Maritime Unmanned Systems
© 2016 FrontLine Defence (Vol 13, No 4)

When HMCS Charlottetown deployed to the Arabian Sea as part of a multinational coalition task force in 2012, she became the first Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) ship to embark an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on operations.

While the integration of the small ScanEagle, an Insitu aircraft operated by the army and supported by civilian contractors, presented some unique challenges to a warship, the ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) platform greatly extended the range of the ship and quickly became an invaluable asset to Charlottetown’s commanding officer. “Whenever I have more information than my adversary, I’m in a much more advantageous position,” said Captain Wade Carter at the time.

Today, having access to that persistent, long endurance surveillance and intelligence gathering capacity from unmanned technology is in high demand. Whether above, on or below the water’s surface, navies around the world are investing heavily in semi-autonomous systems to perform a wide variety of tasks, from ISR to anti-submarine warfare, mine countermeasures, electronic warfare, and search and rescue.

Surprisingly, however, when Charlottetown deployed this summer, it was without a UAV capability. In fact, commanders of the RN Halifax-class frigates have not had the services of an unmanned aerial platform since 2014, when HMCS Regina conducted the final trial of the ScanEagle.

The delay between the last test and a new acquisition is due, in part, to a deliberate plan to ensure all the navy’s maritime unmanned systems (MUxS) – aerial, surface and subsurface, along with the necessary infrastructure, personnel requirements, training, operational doctrine, and in-service support – are acquired in a coordinated manner.

Weary of silos, and determined to avoid the often ad hock way in which pieces of a larger system of systems are too often selected, the RCN has recently completed work on a road map and a strategic document that will guide a holistic acquisition approach to MUxS.

They are starting with the end state, making sure it is comprehensively framed and well articulated. Checking his words against a document he has spent two years preparing, Commander Simon Nadeau, the naval requirements section head for C4ISR, Maritime Domain Awareness and Unmanned Systems, explains that “The aim is to deliver a complementary war-fighting capability to the ship at sea by having a level of autonomy between MUxS, persistence, and expendability in order to enhance ship survivability along with generating a strategically relevant tactical advantage for commanders across the full spectrum of operations.”

That means versatile systems and payloads for all three maritime domains (air, surface and sub-surface) must be fully interpretable with the rest of the Canadian Armed Forces, other government departments and allies, and built to integrate with both current and future surface and subsurface fleets. While the immediate requirement is for the Halifax-class frigates, the MUxS project has the future Arctic Offshore and Patrol Ship (AOPS), the Joint Support Ship (JSS), and Surface Combatant (CSC) firmly in view.

July 2014 – RAdm Eugenio Diaz del Rio and Nick Morris are ready to launch the ship's Unmanned Aerial Vehicle during Operation Reassurance. (Photo: Cpl Michael Bastien)

“Each project seems to have its own little ways,” says Nadeau, who deliberately pulled together all of the navy’s unmanned systems initiatives under one larger program. “But if we approach unmanned systems [with] stovepipe solutions, we will not be able to achieve that overall goal.”

The road map is heavily informed by the ScanEagle trials. Piggybacking on a contract between the Canadian Army and Insitu, the RCN experimented with the small, fixed-wing aircraft on multiple frigate deployments over a two-year period. Considered a huge success, the trials strengthened relationships between the two forces (army operators were embedded with a civilian team from ING Robotic Aviation to operate the aircraft and payloads), and also identified important considerations for future operations.

“It was a true force multiplier, and each commander coming from these deployments had nothing but good to say about the UAV,” Nadeau said. But with real estate on the frigates at a premium, and crew capacity likely to change with the introduction of new ships, the navy needs a dedicated – and proven – maritime system.  

Many unmanned vehicles – aerial (UAV), surface (USV), and underwater (UUV) – have specific areas of capability meant for different tasks. The often come with their own control stations, launch and recovery systems, data links, and standard operating procedures. “I don’t think the RCN can afford that,” Nadeau suggests.

Whatever the navy acquires must be “part of the ship’s company, part of the ship’s fitted equipment,” he says, and interpretable with the ship’s operating procedures and onboard systems.

Among other requirements, the navy wants a multi-domain control station integrated with the ship’s operations centre – to be able to control new fleets of UAVs, USVs and UUVs, as well as the navy’s aerial and surface training targets that are built by Meggitt Target Systems.

“I believe the RCN needs a control station that’s able to control a UAV one day and a USV the next – with the same infrastructure and antenna,” Nadeau said. “That is a constraint I am imposing on the project.”

