For those living in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s CP-140 Aurora long range patrol aircraft flying overhead is a familiar sight. These are the workhorses of the RCAF, capable of flying 9000 kilometres without refuelling and used for everything from searching out illegal fishing, immigration, drug trafficking and polluting along the country’s coastline, to search and rescue operations, as well as violations of Canadian territorial sovereignty above and below the ocean’s surface.

Ten of the country’s 18 Aurora aircraft are in the middle of a $1.5 billion fleet overhaul. The program is divided into two parts. The first, the Aurora Structural Life Extension Project (ASLEP), worth $279 million, is proceeding with 10 of the 18 Auroras scheduled to receive new wings and the replacement of key structural components.

“We’re replacing a lot of the major structure components of the aircraft so the entire horizontal stabilizer is replaced, the outer wings are replaced, the center wing we disassemble and do an inspection and replace the bottom surface,” Kevin Lemke, IMP’s senior director of fixed-wing production told the Halifax Chronicle Herald when the first refurbished aircraft was completed last December.

The second part, the complete $1.2 billion Aurora Incremental Modernization Project (AIMP), has been subdivided into three “blocks.” Block 1 has been completed and was concentrated on the replacement of unsupportable systems. Block 2 brought a glass cockpit to the aircraft, with the navigation and flight instruments components provided by CMC Electronics, and a complete replacement of the communications suite. The final block, Block 3, is a wholesale replacement of the aircraft’s sensors and mission computers.

Four upgraded Aurora aircraft from 405 Long Range Patrol Squadron at 14 Wing Greenwood, N.S. and 407 Long Range Patrol Squadron at 19 Wing Comox, B.C. were flying during the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise from June 29 to August 3, in and around the Hawaiian Islands.

Three of the CP-140s deployed for RIMPAC 2012 have upgraded communications, data management systems, and sensors under Block 3 of the AIMP and will be tested for the first time in a tactical environment. This biennial event is the world’s largest maritime multi-national exercise, designed to prepare military forces from Pacific Rim nations to work together in a variety of missions ranging from humanitarian aid to full-combat operations.

Personnel from the Maritime Proving and Evaluation Unit from Greenwood, N.S. will be participating in the exercise to evaluate the upgraded Aurora aircraft. According to an RCAF backgrounder, “MPEU’s expertise covers a varied and complex scope of disciplines including project management, test and evaluation, tactical development, operational suitability assessments, human factors engineering, data collection and analysis as well as aircraft avionics and airframe performance studies; all of which are conducted in as operationally realistic environment as possible.”

“One of the major improvements in the Block 2 upgrade was replacing the 1970s era green CRT screens, which showed everything in different intensities of green to ones in full colour,” Major Kurt Lalonde, the commanding officer of the Maritime Proving and Evaluation Unit, said. “It’s improved our recognition capabilities and has really improved our ability to track subsurface vessels.”

Another tool in the Aurora’s toolbox is the upgraded automatic information system, which allows the crew to track ships with regard to position, speed and cargo to provide instantaneous situational awareness.

For example, using a local context, Lalonde said most fishing vessels carry a generic radar transmitter. With the upgrades, the aircrew can easily determine that they are flying over a local fishing boat – or something more sinister.

He said improvements to radar on the aircraft also make the crew’s job easier. Now they have the capability to have strip maps and other navigational aids in front of them on their computer screens. These maps will be able to let the crew know, in colour, the elevation of the land they are flying over or the depth of the sea at any time of the day or night.

“This works in all kinds of weather. We can pull up maps of buildings, we can see the ground, no matter the conditions,” Lalonde said. “This is a real game changer.”

Aircrews will be glad to know that the Magnetic Anomaly Detector is becoming a thing of the past. This was a 20-minute test to do a magnetic comparison in the air. It involved 20 minutes of flying “up, down and sideways,” something which rendered more than one service person airsick through the years. This is now automatic and instantaneous, meaning the aircraft can be in the air sooner.

RIMPAC is an opportunity, Lalonde said, “to test the aircraft in realistic scenarios. It’s allowing us to play with our multinational partners, to test the interoperability of our equipment and exchange information. This is a chance to operate in a realistic situation, to fly against submarines and navy ships, to see what the new systems allow us to do. We can fly on a target, such as the Victoria class sub from Canada or the L.A. class diesel subs from the U.S.”

During the exercise, Lalonde and his team will be developing a series of recommendations to his commanding officer to progress with training by operational squadrons beginning in January 2013. “We’ll be drafting standard operating procedures on how to use the new systems aiming at having four crews ready to man the aircraft at 404, 405 and 407 Squadrons in May,” he said.

Carol Dobson is the principal of Carol Dobson Communications in Halifax. Previously, she worked in government and association public affairs, including a as the Assistant Base Information Officer at CFB Halifax.