For more than a week, the ScanEagle circled silently over a suspected drug trafficker in the Arabian Sea, 1000 feet above the target vessel for up to 12 hours at a time, mostly at night, while over the horizon 30 miles away HMCS Charlottetown monitored.

The smuggler was eventually passed off to another ship for boarding, but the drug bust was part of an operational first for the Royal Canadian Navy – the Charlottetown is the first Canadian frigate to deploy with a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) as part of its tool kit.

For Commander Wade Carter, the ship’s commanding officer, the UAV has proven to be an invaluable asset.

“It has allowed us to extend the range of the ship and keep an eye on things, but also to search for targets for a lengthier period of time, both day and night,” he said in an interview from the Arabian Sea where the Charlottetown is participating in Operation Artemis as part of the multinational coalition task force CTF 150, which is conducting maritime security and counter-terrorism operations

“It has increased the time period we are able to observe a target. We have a helicopter, of course, but it is limited in the hours it can fly. Having the UAV compliments it; effectively, we can fly for 20 hours a day with the two of them combined.”

The long-endurance ScanEagle, built by Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing, and operated under contract by Ottawa’s ING Engineering, is used primarily for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). The sensor payload consists of electro-optical camera for day operations and infra-red for night.

“We can fly them out to about 40-50 miles and our connectivity with the aircraft is exceptionally good,” Carter said of the five birds onboard. “We have good video pretty much the whole time. The range is limited a bit by the altitude you want to fly the aircraft at. If you want to fly it low, you can’t fly it as far. But we’re flying out to 30 miles at about 1500 to 2000 feet, which is about the altitude we want. And we typically fly it for eight hours at a time.”

Although the navy conducted trials with the ScanEagle last fall, the Charlottetown was tasked as the first warship to deploy with a UAV. In 50 sorties and over 400 flying hours, it has been rapidly accumulating lessons for its sister ships, notably its replacement HMCS Regina, and the Canadian Forces Maritime Warfare Centre.

The first was sequencing the UAV with the ship’s Sea King helicopter on the flight deck. With a little thought and some table top exercises, the crew determined the safest way to operate is to launch the UAV and then the helicopter, and then recover them in reverse order. “If there is trouble, I never [want to] foul the deck with UAV gear while I’m flying the helicopter,” Carter said.

Since the navy is conducting an operational assessment of the ScanEagle under a contract held by the army with Insitu, and army acquired extensive experience with the UAV in Afghanistan, the navy opted to deploy a three-person army team to fly the aircraft rather than train a crew on short notice. It also deployed for the first time a civilian team from ING to launch and recover the aircraft and handle maintenance. While the combined army-navy-civilian team has worked well, it did involve an initial procedural learning curve to ensure the army pilots were providing information in “such a way that it made sense to the combat team” in the ship’s operation room, Carter said. “Just learning how procedurally to operate the aircraft took a little while because the control room for the UAV is not in the ops room.”

There were also logistics issues around obtaining spare parts from a manufacturer on the other side of the globe – “it took us a while to know exactly what spare parts are more critical than others,” Carter explained – and challenges with integrating a UAV into the controlled and congested air space of Mediterranean during the first phase of the ship’s deployment: the crew had to establish new relationships with civilian agencies in the region to get approval to launch in controlled air space and had to work through the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Centre) to deconflict with air traffic from other military ships in non-controlled areas.

However, the UAV quickly drew the attention of allied navies, most notably the Dutch. “When we were working with NATO for the first couple of months of deployment, the Dutch commander was very intrigued and asked us to fly it a lot,” Carter said. He said the Dutch have subsequently acquired the ScanEagle and are deploying with it on their next rotation with NATO. “We are learning and we’re passing our lessons on to other navies.”

Joint project?
While the RCN does not have a project yet for the procurement of a UAV system, it is in the process of evaluating the aircraft under the Land Forces’ operational assessment contract of the ScanEagle that runs through 2014, says Lieutenant Commander Vince Bellingham of the Director Maritime Requirements Sea. The army is finalizing performance specifications for the acquisition of a small unmanned air system

“From the navy’s perspective, there are requirements [in the army’s specifications] that at first glance would certainly meet a large portion of what we envision as our requirements at sea for the ISR piece,” Bellingham said.

He acknowledged that while the RCN might have some unique requirements, there would be a lot of overlap in the types of missions both the army and navy conduct, especially as the navy trains more for operations in congested littoral areas. Whether that means a joint acquisition or acquisition of the same platform, that remains to be seen.

He said the navy would require a platform that can function over land or water for up to 12 hours to conduct both long-range surveillance and observation support to activities such as a boarding party. Payload sensors such as EO/IR or a synthetic aperture radar might be more conducive to land operations than over indistinguishable sea states, he noted, suggesting the need for interchangeable pods to satisfy both army and navy needs.

If the aircraft were to be launched and recovered from both ships and ground landing strips, it would require a common system. So too if operational control were to be passed between the services.

“That’s going to be the biggest challenge, to do something CF wide, because certainly that is more economical if we can all have a common airframe and payloads with the same training and maintenance,” Bellingham said. “It would be advantageous but [might] not necessarily be the best thing for the navy due to the requirements.

“We are definitely looking at the aspect of the handover. There’s been some interest with the air force about the ability to take control of a UAV this size from airborne assets. For example, what’s the possibility of a Sea King or another helicopter with the appropriate people on board being able to take control as part of the mission?”

Maintenance ashore might also mean carrying less equipment on ships during operations. “There does exist that desire to do that transfer from the sea over to the air, to the land for maintenance, and then fly it right back again. That would certainly be optimal, to be able to tie in that joint piece. And that could include not only Canadian Forces but also coalition abilities. There may be a common UAV storage, maintenance and re-supply set up to support a multinational operation and we would just pass these things back and forth.”

Whatever system the navy ultimately adopts, all future ships, including the upgraded Halifax-class frigates, the Arctic offshore patrol vessels, the surface combatants and the joint support ships, will be designed to accommodate launch and recovery systems as well as control rooms and operator accommodations, he said. Given the limits of crew space, that will likely mean training navy personnel to both operate and maintain the aircraft, though Carter suggested a joint team with the army might be a long-term solution as well.

“We know from the navy perspective what a valuable asset having the UAV is and we’re just having to come to grips with the culture change of having this technology onboard,” Bellingham said.

Carter agrees. “It won’t replace a helicopter because it can’t do things like rescue people, transport people or carry heavy payloads, [but] UAVs are going to be a part of operations going forward. It has been tremendously valuable to me. Whenever I have more information than my adversary, I’m in a much more advantageous position.”