Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) still have some significant hurdles to overcome before they can be integrated into Canadian airspace without fear of collisions with manned aircraft. But each year at Unmanned Systems Canada’s conference, presenters unveil novel applications of the technology.
For the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), “everything is about information,” Lieutenant (N) Caroline Gibson observed, so the demand for persistent ISR to support decision making is driving a steady effort across the military to integrate more unmanned capability. During presentations a USC in Montreal last month, Gibson and colleagues from the army and air force outlined that progress.
Although the Royal Canadian Air Force gained extensive experience operating leased medium altitude and long endurance unmanned aerial systems in Afghanistan, the Canadian Army possesses a wealth of knowledge with small and mini UAS and is certainly the most advanced in its acquisition process.
The Land Forces ISTAR program to acquire a family of aircraft has already ticked a couple of boxes. In the summer of 2014 the army took delivery of its first Raven-B, a hand-launched mini UAS built by AeroVironment of California and provided under contract by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates. The Raven, which replaces the Maveric, is expected to be fully operational by this summer and will be employed by Artillery Surveillance and Target Acquisition Batteries as well as Armoured Reconnaissance Squadrons, said Captain Matthew Shoniker of the Directorate of Land Requirements. “[It] will provide an ISR platform to the Company and Squadron level…[and] allows commanders at this level an integral beyond-line-of-sight sensor to improve their situational awareness.”
The second member of the UAS family will be the RQ-21A Blackjack, a militarized U.S. Navy and Marine Corps version of the Integrator built by Boeing Insitu. Since 2008, the army has been leasing the Blackjack’s sister small UAS, the ScanEagle, which completed its last flight this past summer. Both systems share the same launch and recover method.
The Blackjack, which is currently being pursued “as a foreign military sales case with the U.S. government,” will provide an unmanned ISR platform to the Brigade level, Shoniker said. Along with the aircraft, army is also developing a universal ground control station. “While it is planned to initially provide support for the Blackjack, it has the capability to be quickly fitted to support the Raven and any other further systems that we may acquire.”
Shoniker anticipates adding additional classes of UAS as the demand for the capability continues to grow. “If a platoon has this integral capability, it allows them greater situational awareness without relying on the use of systems from higher organizations,” he said.
While there will always be interest in finding commonality across UAS fleets, he said certain high level army requirements “are going to remain constant and separate from those in the navy and the air force,” including “launch and recovery independent of a runway,” the ability to operate in a dismounted role, and power solutions other than batteries that do not limit a soldier’s mobility.
Seeking a pan-navy solution
For the Royal Canadian Navy, the decision to embark a UAS was borne out of necessity. Less than five years ago, it had no persistent ISR capability onboard its ships – maritime helicopter operations were of limited duration – and insufficient capability to receive and disseminate information from other ISR assets such as the CP-140 maritime patrol aircraft.
So in 2011 it piggybacked on the army’s ScanEagle program and deployed the aircraft, complete with launch and recovery systems and ground stations, aboard several Halifax-class frigates.
The persistent ISR capability proved its value almost immediately and now the demand is high for a permanent solution. From developmental evaluation, the capability has evolved to a “project which is going to be part of our ISTAR program,” explained Gibson, who heads up a program to acquire the RCN’s next UAS.
The Maritime Intelligence Surveillance Tracking Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) initiative is composed of three integrated parts: an ISR network, a tactical common data link (TCDL), and the aircraft itself.
Extending the Canadian Forces’ ISR network to the navy’s ships and establishing the appropriate data links have been underway for several years. But fitting a UAS and its launch and recovery systems, control station and operating personnel onto a 25-year old frigate required a delicate “dance,” Gibson said.
As a result, the navy would like a solution that is not ship specific. Rather, it could be fitted on the maritime costal defence vessels and frigates as well as future fleets such as the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships and Canadian Surface Combatant. And because of limited space, Gibson suggested a universal control station able to operate multiple UAS as well as surface and subsurface vehicles, which are part of the navy’s roadmap.
Though ISR and enhanced situational awareness will be the primary responsibility, improved search and rescue, tactical surveillance and reconnaissance, target identification and designation, and communications relay are all priorities. Further out, attack and electronic warfare “is going to be a big one,” Gibson said, along with capabilities like chemical and biological agent detection, force protection and logistics support.
With the ISTAR program, “we are looking to…be able to talk with all our assets, archive and fuse and manipulate all this data on board the ship, and share it to the shore and to our allies through different systems and networks we have in place,” she said.
The navy would like to have UAS back aboard its ships by 2016. So while it will continue to explore its own options, it will once again turn to the army and its operators and deploy the RQ-21A Blackjack in the interim.
A MALE or a HALE
As the RCAF nears the end of its options analysis phase for a Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System, better known as JUSTAS, it has been weighing the merits of three broad options: a fleet of medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) UAS, a fleet of high altitude, long endurance (HALE) aircraft, or a combination of the two.
It is also studying various procurement options, including buying, leasing, or using alternate service delivery, said Major John Whalen, director of Air Requirements 8.
JUSTAS will eventually deliver a “strategic operational level UAV that can do a lot of things within hopefully one aircraft to keep things as simple as possible,” he said. “We are going to be asked to contribute to the recognized maritime picture, ensure Canadian sovereignty, monitor the environment and become a key contributor to the surveillance system of systems (satellites and other air assets). JUSTAS won’t replace anything, we’ll just become another component in that system.”
The UAS will be equipped with precision targeting and multi-sensor capability – radar, EO/IR, electronic support measures, automatic ship identification, signals intelligence – that is interoperable with the army, navy and special forces, as well as NATO and non-NATO allies. He added that the goal would be to conduct “beyond-line-of-sight remote split operations from a main operating base in Canada via satellite to wherever in the world the aircraft is, which gives us a small deployed footprint.”
Though he did not indicate a preference for either a HALE or MALE aircraft, he noted the solution would be expected to reach the edges of Canada’s search area of responsibility in the High Arctic and eastern Atlantic and then conduct operations, so one of the key concepts under consideration is the use of deployed bases across the country to reduce transit times.
As one of the first projects under the Defence Procurement Strategy, the high-level mandatory requirements for JUSTAS will be subject to an independent third-party review before the project goes to Treasury Board for funding. Whether that changes the requirements remains to be seen, but Whalen said the program will ultimately deliver a key part of the future “systems of systems.”