Integrating new capabilities: Air force adapts to next generation requirements
The deployment of an air wing to Afghanistan in 2008 marked the first time in recent memory that the Air Force has committed such a large and diverse air component to a theatre of operations. Complicating matters was the integration of new capabilities such as unmanned systems, helicopters and airlift with ground forces.
Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, Chief of the Air Staff, spoke with editors Bob Beaudoin and Chris Thatcher about the lessons learned and the challenges facing tomorrow’s Air Force.
From a strategic perspective, what has the air wing demonstrated?
The air wing embodies what we have been preaching in our doctrine, which is the integration of our tactical assets for maximum effect in a specific theatre of operation. We had the building blocks available before we went to Afghanistan to some degree. However, bringing together those non-standard pieces such as UAVs, Chinooks, Griffons, Hercules and C-17s into a cohesive family was a new challenge, something that we hadn’t practiced before Afghanistan with the same degree of integration. We started in December 2008 with the initial steps with the Chinooks and the Griffons and we were at full operating capability by February 2009. However, we were learning as we went in many cases – UAVs, for example, are a new domain for us. We’ve learned how to plan better. Among the big lessons we are learning out of the air wing development is the need to train in real time, realistically with our colleagues in the army. It is complex to plan these operations. There is a pretty involved process of understanding the battlefield and then looking for the right tool for the right job, and then tasking it and making sure it is also supported properly with intelligence, the right mode of transport and escorts, fighter support – the whole package. It’s a complex environment and we’ve had to learn how to fold all of those planning issues cohesively. Our army customers are very happy with the service they are getting from the air wing, and every time I attend meetings with colleagues from other nations, they always mention how impressed they are with our air wing.
Was there anything you had to re-learn as part of that?
We knew how to do tactical operations from a helicopter perspective. But we had to learn how to integrate new capabilities – we’d never used UAVs with helicopters. How do we get the intelligence from an airborne platform so that a helicopter can update its target location for an air assault? We had to embed this into our thinking process because we’d never had those tools before. That ties back to proper, integrated planning with the army and all those other coalition assets. There is a bigger piece of ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] in air support that we also need to know how to plug into. We have had to, in some cases, re-learn how that complex integration with NATO works and how these new pieces integrate into our operational practices. Even the Griffon, the way it is armed and enabled with its own surveillance capabilities now, it’s a new tool. It’s very versatile with the kits on board now both for self-defence and our escort missions to the Chinooks and the army guys on the ground.
Given that much of this has been driven by current operations, how do you ensure you retain that capability after 2011?
That’s a good question. It is part of the transformation piece Lieutenant-General Leslie is looking at. Part of his challenge is to look beyond Afghanistan and help us decide as a group what we need to institutionalize to ensure we learn the lessons from Afghanistan and build them into our permanent structure and sustain them. We have to find the balance between what we’d like to do, what we see as successful technologies and practices, and how to afford and sustain them. That is always the challenge, balancing appetite with the reality of our human or financial resources.
Describe the process in place to institutionalize the best of what has come out of Afghanistan?
The army has always been very good at this. They have the doctrinal centre in Kingston that does a lot of that tactical and operational “learning.” We have the Aerospace Warfare Centre that we created a few years ago in Trenton, and it’s charged with the same function to make sure we draw out those key lessons and, more important, institutionalize them. Certain things we do in Afghanistan will not apply elsewhere. We need to make sure we learn the right lessons and build them back into our organization, whether it’s the air force or the joint environment. The 2 Air Division in Winnipeg was stood up last summer to concentrate our training and doctrine in a more focused fashion than in the past (1 Air Division had everything – operations, basic training, doctrine – and it became challenging to chase all those important issues at the same time you are trying to run operations). 2 Air Div has a pure mandate of generating the air force, training it, and looking at those doctrinal issues that we need to learn to adjust our training. At some point it informs our strategic view of where the air force is going in the future.
Does that training involve much greater integration with the army?
Having tactical air control parties with the ability to manage close air support integrated with the army was something we had to relearn quickly. It had faded in the ‘90s as we moved out of our permanent bases in Europe, where we used to do that on a fairly regular basis. We had to relearn some of those demanding skills quickly as the demand for close air support in Afghanistan increased, and not just the skills at the tactical level – the person controlling air support – but also the planning aspect. How many people do you need at what levels, and how do we prepare those folks? Also, technology has changed. We used to do it a certain way in the Cold War era. Well, there have been significant improvements with tactical laptops that allow you to communicate directly with a myriad of platforms to do close air support. That has forced us to adapt our game to be interoperable with, and relevant to, our partners. We have to operate with more than just Canadians.
Given the integration of the services, are the warfare centres collaborating to come up with different approaches?
