They might seem like strange marching orders, but last fall Lieutenant-General Yvan Blondin, commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), tasked the Canadian Forces Air Warfare Centre with developing a way for the RCAF, industry and academia to “dream” together.

Sensitive to the frequent criticism that the military does not engage early enough with the defence and aerospace sector, and wary of the complications associated with discussions about products that could eventually involve procurement projects, Blondin sought a means to collaborate that would help the air force understand emerging technology and develop future concepts.

In early December at a Joint Forces Outlook hosted by the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI), Colonel Martin Cournoyer, commander of the warfare centre, unveiled the Emerging Skies Initiative (ESI).

The initiative falls into what Cournoyer calls a “safe space,” focused on what the military refers to as Horizon 3, a period 10 to 30 years into the future that nonetheless requires conceptual thinking today. And it’s long overdue. With the operational tempo of the past decade, especially the pace of operations in Afghanistan and a focus on immediate procurement projects to address operational needs, looking at the future took a backseat, he admits.

“We need to understand technology and where it could drive us. The ESI is not without challenges, including ensuring we don’t become perceived as favouring one industry over another, so we are being very careful to be all inclusive, making sure we are framing this into an agreed upon intellectual property framework. But at the highest level of industry and the air force, there was a keen interest to push down the boundaries of how far we could dream together.”

“Over years, the interaction between industry and DND for concept development was lacking,” Lieutenant-Colonel Danny Poitras, section head for concept development and experimentation at the warfare centre, acknowledged. “In the current context, there have been so many things happening that the timing is right to do something about it.”

The initiative draws heavily from the Solider System Technology Roadmap (SSTRM), a process launched by the Canadian Army in 2009 to collaborate with industry, academia, defence scientists, other government agencies and subject matter experts on future requirements and possible solutions.

While the SSTRM relied on workshops to initiate discussion about key topics, much of the interaction then moved online, facilitated through a wiki known as the ICEE (Innovation, Collaboration and Exchange Environment). The RCAF is leveraging the same tool, with its own look and feel, to foster discussion.

“It is a good solution for what we are trying to achieve,” Poitras said. “Instead of recreating a tool, we are building on it. And the folks who supported the soldier system process through DRDC (Defence R&D Canada) are the same folks supporting us for ESI.”

The army used the process to develop a comprehensive roadmap document. Cournoyer does not rule out road mapping future air force technology requirements as the initiative evolves, but he stressed the primary objective at this stage is concept development, building a “flexible framework” that can be adapted over time.

Initiating concepts
On the eve of CANSEC in late May, the CFAWC met with interested industry representatives to introduced the first two projects on which it intends to move forward: future search and rescue capabilities and ISR and antisubmarine warfare (ASW) considerations.

“We had to pick some initiating futures concepts that we could try out this new vehicle mutually with industry,” Cournoyer explained. “We restricted ourselves to future SAR concepts and future ISR, recognizing that the future SAR concept, although you might think it is relatively simple, it is quite a system. We are looking at a system of search and rescue, not individual platforms. That adds a level of complication.”

On ISR and ASW, the air force is looking out 20 years beyond the CP-140 Aurora long-range platform to understand what it must factor into its new ASW concepts as it considers the challenges of operations over open ocean, littorals and the Arctic.

“As we engage and exchange in the associated technology, we are probably going to end up splitting that one into smaller chunks,” Cournoyer said. “It will take some time for us all to be comfortable in this new collaborative framework, but as we split the ISR and ASW and a portion of the SAR, we are going to be talking about a sense function that needs to be common, commonly networked sensors and so forth, the associated fusion, associated command support. Although it sounds like we are being restrictive with the first few futures concepts, that ends up touching a broad swipe of air power capability.”

Though the first two projects were established by the RCAF, and it has a formal process for formulating and prioritizing concept-development efforts under its Future Concepts Directive, Poitras said the door will also be open to industry and academia initiated ideas. “We have a finite capacity in terms of capability development, so whatever is proposed will go through a selection process and we’ll identify the priorities accordingly, but the partners do have their say.”

He also acknowledged the inevitable issues that are raised when the military and industry engage on topics that could have future procurement implications, but said the emphasis on concept development and the rules already well established for the ICEE around handling of information and intellectual property should ensure a level and conflict-free playing field.

“We are not expecting anyone to give us their groundbreaking technology. It’s more about defining concepts. It gives us a target for the future. We are stressing that everything you put in the ICEE you have to be willing to share with others. That’s key for us, to make sure the process is transparent so there are no issues of preferential treatment.”

The value of the ICEE over more direct engagement such as workshops and conferences is that it encourages smaller companies with fewer resources to participate, he added.

The RCAF has leveraged the reach of CADSI to facilitate the initial engagement with industry. Poitras said it will soon be approaching organizations with academic outreach such as DRDC, Mitacs, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the National Research Council and the Royal Military College of Canada. “Initially we are focusing on industry just to get some traction for the program. But as we move forward we will probably try to do something similar with academia where we will try to reach associations and speak more directly with them.”

Despite the timing of ESI, the initiative is not tied to government’s new defence procurement strategy. Cournoyer acknowledges that there are strong parallels between the government’s interest in key industrial capabilities and the transfer of industrial technological benefits and the direction of ESI, but says while the initiative will help further the government’s intent to reform defence procurement, it is focused on long-term development of those capabilities.

He points, for example, to Canadian developed networking and sensor technology. “Although this doesn’t sound like a flying object, they become flying objects when we attach them to our platforms. It is part of our biggest capability dilemma as we break out of the traditional mode of the air force that we know today.” Where the two are clearly in harmony is on the desire to develop innovative, Canadian-made solutions that fit what the air force calls unique Canadian needs.

Human dimension
Although the focus of projects like ESI often concentrate on future technology, Cournoyer says he’s also interested in understanding the human challenge associated with new operating concepts – the types of people required and how best to prepare and employ them.

“ESI is going to help shed some light on some of these questions. When I visit my key allied partners, we are all suffering from the same problem space of trying to break free of our existing military mode. All of these information-based technologies are challenging our know-how. As we put together these futures concepts, there is a human aspect to this. People process technology, and it is a triangular relationship that we are going to need to solve in all of these sub aspects.”

With both industry and the air force eager for such an opportunity, Cournoyer hopes the partners will quickly become comfortable with the ESI framework. The payoff might not be for another decade, but he says the air force will eventually see “fielded requirements that have been shaped and informed by the discussions that take place in the next five years. Hopefully we get to some small victories along the way that will create some bigger momentum for this collaborative space.”