On May 23, HMCS Toronto disrupted her fourth narcotics shipment in two months during counter-terrorism operations in the Arabian Sea. Key to her success was the deployment of a ScanEagle unmanned aircraft, operated by a Canadian Army team and supported by civilian contractors from Ottawa’s ING Robotic Aviation.

Contractors have long played a vital role in the delivery of defence capability. In recent years, however, they have become a target of austerity measures. The 2011 Leslie report on transformation flagged the expansion of contracted services as an area ripe for cuts. But as the Canadian Armed Forces seeks to introduce new technology in more effective and cost efficient ways, civilian-military partnerships have their value.

Ian Glenn is the chief executive and technology officer and founder of ING Robotic Aviation (formerly ING Engineering). An armoured officer with 22 years of service, including degrees from the Royal Military College and the US Naval Postgraduate School, he created the company in 2001 after leading the CF’s efforts in the intelligence/unmanned aviation field in his last posting. In 2008 at ING, he deployed a small civilian team to Afghanistan with the army to provide maintenance and support of a new capability, the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle. Since then, ING has helped the Royal Canadian Navy experiment with the same aircraft from three different ships, assisted the CF with exercises from Op Nanook to Maple Resolve and aided training for Special Forces.

Although the company continues to work with the CF, ING is now aiming to “reinvent aviation” with expansion into commercial airspace, providing both services and products to Canadian and international customers for energy, mining, utilities, security and other sectors where unmanned systems are garnering attention. Glenn spoke with Vanguard about the keys to civil-military partnerships.

Take me back to your early days in Afghanistan when the ScanEagle was first deployed: how new was this for your people?

It was all new for everyone. The key was partnerships. In a good partnership everybody brings their best part so that the whole thing succeeds, and we did exactly that in 2008. We showed up with brand new technology, an 18 kilogram aircraft that was considerably lighter than the Sperwer, and within weeks were able to conduct 12 hour missions to their three and a half. If you show up with something that isn’t meant to fly at those altitudes or in those condition, it’s a struggle. That’s not a people problem, that’s a technology problem. Our key was the right technology at the right time that was persistent and covert and could fly in just about any weather. We had the right dedicated knowledge set on the civil side that allowed our people to rotate through without disruption, and we got better and better at it as we cycled guys through. In fact, the first UAV troop commander and the first UAV troop warrant officer came back from Afghanistan and a year later came to work for me. And I sent them back to Afghanistan as a key partner in the defence team.

What were the keys to building that working relationship?

As I like to say, I have sergeant majors who work for me, so how can I fail. First, I had a long time to think about this problem space, so I knew what skills I wanted. I was fortunate to bring in retired MWOs and warrants who had been air space controllers. My thinking was if you can vector a jet at 700 knots to its refuelling tanker while you are flying at 600 knots in an AWACs, you can safely manage this aircraft. And that proved to be a great choice. Having a credible senior retired military team on my side made it really easy for the young warrants and captains to work with them. We were also clear on our boundaries and responsibilities – we took care of the flight critical piece to get the airplane into the sky and 15 hours later we would take back control from the operator and safely get it down; we did all the maintenance and we were the super help desk, but we were never involved on the operational side.

Were you able to apply the lessons from working with the army to the navy or were their cultures and requirements quite different?

There are technical differences. Our job was to make the technology work and then work with the operators for safe launch and recovery. For the navy, there is a continuous process of learning about flight operations with the UAV versus the Sea King, and we have seen a transformational shift on board the ship as they come to understand what the UAV can do for them. Initially there were some technology and procurement-related challenges, but once they started to see the results, almost everyone bought in. I’ve heard that General Beare and Vice Admiral Maddison have said they wouldn’t deploy without a UAV. There were some big challenges culturally with the navy. I once wrote a study for DRDC that concluded contractors on a ship would never happen. On the Charlottetown, we were shoved in the starboard torpedo room with the control station and three births as they figured out where to place us; with the Toronto, we have our own forward space for accommodation and share the Chiefs and POs mess. And we’re well appreciated and a critical part of operations.

It’s still a considerably smaller footprint for the return.

