Adapting ASW Skill Sets
ROBBIN LAIRD
© 2017 FrontLine Defence (Vol 14, No 5)

In recent decades, primary concerns have been on land wars in the Middle East. Understandably, priorities at the time focused on training, equipment and skill sets for land warfare operations against an ideologically-motivated opponent. However, under the dominant theme of stability operations and counter-insurgency warfare, other high intensity skill sets and equipment investments began to atrophy. Today, other threats are emerging. Putin’s skillful use of military power has returned Russian global engagement to the fore, the rude awakening of the second nuclear age with the North Koreans as nuclear extortionists, and the pushing out into the Pacific of the Chinese military, all signal that preparation for high intensity or high tempo operations must return to the forefront.

As skill sets are reshaped for the decade ahead, it is not about simply bringing back older skill sets; it is about adapting historical lessons learned to 21st century technologies. This is notably true with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) as crews are adapting to master new technologies that provide capabilities to leverage reachback systems, robust networks, and distributed strike options.

In the North Atlantic, the U.S. and its allies are shaping what the U.S. Navy calls a “kill web” approach. In effect, a Maritime Domain Awareness highway, or belt, is being constructed from Canada through to Norway. This belt is shaping a data stream of actionable intelligence to guide decision making for effective strike capabilities and operations. It is not ISR – it’s a kill web.


MCpl Pat Lambert, an Airborne Electronic Sensor Operator (AESOp), prepares the Aurora aircraft to take off for its second mission of the Task Group Exercise (TGEX). (Photo: Cpl Kelly Low, 19 Wing Comox)

The militaries of Norway and the UK are introducing the P-8 surveillance aircraft and the F-35, Denmark has approved the purchase of 27 of the F-35A, and the U.S. will be fielding F-35s, P-8s and Triton UAVs to shape a new domain awareness sensor shooter capability for the allied forces. 

How best to utilize 21st century technologies to meet those challenges is a work in progress, and new platforms and technologies are part of a broader reshaping of the information and decision-making web necessary to deal with 21st century threats. 

A key challenge will be establishing ways to share data and enable rapid decision-making in a region where Russia has been systematically modernizing its forces and expanding its reach into the Arctic.

The return of Russia – in terms of the threat from the Kola Peninsula and building new submarines – has come at a time when ASW capabilities have eroded for the allies in the North Atlantic, and clearly defines the challenge faced today.

Canada’s approach to revive platforms and skill sets for ASW systems is to evolve the capabilities of its CP-140 and add an innovative helicopter (Cyclone) to the mix for the protection of its North Atlantic and Pacific areas of responsibility.

The introduction of the CH-148 Cyclone is not simply a replacement for the Sea King, but a new platform of capabilities within the new context. It will shape a maritime domain awareness and strike capability in the North Atlantic to deal with the introduction of a Russian submarine threat into the North Atlantic.


Capt Matthew Carere, Aircraft Commander, flies the Aurora aircraft during its first mission of the Task Group Exercise (TGEX).​ (Photo: Cpl Kelly Low, 19 Wing Comox.)

Intended also for Search and Rescue, the Cyclone incorporates Romeo-type technology and is designed to land on Canadian sized frigates in high sea states. The helicopter also had to fit within the Canadian concepts of operations, whereby the crew can multi-task while in-flight, without a need to return to the ship to reconfigure for changing missions.

While the new helicopter is built on a commercial S-90 foundation, the defence customizations include 21st century technology for information, communications and decision making.

The work flow onboard the Cyclone very much fits into what the P-8 or the Block 3 Aurora upgrade provides – the front end and back end of the aircraft shape a workflow for the entire flight and work crew. Cockpit screens now bring the data in the back forward to the cockpit.

Determining exactly who does what is also a work in progress, but at least situational awareness for Search and Rescue is now available to the front end of the aircraft, which obviously allows for better decision-making and outcomes.

What the helicopter will connect to, in terms of information flow, is another work in progress, but the platform is coming to the force precisely when the entire maritime domain awareness and strike enterprise in the North Atlantic is being reworked, and the Cyclone has the necessary tools to contribute to and leverage the new approaches being shaped.

During a September visit to 12 Wing Shearwater, located in Nova Scotia, defence editor Murielle Delaporte and I had an opportunity to tour the helicopter and get briefed as well as to sit down and discuss the Wing and the way ahead with the Wing Commander, Colonel Sid Connor. 


Danish F-16 provides test support for USAF F-35 during flight test manœuvres at Edwards AFB. 

The new workflow generated by the systems on the aircraft was highlighted during our tour and our discussions. “The tactical officers in the back of the aircraft are in charge of working the missions, while the pilot focuses on flying the aircraft.” That continues as a key thread with this new opportunity to move tasks around onboard the aircraft as appropriate to the mission, noted Col Connor.

“Depending on the mission and the conditions, and different flight regimes, we will choose to push tasks (that were primarily done in the backend) to the front end as appropriate.” On older aircraft, both cockpit pilots would be focused almost exclusively on flight, however, in a fly-by-wire aircraft like the Cyclone, the aircraft systems can handle much of the flying.

“There will be a primary pilot who’s monitoring aircraft flight and that frees up the second pilot to take on some of those mission tasks, to be operating the EOIR system, for example, or adjusting the radar or taking over tasks that maybe are not the primary task related to the mission you’re doing, but is still important with regard to augmenting information. It’s information flow, management of information, for sure, that’s going to be important to keep that crew dynamic going,” explains the Colonel.