And because ISR is the primary mission for all three platforms, the navy also will be seeking common core payloads integral to each vehicle, as well as unique mission payloads such as magnetic anomaly detection for antisubmarine warfare or synthetic aperture radar for search and rescue.

The first program acquisition will be an aerial vehicle. Known as RCN ISTAR UAS (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance unmanned aerial system), the project entered options analysis this January, and aims to deliver an initial operating capability by 2022.

While the navy may ultimately buy its own system, in the interim it will likely collaborate once again with the army, which recently took possession of the Raven-B, a mini UAV from AeroVironment, and is in the process of acquiring Boeing Insitu’s RQ-21A Blackjack through the U.S. government’s foreign military sales process.

Nadeau, a maritime surface and subsurface officer who has spent much of his 17-year career on frigates, most recently as second-in-command of HMCS Montreal, noted that limited space on the Halifax-class frigates might make it difficult to integrate the Blackjack, which is larger than the ScanEagle with larger payloads, but “it is not out of the realm of possibility” for the AOPS, the JSS, or even the interim replenishment ship. One possible provisional solution could be AeroVironment’s hand-launched RQ-20 Puma, he suggested.

April 2014 –The UAV detachment prepares the Scan Eagle UAV on the flight deck of HMCS Regina during a flight mission off the coast of Africa during Operation Artemis. (Photo: Cpl Michael Bastien)

Since an aerial vehicle must meet stringent regulatory requirements (in order to operate in controlled and civil air space), the project will set the road map’s path for surface and underwater vehicles.

“Once we crack the nut for UAVs, the USVs and UUVs are not complicated for the navy,” which Nadeau says is currently implementing an autonomous remote mine disposal system and operates training targets.

The goal, he adds, is to have a USV project entering option analysis within two years that will be part of the navy’s ISTAR initiatives. The USV would complement a number of ship’s tasks such as above water warfare and off-board electronic warfare with dedicated mission payloads.

An underwater vehicle project may take a little longer as Nadeau has yet to see the technology evolve to the point where it can meet the RN needs.

While target acquisition is one key MUxS function, weaponizing one or more of the platforms is not an option at present, he said. “We’re not adverse, but we’re not exploring it at the moment.”

More off-board sensors, of course, means more data flowing onto the ship’s existing C4ISR network. While the ISTAR UAV project will further examine the impact of increased data traffic, Nadeau does not anticipate the need to expand the network to accommodate the additional information. However, as the navy assesses crewing options for the AOPS, JSS and CSC, the question of whether unmanned systems and data management will require their own specialists, is sure to be considered.

“The intent is to collect information and transmit it in real or near-real time to the ship; the ship will process it and send it to the operational or strategic level as required, or store it onboard. But that cannot come with a lot more operators,” says Nadeau. Instead, technology will need to perform key tasks, he suggests. “We don’t need a fully autonomous system, but we need a system that is able to go into an assigned patrol box and, within the algorithm, cue the operator to look [at something] because it is different from the rest of the environment.”

July 2014 – Capt. Dimitrios Nikolaidis, Maj. Kevin Leblond, RAdm Eugenio Diaz del Rio, and Sgt. Daniel Roberts observe the groundwork before an UAV launch during an official visit onboard HMCS Regina during Operation Reassurance. (Photo: Cpl Michael Bastien)

The RCN will host industry engagement days on the MUxS project, beginning in 2017. Nadeau has met frequently with the unmanned sector over the past two years to understand how the technology is evolving and says that although land operations have been the greater focus for the past 15 years, maritime applications are gaining attention – “industry is starting to understand the problems we have.”

He hopes to build the capacity to do capability demonstrations with industry as the program moves forward. Earlier this year, the RCN unveiled its experimental ship, or X-ship, program to “advance innovative and leading edge naval concepts in all areas of warship deployment, crewing and sustainment.” Nadeau, who will soon be involved in that project as well, says it could become a possible platform for future concept trials.
The navy still has many questions to answer – is a rotary wing aircraft easier to accommodate than a fixed-wing? – but ultimately it aims to have unmanned systems around which it can build missions.

So, while Canada may be a little later than some of its allies to enter the MUxS race, the delay may have helped ensure the technology is ready to meet its vision and road map. “I believe that industry and maritime unmanned systems capabilities are ready for the RCN to invest,” Nadeau asserts.  

Chris Thatcher is a defence and security writer with Tactical Media Partners.