Cooperative Engagement
May 15, 2012

If present trends hold true, future Canadian warships will operate in multinational coalitions and sail closer to foreign shores. The threats they face will escalate from conventional air and sea combatants and in future will include asymmetrical ‘swarms’ of small boats and aircraft at one end of the technological spectrum, and ever faster and more precise missiles at the other.

The U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert predicts that, “By 2025, precision-guided weapons will be the norm among our adversaries and competitors – from terrorist groups and criminals to our maritime peers. Combined with widely available radar, as well as electronic and optical sensors, such weapons give adversaries an unprecedented ability to attack ships, aircraft, and ground forces and to deny access to certain areas of sea or land.”

The ability of the planned Canadian Surface Combatant to operate in that environment will define the Royal Canadian Navy’s role and reach for decades to come. Decisions made now about its equipment and armament are crucial.

As a medium power, Canada’s effectiveness is maximized in coalition operations and for decades, the Royal Canadian Navy has made interoperability with our defence partners a top priority.

The value of that ability to work closely with partners, particularly the United States Navy, was demonstrated during Operation Apollo from October 2001 to October 2003, when a total of 18 Canadian ships joined the fight against terrorism, and again last year during ­Operation Mobile, in support of NATO operations in Libya.

Canadian success in those coalition operations has always demanded effective communications and the United States Navy has set the technological pace, with increasingly sophisticated and expensive C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) systems. Binding all those systems together are the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) hardware and software that can link output from the sensors on all allied warships in a naval battlespace to a single common operating picture, and make that data instantaneously available to all the weapons systems protecting those ships. Commanders can, as approved by their national authorities, delegate firing decisions to a central authority, so that the sensors on one ship detect a target aimed at a second ship and engage the weapons of a third ship to destroy it, all without human intervention. The positive impact of the resulting synergy is inarguable – but can Canadian combat systems be tightly integrated with those of our allies without a loss of control and ultimately sovereignty? In future coalition operations, warships without Cooperative Engagement Capability or the ability to work with it may not be able to take on a full range of assignments in a contested space.

February 2012 – NATO ships front row from left: FGS Rhienland Pfalz, HNLMS De Ruyter, ITS Espero, FGS Rhon, ITS Francesco Mimbelli, and HMCS Charlottetown. Back row from left: USS De Wert, USS Vella Gulf, and FS Jean de Vienne sail in formation during Exercise Proud Manta with Standing NATO maritime Group 1 in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Canada First Defence Strategy calls for 15 new warships to replace the current fleet of 3 air defence destroyers and 12 upgraded Halifax Class frigates. The first 3 surface combatants will be equipped for medium range protection against air threats, coordination of air assets and naval gunfire, and most importantly, task group command and communications, effectively replacing the Iroquois Class destroyers which have fulfilled both the air defence and command and control roles for Canadian and multi-national task groups. In the CEC framework, however, the technology that supports each of those functions is more tightly linked if not indistinguishable.

Ships at sea communicated effectively before the development of Cooperative Engagement Capability, using standards-based technologies like Link 11, Link 16 and Link 22 to share radar and sonar information and exchange positional and target data, but CEC takes information sharing to a new level with the swift, secure exchange of granular data, sufficiently accurate to target weapons. Without CEC, it is difficult to see Canadian warships working effectively within future multi-national maritime forces, let alone ever again assuming the command role.

Enhanced interoperability comes with overhead, however. Automating the link between detection and engagement across national lines is not a step any politician can contemplate with comfort. In reality, there is no difference between a CEC ‘command’ to fire and a verbal order from a U.S. commander to a Canadian navy commander to fire – each order to fire would be assessed against U.S. rules of engagement and each decision to fire would be assessed against Canada’s rules of engagement. Decisions about doctrine and rules of engagement are negotiated and settled before and during any coalition operation. The only difference is that, once nationally approved, CEC places those decisions into the software of weapons systems that react to threats almost instantly. There may be no practical difference but the argument has already been made that Cooperative Engagement Capability cedes control of Canadian weapons systems to foreign commanders. Technically, in this scenario, the navy could allow U.S. commanders to fire Canadian weapons – it could also place U.S. weapons under Canadian control – but practically, that would probably never happen.

Aug 2011 – HMCS Ville de Québec conducts manœuvres with the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) Training Squadron during its four-month intercontinental tour.

Even without activating the system’s automated targeting, CEC capability makes a task group vastly more effective – extending its range of coverage and allowing it to operate in areas where it might otherwise be denied – and Canada already has agreements to share information with allies. Some countries have already implemented Cooperative Engagement Capability on their warships, without loss of sovereignty.

Today, for sovereignty and national security reasons, Canada is one of the very few countries that actually controls its entire software chain in a naval engagement, from detection to missile launch and tracking. One substantive argument against purchasing Cooperative Engagement Capability from the United States is not sovereignty but rather loss of Canadian control over the technology under U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restrictions. Much of the equipment being installed in today’s frigates, under the ­Halifax Class Modernization program, is European and therefore non-ITAR.

If the government specifies CEC through U.S.-manufactured products, there will be vocal and vociferous opposition as potential non-U.S. vendors will claim it is not a level playing field. If a specification calls for compatibility with CEC, vendors will need to make their own arrangements to work effectively with U.S. equipment.

This spring, Commodore Patrick Finn, Director General Maritime Equipment Program Management and former project manager for the Canadian Surface Combatant, said “building a navy is a series of fifty-year decisions, any one of which is among the most substantial a government will ever make, not only for the size of the investment involved, but also because it will determine, for decades to come, the options Prime Ministers will have at their disposal.”

Preserving those options demands Canadian Surface Combatants that can work with CEC-equipped ships of other nations. How the navy will acquire that capability is a key decision in the design and construction of Canada’s future fleet.

Richard Bray is FrontLine’s Senior Writer.
© FrontLine Defence 2012