“The Cyclone is an information-rich aircraft,” he continues, “and managing the flow of information to determine how best to meet the task is a key challenge and opportunity generated by the new technologies onboard.”

 The new fly-by-wire aircraft is part of the digital age, and this will require a very different approach to maintenance. Put simply, “fixing” will take a back seat to “changing components” in this new age of aiviation maintenance – and will continue to evolve. 


Norway’s first three F-35 aircraft are met by Royal Norwegian Air Force (Luftforsvaret) F-16s upon entering Norwegian air space on 3 November 2017.

What Colonel Connor finds interesting is how the new In-Service Support contract creates “motivation” for Sikorsky. “We don’t own, for example, any of the spares for this aircraft – they’re owned by the contractor and there’s an obligation for those spares to be available to us when we need them,” he explains, adding: “It’s what we call ‘power by the hour’.” 

The 25-year ISS contract for parts and related issues stipulates that payments to the contractor (Lockheed Martin purchased Sikorsky in late 2015) are “dependent upon how much we fly, and certain percentages of availability throughout the contract.” In that way, he notes, “It’s in their best interest to make [the aircraft] more maintainable, to make it more efficient flight hour per maintenance hour – it’s their bottom line that’s impacted, not ours.”

The new technology onboard the helicopter, particularly the new workflow, require a cultural shift in transitioning to the new capability. “We have elements of our culture that we absolutely must maintain and we have elements of our culture that, going forward, we absolutely must drop. We need to figure out which is which and that will happen as we operate and shape lessons learned from our operations. We really won’t know the right answers until we operate and learn from those operations. But culture change is clearly part of the challenge.”

Some of this culture change will become evident during multinational navy exercises that “will help shape our thinking about load sharing within the helicopter in executing missions more effectively.” The uber-challenging Submarine Command Course (also known as the “Perisher” and described as the ultimate test of leadership under stress) and the annual RIMPAC are prime examples of such events.

As the NATO partners shape a 21st century approach to ASW (or what I prefer to call a ‘Maritime Domain Awareness’ strike capability), Canada will be a key part of the information sharing and combat learning cycle as well. “We are a connected asset with Link 11 and are looking to add Link 16,” says the Wing Commander. 


February 2017 – Aviation Warfare Systems Operator 3rd Class Chase Moyer, assigned to Patrol Squadron (VP) 10, demonstrates the surveillance and reconnaissance capablities of the P-8A Poseidon aircraft to Royal Thai Navy Chief Petty Officer Sumpan Tongsuk (right) during exercise Cobra Gold. The largest theater security cooperation exercise in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, Cobra Gold is an integral part of the U.S. commitment to strengthening engagement in the region. (U.S. Navy photo: MCS 2nd Class Amanda Allyn Hayes)

The capability to process data without first having to download it to a ship, is a boon to efficiency. “We have standalone kit on the helicopter that allows mission system planning and decision making as required. We don’t have to plug into the ship with our mission data. After a flight, we plug [the data] into our own system, analyze it, and then push out the relevant data,” he explains.

“We are designed to operate as a single ship up to engagement within a task force. And as such we need to operate on our own or to network as required with the task force, without having to [download to a ship] to execute our basic missions.

“As the networks evolve, you have to look at the whole picture. You have to look at all the players. You don’t know for sure when you’re collecting data where ultimately that sensor shooter equation will be executed going forward. And we have to evolve with this approach as well.

“And, in this shift, it is about the management of information and getting the right information to the right people in a timely manner.”

The challenges of getting this unique helicopter into operations have been widely criticized, however, the requirements were very robust and very Canadian. “Our requirements were tough because we operate under a different philosophy in our maritime helicopter fleet than do our allies. We focus on our crews doing autonomous operations as we leave the ship, which is not the norm for maritime helos, explains Colonel Connor.


Dr. Robbin Laird (left) is greeted by Lieutenant-Colonel Ray Townsend (centre), Commanding Officer 404 Long Range Patrol and Training Squadron, in the Hornell Centre at 14 Wing Greenwood Nova Scotia, Canada. (Photo: MCpl Rory Wilson, 14 Wing Imaging)

“Normally, you’re very dependent on getting tactical direction from the ship. Whereas in our case, though we can operate that way, and we do, we also have the ability to be autonomous, and we prioritize our ability to retask during operations. Rather than landing on our ships and then repurposing our helos, we want such repurposing built into the helicopter itself.

“This led to requiring a larger helicopter to do ASW and the multi-missions. And all of this leads to the complexity of the requirements of the Cyclone flying ready to do any mission, because you don’t have the option to go back to the ship. We want to reconfigure the aircraft as you transition from an ASW mission to an anti-surface mission, for example. That’s what led to our requirements for the Cyclone being more robust than for the S-60-Romeo where they are configured for a certain role when they take off,” he said, clarifying some of the reasons for delays in finalizing this procurement.

As NATO Forces turn to shaping new approaches to various capabilities required for mission success, the Cyclone is part of a broader transformation of the ASW enterprise. On the horizon, other navies may show interest in the capabilities on offer from the Cyclone as they look to upgrade to the kinds of innovative capabilities that Canada has pioneered. 

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Robbin Laird is a defence analyst and journalist based in Virginia.

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