Think of it as a cool CGI movie. A Canadian patrol frigate makes a sonar contact – a submarine, some distance ahead. As a helicopter keeps watch overhead, the frigate races forward to engage the craft skulking in the underwater terrain. The wake the ship leaves, the sonar signature of the submarine, every detail is perfect – and perfectly virtual. It isn’t happening in the North Atlantic but on a server inside the home of the Canadian Forces Maritime Warfare Centre at CFB Halifax.
In June 2010, the Canadian government announced its National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, the largest peacetime shipbuilding program in Canadian history. The program called for icebreakers for the Coast Guard and, for the Royal Canadian Navy, new supply ships, Arctic offshore patrol vessels and a reported $25 billion program to replace the three remaining Tribal class destroyers and the 12 Halifax-class frigates with 15 new vessels.
As the RCN’s go-to establishment for refining and disseminating naval tactics, the Maritime Warfare Centre will play a key role in the selection of the future Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC). Big defence procurements are always fraught affairs, but the purchase of new warships is especially so. And not just in terms of the cost. These ships will serve with the RCN – indeed, will compose its backbone – for decades to come. The navy has to get this right. And the Maritime Warfare Centre will play a key role in the process.
The warfare centre was originally established in the early 1950s, around the time of the Korean conflict and not so very long after the end of World War Two, to make sure, as Captain (N) Doug Young, the centre’s recently appointed commander puts it, that the navy did not lose “the corporate knowledge we had gained over a couple of wars.”
As an example of the tactical work that is the centre’s bread and butter, Young cites the first-ever use of a unmanned aerial vehicle aboard a Canadian warship during the 2011 mission supporting the uprising in Libya. “That was new ground. We asked the ships to develop a tac note [tactical note] saying, ‘Here is something we had and here’s how we used it.’ Then that goes out to all ships for use. They give us feedback on what they think – on what tactics need to be changed, and the comments will be collated and the tac note changed.” This “tactical cycle” is a continuous process, with tactics being constantly tried (in exercises and on active service) and improved upon, and then put forth as doctrine.
In addition to tactical analysis, the centre’s other mandate is advising on force development, reporting directly to the Director General Navy Force Development in Ottawa. Right now, a big part of force development is the new surface combatant, specifically helping develop the statement of requirements for any possible bids.
“Our part will be about the capabilities for the weapons and sensors,” says Young. He emphasizes capabilities. “We don’t look at specific systems and say, oh, it’s got to have a 76 mm gun.” The navy may, for example, want these ships to be able to attack targets on shore, a particular capability, without specifying what sort of weapon – gun or missile – could actually be mounted on the vessels. “[It is] a possibility that we may be operating in a littoral zone and need to influence events ashore. It could be a gun, it could be a missile, it could be both. What do we really think the ships will do and what do they really need?” Other branches of the navy will be developing other specifications.
The warfare centre will also play an active role in evaluating the bids the RCN receives, using what Young refers to as their “robust modeling and simulation capability.” Speak of simulation in a military context, and you might first think of the sorts of trainers used by the air force to train pilots. Those are simulators. Simulation is something different, however. These are complex software tools for playing out tactical problems in the two “environments” – above water and undersea – that warships operate in.
Some of the tools are the creation of the centre, “others we do in cooperation with our allies,” says Young. “Two of the models we use are commercially available.” One, Odin, used for simulating undersea warfare, gives an idea of the versatility of these modeling tools. Licensed from Atlas Electronic (UK), Odin can be used to run realistic scenarios, ranging from a single torpedo launch to complex operations involving a group of ships aided by sonobuoy-dropping helicopters chasing a submarine. False contacts, wake noises, all the variables of undersea warfare are included. These simulation models are constantly updated and modified in the light of new experience, “the same way a company might buy Windows and play with it,” says Young.
“When the [CSC] bids actually come in, our role will then be to take the bids and be part of the evaluating process. These bids aren’t just a folder, they are binder after binder of information,” he says. Using this information the experts at the centre will be able to create a virtual copy of each proposed design and then test its war fighting capabilities. “We will be able to run literally thousands and thousands of scenarios,” Young says.
“We’ll be able to kick the tires on all those bids. If we said, ‘We want X, Y and Z,’ and the bidder comes back to us saying, ‘Here’s my X, Y and Z,’” thanks to the simulations and modeling, “we will be able to say ‘Well, X actually never works.’ We’ll be able to say, ‘Look this is what the science tells us.’
“My personal belief is that is the right way to do it,” he emphasizes. “You get the right answer: no influence other than the capabilities and the model.”
Ian Coutts is a freelance writer, author of four books, and a frequent contributor to Vanguard. His writing has appeared in Toronto Life, Canadian Business, the Globe and Mail, and elsewhere.