This is a low density, high value asset, both in people and technology. When an institution decides to do something, it has to think through what it costs to deliver and maintain. If the sum total you’ll need is six guys, how do you create a trade of six? You can’t. You look at the challenges of electronic warfare, any of the specialties, there is a ratio that you need to maintain to do this effectively. And then there is the reality of service life with leave, career training, linguistic training, and more. I spend a lot of money internally on currency training, because there is a skill set. I know that’s a challenge for the military. One of the disruptive things about this is it doesn’t take much to deliver the effect. We replaced 56 folks firing the Sperwer for three hours a day with seven of us on the ground on the civilian side to run three flights simultaneously during the day and two at night, every day. Efficiency stays with a small organization.

You noted procurement challenges. Are you also able to maintain a smaller logistics tail? I gather there were issues related to spares when the Charlottetown was first deployed.

Fundamentally FedEx solves most problems. The whole UAV is 22 kilos with the advanced thermal camera on it. You have to have enough spare parts and the launch and recovery mechanism has some logistics around it, but the starboard torpedo room is a small room. Boeing and Insitu are responsible for the contract, so they worked with the navy on the logistics. The site lead, one of my guys, makes sure he has what he needs.

Contractors in the U.S. have been preparing for the effects of budget cuts for some time. Have you seen a similar trend in Canada?

My cut came at the end of Afghanistan, and even then we weren’t big. The army continues to employ us as they train, so we were involved in Maple Resolve and will participate in another exercise this summer. They’re managing costs as close as they can.

Is the value of a contracted service still recognized?

The effects of what we do are well above what anyone’s expectations were. Now, you could do what I do but it would be very challenging given the way the bureaucracy works to achieve the same effects. I am focused, every day, on service to the customer. That’s what small business is. So although I am a commercial entity, our focus as a service delivery company is no fail. We have exceptionally high standards and we’re passionate about it. When you leave the Canadian Forces, you don’t really leave – the dedication and the ethics remain. We’re enabling the armed forces to do things better, faster, cheaper. Could they do it? Absolutely, they could designate a unit. But at what cost? With both the navy and the army, we’ve removed ourselves from the key operational piece and said, “that’s yours, we’ll support you around it so you succeed.”

You’ve spoken previously on how quickly UAV technology has evolved. Does that pace of change force the military to rely more on industry to integrate technology successfully?

Show me an example where government has exceeded or met the same pace of a technological adoption as industry. There isn’t one. When I was in ADM Mat, I could never really rationalize how this could succeed. When we first showed up in 2008, we had an un-cooled sensor on the ScanEagle. It had thermal capability but it wasn’t great. Meanwhile, the mid wave infrared camera (MWIR) is introduced and the first to use it was us. When we introduced it in theatre during operations, the customer reaction went from “ho hum” to “this is incredible.” And now the navy is using MWIR 2.0. I’m not sure it would have been possible so quickly without that contracting arrangement. If the CF had bought the kit in 2008, it would probably be the same kit today.

Let’s pause here for a second. This is the key point behind contracting. It’s about the rapid introduction of an evolving and disruptive technology that continually needs to be shifting technically and operationally. Sure, saving money is important, but not the only thing – and this is a field where costs are going down, not up, as technologies develop. Also, the military could purchase the systems and develop the trades itself, but it would be almost impossible to stay current in a field like robotic aviation. Finally, in our specific context, contracting also allows for the development of a good Canadian industrial and skills basis in the field, as called for in the Jenkins Report.

How do you see the civ-mil partnership evolving over the next several years?

There is a strong impetus at the strategic thought leadership level – captured in the Jenkins report – that says build capacity in Canada. I’m a huge fan of this. I see the partnership continuing to grow, but there are bigger issues at play as Jenkins points out. I see the opportunity for Canada to become an even greater leader in robotic aviation. This is a multi-billion dollar industry and with the right support there is a clear transition path that follows the same path that we saw with GPS, computers, radar and penicillin, where things that were built initially to meet the need of the military transition into the civil market. When I meet with international customers, it’s those 33,000 hours of working directly for and with the Canadian military that sells. As we engage with oil and gas, mining, any of these sectors, that military partnership provides our bona fides so that people trust us.