Absolutely. As the Air Force looks for good ideas, we turn to our colleagues to make sure that we’re making sense in our approach. If we’re going to change something, we check with them to make sure that they are seeing the same thing, that we’re not off on a tangent. As we move toward a future force, the Canadian Forces Experimentation Centre (CFEC) is that petri dish where we ensure those new ideas are tested jointly. A lot of it is around command and control, joint planning, fusion of information, aspects that in some domains are very difficult because of the numbers of platforms, numbers of systems. Different environments bring different types of information to the fight. So the big challenge is to pull all of that into a cohesive whole so that the commander can make sense of it, and use that information and technology at his disposal with effect. There is a big learning curve that we need to institutionalize.
CFEC has been working on building different models of tactical level fusion – how we can configure ourselves. At some point we need to start building upwards, exporting that from a tactical view – trying to solve a problem from a fixed geographic boundary as Afghanistan – to a more operational strategic level challenge. We did some learning during the Olympics. We had to create a tactical ISR framework in a complex environment with civilian agencies. We’ve seen a certain model in Afghanistan, but it is not what works for the Olympics. There are a lot of common parts but it is a different kind of challenge with a lot of non-military players and we have to integrate into civilian or government agencies: the issue of networks and classification and how you build fusion, how you get information into a common, understandable frame when you are using so many varied sources. Afghanistan keeps producing lessons in a tactical military environment, but when we support the Olympics or the G8/G20 in a domestic setting, it requires a different kind of architecture. But is still all about who knows what, when, and what do you do with it. That’s the challenge with fusion.
What are your procurement priorities?
We’re into a transition period. Right now we’re transitioning into the C-130J Hercules, which is complex because we have to keep doing all our critical missions at home and abroad as we train our folks and transition to the new airplane. The other is the Sea King to Cyclone transition, which is just coming to fruition. We’re hoping to take possession of our first test aircraft shortly. Cyclone holds a tremendous amount of potential for us as far as versatility and capacity. But again, it is going to be another piece we have to manage between supporting the navy’s operational tempo as they do their ship modification program, and keeping the Sea King viable as we do the Cyclone transition. Those are the more immediate pieces we are focused on.
Other programs that are bubbling away are the next generation fighter and fixed wing search and rescue (FWSAR). The Government recently announced that we will be acquiring the Joint Strike Fighter F-35, so we can start planning our transitions, which will affect our training system. The F-18 just completed an avionics refurbishment phase. It will take us comfortably to the end of this decade as far as being interoperable and capable of operating anywhere in the world to deliver the right effects. But beyond this decade there are other challenges emerging. And our airframe is aging. So we will be replacing the platform with a 5th Generation aircraft to remain relevant and able to operate in an increasing complex world. FWSAR remains an important file that we are still working hard on with our colleagues in government to get the solution we can take to competition. It’s been complex, as everybody knows. We’ve been doing our best to find the right balance of requirements and practical approaches to procurement. I’m optimistic we will come to a reasonable outcome sometime this year with options for government to consider. The Buffalo is definitely aging out quickly and we need to pay attention to that.
Given the debate over the next fighter aircraft, talk a bit about the concept of 5th generation: what capability do you expect to get from it?
The intent is to bring a new set of capabilities that will enable future operations to be more effective in a complex world where technology keeps advancing and the threats get even more complicated. Fifth generation, in a big sense, offers the ability to operate in very risky environments; low observable stealth is a key part of what 5th generation brings to the future fight. Almost equally important is the ability to fuse information from multiple sources. Fifth generation capabilities not only manage information but also fuse it to a degree where the pilot is not manipulating data but making decisions. There is a shift in paradigm in how 5th generation airplanes operate versus our current airplanes, where pilots still spend a lot of time manipulating systems and data to build that picture so that they can make those tactical decisions. Those are the big leaps in fifth generation: survivability and that high-level fusion capacity.
Go a step further: what will 6th generation entail? Is it unmanned and autonomous?
Sixth generation is speculative at this point. Some companies are talking about their sixth generation programs and trying to shape what that means. I think we’ll see, as technology evolves and concepts get proven out, a range of options evolve in the next 20-30 years. Will we see an unmanned fighter? Potentially. Does it mean it will replace manned fighters? Probably not. We’ll likely see a mixture of both systems. The intent of unmanned vehicles was to lower the risk of human casualties – the dirty, dangerous jobs that required a lot of risk were to be pushed off to these vehicles. We’re seeing a far wider use of these vehicles beyond those pointy dangerous jobs. Although they are a useful tool to have in our toolbox, they are not all-capable at this point and I don’t foresee in the next 10-20 years that they will be able to replace everything that manned aircraft can do. But they provide an extra layer of capability that is important to have.
We’ve seen different stories on what 6th generation could be. There is a lot of philosophy that needs to be turned over on this one. As you get into unmanned systems and you keep advancing technology, automation and targeting, at some point there is an issue of where the human is in the loop and what is allowable under international conventions when you apply these to military operations. There are all kinds of legal issues that have to be resolved before you get to that next stage of automation. We’ll be watching this keenly. The F-35 will last us 30 years, so it will be about 2050 by time we decide on 6th generation. There will be a lot of time to see how the world around us shifts. We need to have UAVs in the toolbox, which is part of the JUSTAS (Joint UAV Surveillance and Target Acquisition System) program that we are prosecuting. But we are still in that early spiral.
