silent for three weeks (over which time it could cross the Atlantic six times without surfacing), the boat is around three times the size of those in the Gotland class. It makes use of UUVs, along with unmanned aircraft, to build up a situational picture of the battlespace and has similar combat capabilities to a nuclear submarine.

In future, we can most likely expect to see similar ships deployed in countries that lack nuclear capabilities and cannot afford the infrastructure costs.

Diesel-electric submarines are making a comeback in some parts of the world, with the Swedish Navy’s Gotland class having set the bar for what can be accomplished.

Electromagnetic catapults

In March 2017, President Trump criticised the US Navy’s new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), which has been installed for the first time on the Fordclass carrier. Although the technology is intended to improve efficiency and substantially reduce maintenance costs, it has had a turbulent development history, with a number of delays and failures to launch.

Speaking to TIME, the president asserted: “They have digital… It’s very complicated; you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out… I said ‘no you’re not [staying with digital]. You’re going to [use] goddamned steam. The digital [system] costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.’”

Whatever the ramifications for the Ford-class ships, EMALS-type technology does have many potential benefits, having been estimated to save the navy $4 billion over the course of a ship’s 50-year life time. China and India are also developing such systems, and more countries may well follow as the technology reaches a greater level of maturity.

The technologies discussed previously could have dramatic implications on the way navies operate in the future, affecting everything from the way they procure new equipment to the way they train their forces. As emerging threats become more sophisticated, there is no doubt that naval defence systems will need to follow suit.