Over the past 18 months, National Defence (DND) and Industry Canada have held a series of workshops to allow the defence industry the opportunity to help define the requirements for the much-needed integrated soldier systems.

The program has covered everything from boots and clothing to weaponry, sensors, C4I (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence) and power; the final one in January will integrate all of these. The goal is to create a technical roadmap for the development of a variety of interoperable and integrated systems that the soldier will use in the future.

The exercise is both interesting and laudable as it gives industry the opportunity to understand the current problems that need to be solved from a soldier’s perspective and the opportunity to educate DND on what is available today and what can reasonably be expected in the near- to medium-term.

As a result, the set of requirements generated from this exercise should be more achievable, more capable and better understood by industry than requirements generated by DND in isolation and presented to an industry with little understanding of the context of the problem.

At AUVSI 2010 in Denver this past August, Colonel John Lynch, director of the U.S. Army UAS Center of Excellence, presented a briefing on the latest UAS roadmap being released in 2011. The U.S. army has generated this document on a bi-annual basis since 2003 and it describes the intention of the army toward the development, procurement and use of unmanned air vehicles over the next 25 years. Since 2007, this has been rolled up into an Office of the Secretary of Defense Unmanned Systems Roadmap describing the intentions of the entire Department of Defense for unmanned systems over the next quarter century.

These unmanned systems roadmaps have been invaluable to industry, serving as an unofficial requirements reference that can be used by companies when determining their own internal research and development efforts. With some knowledge and foresight into the short, medium and long-term intentions of their customer, companies are able to intelligently allocate resources to the projects in which their customer is interested with knowledge of the over-all context within which it falls and the timeframe at which it is targeted.

So the obvious question is, will DND also take this experience with the integrated Soldier Systems Technology Roadmap effort and apply it to unmanned systems in the same manner as has the U.S. army and DoD?

At present, the approach to DND’s unmanned systems seems reactionary and disjointed. This is an understandable result of having been pulled relatively quickly into a level of conflict that Canadians had not experienced since the Korean War. Focus and resources have been quite rightly aimed at the immediate needs identified by our experiences in Afghanistan and the threats that have been encountered there.

However, the utility of unmanned systems in this conflict has been proven. Clearly, for Canada to be effective on the future battlefield integration of these systems into the CF is necessary, along with the associated modifications of doctrine and training. A comprehensive view of how the various systems will be used – both near- and long-term – needs to be assembled and published so that all involved – DND procurement, industry, the wider CF and even the public – understand where we are going and how we intend to get there.

Such fundamental questions as “what is the best mixture of assets?” need to be answered. Right now, each project appears to be executed in a stovepipe with little thought to how they could be leveraged into the other projects – both current and future – to best support the war fighter.

How many Medium Altitude/Long Endurance (MALE) UAVs are needed to support foreign deployments? To cover our North? How many tactical systems are needed at the regiment level and how will they interoperate with the MALE systems? How many small and micro UAVs are required at the company and platoon level and how do they all interoperate with the tactical and MALEs to create a layered surveillance and defence system? How are all of these air vehicles operated – when needed – in a coordinated manner with each other and with ground or sea vehicles?

The current approach of prioritizing MALEs ahead of tactical or tactical ahead of small and micro misses the point that the real solution is not one system over another but the correct mix of the right systems. The existence of howitzers does not imply that mortars should be abandoned or that rifles are no longer useful.

To navigate toward a sensible future for unmanned vehicles, we clearly need a roadmap to get there.

Mike Meakin is president and co-founder of InnUVative Systems and a board member of Unmanned Systems Canada.