Back in the game: Could underwater warfare requirements drive the return of a formidable ASW player?

After more than ten years of research, development, test and evaluation, one of the most sophisticated sonars in the world is now entering service with the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN). The Multi-static Active Passive Sonar system is part of a major mid-life upgrade program for the Dutch M-class frigates.

A highly advanced low frequency active sonar, it represents the latest in underwater sensing technology, acoustic signal processing, and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability. It is the result of a lengthy and successful collaboration between the RNLN, the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), and Canadian industry.

The Multi-static Active Passive Sonar is testament to the success that can be achieved when earnest cooperation is exercised between a navy, a defence laboratory and industry. The RNLN, via a small project team within the Dutch Defence Materiel Organization, funded and managed the project from development to deployment, and provided some valuable engineering guidance.

TNO, who performs a similar role in The Netherlands to that of Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), was responsible for most of the software including the signal processing and display suite. Considerable innovation was applied to novel processing algorithms, waveforms optimized for specific acoustic environments, torpedo detection and defence, techniques for mitigating the effects of sonar transmissions on marine mammals, sonar performance modelling, and the human-machine interface.

Ultra Electronics Maritime Systems, based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, was responsible for developing and delivering all of the hardware. This included unique sensor architectures, a powerful wideband transmitter, a high dynamic range directional receive array, and robust handling equipment to deploy and recover the system.

Success through collaboration
TNO began exploring low frequency active sonar in the early 90’s. At about the same time, Ultra was developing low frequency active sonar technology as part of DRDC’s Towed Integrated Active Passive Sonar (TIAPS) project, along with industry software and systems integration partner General Dynamics Canada.

MAPS Winch and Handling SystemWhile TIAPS did not deliver new ASW capability directly to the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), it contributed significantly to Canadian industry knowledge and experience in modern sonar. So, when the Dutch decided to develop a low frequency active sonar for the M-class frigates, Ultra was well positioned as a credible partner.

In 2005, the RNLN selected Ultra to design and deliver hardware for the pre-production prototype of the Multi-static Active Passive Sonar. TNO was awarded a contract to develop the software. The pre-production prototype was a portable system that saw extensive trials aboard the Dutch research vessel Mercuur as well as the M-class frigates until the end of 2012. In fact, trials results were so impressive that the system was frequently used in operational deployments.

In 2010, Ultra and TNO received contracts for the production version of the Multi-static Active Passive Sonar, which features considerable enhancements over its predecessor. The first production system has been installed in the frigate HNLMS Van Amstel and is now completing sea trials.

Leveraging the know-how
Ultra has accumulated a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge in modern sonar technology, largely due to its participation in projects outside Canada. In addition to The Netherlands, the company’s products are exported to the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea. Approximately 75 percent of Ultra’s revenues come from abroad, and these exports are critical to sustaining Ultra’s highly qualified workforce, more than half of which are engineers, technologists, and technicians.

Export revenues also help to sustain Ultra’s extensive supply chain. For the Multi-static Active Passive Sonar project alone, Ultra awarded subcontracts to more than 20 Canadian suppliers, most of them small businesses, for key components including handling gear, precision machined parts, and electronic circuit assemblies. Furthermore, many of these suppliers have derived additional business from exposure to Ultra’s network of partners and customers.

Looking to the future, leadership in innovation is key to commanding a strong position in the market. On the heels of the contract for the Multi-static Active Passive Sonar, Ultra signed an underwater defence cooperation agreement with the Dutch Defence Material Organization for ongoing development and support of underwater defence activities.

In 2013, with the assistance of Industry Canada, Ultra initiated a six-year research and development project to develop next generation sonar technologies. This $27.4 million program is funded with $19 million from Ultra and $8.4 million from Industry Canada in the form of a repayable contribution under the Strategic Aerospace and Defence Initiative. Research activity includes a $1.2 million collaborative agreement established with Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and DRDC Atlantic. Ultra also funds a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) chair at Dalhousie University in the amount of $120,000 per year to conduct pioneering research in underwater communications.

Return to a winning model?
This model of collaboration between a navy, a defence laboratory, and industry was once embraced by Canada when it was a recognized world leader in ASW during the last century.

The AN/SQS-510 hull mounted sonar and the Canadian Towed Array Sonar System (CANTASS) were the direct result of such a collective effort. DRDC was largely responsible for developing the early processing architecture, algorithms, and display formats; General Dynamics Canada (Computing Devices at the time) was responsible for maturing the software, developing the hardware, and integrating the systems; and the pre-production prototypes were installed for comprehensive trials and operations in HMCS Nipigon and HMCS Annapolis.

These sonar systems were arguably the world’s best in their day, the result of government and industry working together to deliver meaningful capability to the RCN. Furthermore, during this era of Canada’s ASW primacy, Canadian sonar systems were in service with the navies of The Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Greece.

Despite the lack of any significant investment by Canada in undersea surveillance over the past two decades, the country’s ocean technologies companies have managed to persist. The depth and breadth of underwater acoustic expertise in Canada is impressive. In Nova Scotia alone, the Ocean Technologies Council has more than fifty members whose products and services include acoustic signal processing, smart hydrophones, sonar handling systems, underwater sensors, training, modelling and analysis, and so on.

Collectively, the ocean technologies sector in Canada has the capacity, capability and all of the technology necessary to deliver world-class sonars and integrated undersea surveillance systems, end-to-end, from sensors through to operator consoles. Moreover, the industry has demonstrated a genuine appetite for synergy. Case in point is the EDGE Undersea Warfare center of excellence that was established by General Dynamics Canada to foster cooperation between government, academia, and industry to innovate and demonstrate cutting-edge ASW technology.

Opportunities on the horizon
With the Halifax-class Underwater Warfare Suite Upgrade (UWSU) project on the horizon and sonar systems for the Canadian Surface Combatants (CSC) coming further in the future, Canada has the opportunity to reinstate itself as a formidable global ASW player, both operationally and technologically.

UWSU is critical to equip the RCN with relevant capability after a considerable period of stagnation in underwater warfare, not only to protect the current fleet against a very real threat, but to develop the new generation sonar techniques and ASW operational concepts that will be vital to the effectiveness of the CSC.

For industry, these projects represent the first opportunity in a long time for Canadian manufactured sonar to be endorsed by its own navy. And history shows that such endorsement contributes tremendous leverage for success in the export market.

Additionally, UWSU and CSC are substantive domestic projects that could foster the collaboration and achieve the success that Canadian industry and The Netherlands are experiencing with the Multi-static Active Passive Sonar.

Canada did it before, and could do it again, as opportunity approaches to regain and maintain naval and industrial global leadership in ASW for many years to come.

Dan Simard is director of business development for Ultra Electronics Maritime Systems.

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