Canadian Surface Combatant
Infrared Search & Track
Nov 29, 2017

The Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) program is the single-most important acquisition for the Canadian Government, let alone the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), today and over the next four decades. The new ships will fill an important gap with a modern anti-air warfare (AAW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and anti-surface warfare (ASuW) naval capability. CSCs will also provide task-group level command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) capabilities, with hull, machinery and electrical (HM&E) systems and a sufficient crew complement to support a broad range of naval missions into the foreseeable future.

Most critical in establishing critical warfighting capabilities is to understand the evolving threat. Modern sea-skimming (or potentially high-diving), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) are extremely sophisticated, and are likely to contain dual-seeker technologies (radar and infrared) with jam resistant homing algorithms to enhance the probability of a hit. 

A modern horizon search radar is tasked to detect the incoming ASCM with sufficient early warning to allow the crew to defeat the threat. Engagement timelines are also becoming shorter, so it is paramount to detect that threat as soon as it emerges over the horizon. However, ‘seeing’ a threat by radar can be very difficult in coastal regions due to land clutter returns or multi-path effects, which arise when radar returns coincide with reflections from the sea and effectively cancel each other out – and that challenging operational environment is now driving the need for an onboard Infrared Search and Track (IRST) system. 

Crucial for early warning, this SIRIUS Long-Range IRST provides a mechanically-rotating dual-band sensor head to detect Anti-Ship Cruise Missile heat signatures.

A naval long-range IRST system is designed to detect the heat signature of an inbound supersonic anti-ship cruise missile at the horizon. The technology required to accomplish this is nothing short of astonishing. The Infrared (IR) cameras need to be of such high resolution and sensitivity that they can detect the heat signature of an ASCM several kilometers away (it registers like a bright spot, smaller than a pixel, against a potentially complex sea and cloud background). This detection requirement naturally raises the occurrence of false alarms, which happens when spurious noise falsely creates a ‘target’. An IRST requires advanced signal and data processing algorithms to reliably make detections, form and classify tracks, manage the false alarm rate, and declare threats.

What then of CSC IRST requirements? The RCN AAW doctrine embraces the importance of IRST as a critical adjunct sensor to ship’s radar – since one operates in radio-frequency (RF) band and the other in the IR band, the two sensors are complementary. The sensor data fusion of the IRST and the radar allows for much more reliable threat detection and tracking, thereby increasing the ship’s survivability. To support CSC over the next four decades, a modern, next-generation IRST is required as a successor to the current rotating system. 

The advantages of the next-generation IRST approach are many. First, it removes the mechanical rotating sensor head, which requires a higher degree of maintenance and upkeep than non-rotating systems. Second, it significantly reduces the topside weight and below-decks weight, power and space requirements, allowing the system to run more efficiently. Third, the latest generation of IR detector arrays employed on a next-gen system, provide higher resolution and sensitivity to increase detection range and bearing accuracy. Also, an increase in the imaging rate enables better visualization, improving the performance of automatic detection and tracking algorithms.

Given the need for a next-generation IRST for CSC, the challenge for the RCN and defence industry is to bring the system into operational service in relatively short order. The question is, will this be possible within the program construct of the current CSC procurement? If the RCN is unable to source its required warfighting needs from Military-off-the-shelf (MOTS) to meet the requirements – what then? Should Canada accept a lesser-capable solution, such as those afforded by today’s rotating systems with dated IR detector technology? Or accept ‘single-band’ staring IRST solutions – again, a compromise to the published ‘dual-band’ staring IRST requirements and a step back compared to the present long-range IRST system? 

The Distributed Aperture Staring Array System above consists of three sensor heads with a fixed array of IR detectors for 360° Surveillance & Tracking.

One answer is to stand up an RCN-sponsored program to develop a next-generation dual-band staring IRST system that can be tailored to CSC warfighting requirements and integrated with its combat system. This way, the RCN will acquire what it needs to support CSC for at least the next four decades. 

The Royal Canadian Navy has already succeeded in fielding an IRST system for the Halifax Class Frigates – called SIRIUS. The SIRIUS long-range IRST is proven, in-service, and has already demonstrated its operational value as a critical surveillance sensor in theatre. 

Looking back, the successful SIRIUS IRST Program was a collaboration between two governments (Canada and the Netherlands) and two major defence companies (DRS Canada and Thales-Netherlands). The RCN and Royal Netherland Navy (RNLN) sponsored a program to develop a dual-band, rotating IRST system designed to RCN and RNLN specifications. 

This program spurred technological innovation and developed advanced engineering solutions including: sophisticated real-time IRST signal processing; IR target detection and advanced tracking algorithms; dual-band IR processing; IR clutter-rejection algorithms; high-resolution electro-optical camera focusing; false alarm rate optimization; sea trial data recording and analysis; and system optimization tools and techniques. The resulting world-class center of excellence is resident at DRS Canada in Ottawa and specializes in IRST systems development, production, qualification, deployment and in-service support.

C-802 Anti-Ship Cruise Missile shown launching from an Algerian Corvette. Supersonic ASCMs pose significant threat to war ships.  

A next-gen IRST system would include:

  • non-rotating sensor heads, providing 360° coverage around the ship;
  • fixed ‘staring’ IR detector arrays, operating in dual bands (MWIR + LWIR);
  • electronic stabilization methods to negate effects of ship’s pitch and roll; and
  • use of the IRST signal and data processing algorithms already developed.

For CSC, the RCN should not accept a compromise solution. The threat will continue to evolve over the next four decades, and thus, the RCN needs a next-generation IRST system to protect the ship’s crew and fight the ASCM threat. 

By standing up a development program to bring the next-generation IRST systems into service, Canada will be assured that its Surface Combatants and crews will be protected by a modern, dual-band staring-array IRST as an integrated 360° surveillance system. The program would also bring technological innovation and advanced technologies commensurate with a new warship AAW capability. 

Innovation can generate international exports and economic prosperity, but it doesn’t come for free. An actively managed program to lead IRST into the future will bridge the gap between current capabilities and what is needed for the CSC project over the next four decades. Thus, a collaborative RCN-Industry program to develop and produce a leading-edge dual-band, staring-array IRST system will support the CSC’s AAW mission today – and decades into the future. 

Steve Zuber is a Senior Associate  at David Pratt & Associates.