Does unmanned have any impact on personnel requirements?
There’s a misperception that unmanned vehicles are resource neutral. Not really. They allow you to reduce risk to certain elements in what you do. But that doesn’t mean you are actually saving a lot of people. To run one orbit in Afghanistan requires 40-50 people. In some other militaries it is significantly larger. One fighter doesn’t have 100 people behind him in a direct support responsibility. A UAV buys you different options but it doesn’t mean it’s a less costly option. The platforms are getting more and more expensive and there’s a fairly significant tail, most of which is intelligence fusion, analysts, operators and maintainers. A big piece of that is management of the information that comes off of these platforms. There are resource implications that we have to understand as we move ahead.
All of this would suggest information management is one of your greater challenges?
It’s a joint problem. All services are procuring more and more capable platforms with more sensors. Every platform I buy, whether it’s the Cyclone or a JUSTAS system or the next generation fighter, they are all coming with far more sensing capability that we want to feed into that fusion box. It’s really C4ISR. It’s a joint piece that we have to get right, building the right infrastructure – the backbone – to connect all these sensors. We’ve successfully built structures that deliver what we need tactically, but they don’t necessarily plug back in at the strategic level because the networks are not there to do that. So information right now is being managed as necessary for the operations. To move that to the operational strategic level requires a fairly different approach and this is where the CF, through the joint folks in Chief of Force Development, are working on building a long-term C4ISR backbone. Because it is all about knowledge.
You have submitted an Arctic action plan. Are there specific challenges you need to address?
We’re looking at a range of issues. The air force has been up there since the ‘20s, so we’ve always had a presence throughout the decades – we were very active when most of our radar sites were manned sites. With automation, our activity dropped – all of these systems are now done through contracts – so we’ve started to lose some of that knowledge base and familiarity with Arctic geography and climate challenges. My first step is to make sure we re-educate ourselves. We don’t want to relearn the lessons the hard way. It is a dangerous and challenging place. At times of the year there is not a lot of support available, so you need to know what you’re doing. For the long-term, are there resource implications? Do we have the right kit with the different fleets to operate in the Arctic? And are there issues with basing and infrastructure? As our partners start doing their Arctic plans, we’ll be looking at what we need to do to enable them. Is there a logical place for us to invest in infrastructure? I don’t want to own anything; I want to partner with others. There are a lot of things we can do now. Our C-17s are expanding their envelope in the Arctic as we learn what that airplane can do in harsh regions. Snow and ice operations are not something common to that fleet. But it will offer us a great range of capability once we have that airplane ready to operate in those accessible areas of the north. We are looking at other options as well, because there are times when runways are almost impossible to get to.
Presumably those options include unmanned systems?
Yes, the second spiral of JUSTAS will be to operate in the Arctic. But that’s down the road because it is a far more demanding aspect for UAVs given the climate and the connectivity that is required to operate these systems. You need the communications networks. That is part of our strategy. The Arctic is a step at a time. What is sensible to do now and what do we need to look at for the future?
You are in the middle of a Strategic Review, which could affect budget lines and personnel decisions. Do you have a sense yet of what it might mean over the next few years?
Right now we’re focused on balancing our personnel resources. We have a plan in place to get healthy, if you will. We’re not having a hard time attracting people; our challenge is to get them trained and deployed. There’s a choke point through our training institutions. We’re trying to address that with the resources we have at hand. There are always limits on how many people you can afford to put into your training institutions while operations are on going. I’m hoping once the tempo in Afghanistan decreases I’ll be able to redistribute some of those institutional leaders I’m currently using for operations. Our sense right now is that at the current level of resources and the way our plans are laid out, we expect to hit our healthy lines in three to four years. There are always resource issues, but given the current financial constraints, we’ve adjusted our plan and we’re still on target.
The Strategic Review and Transformation are two things we will have to take into account. We may have to adjust some of our plans, depending on how Transformation reshapes the Canadian Forces. Once we see what that looks like, we’ll look at the air force and see what needs to change. Do I need to train people differently to deliver what the CF of the future wants? It’s a bit of a loop. We have to wait to see what Transformation wants and then we’ll adjust our production model to deliver those joint effects.
What does the future look like for the Snowbirds?
The Tudor is good to the end of this decade. Once we finalize our transition plans for the F-35, then we’ll have to adjust our training program and NFTC (NATO Flying Training in Canada) program, which is our pilot production model. It will potentially change the way we train pilots. Once we know that, we can look at the Snowbirds. There’s no point getting another orphan fleet of airplanes. We’re a few years away from making a decision on that front. No lack of options but it has to be affordable and relevant to what we do.
An interview with Lieutenant-General André Deschamps.