Tuesday, September 04, 2007

UAV: Under-supported Aerial Vehicle?

One of these days - when I find that twenty-fifth hour in my day, I fear - I'd love to sit down with some of the folks I know who wear sky-blue uniforms and talk about the CF's UAV problems in detail. Aircraft offer the highest, most readily available return on the unmanned vehicle dollar (as opposed to UGV's - Unmanned Ground Vehicles and ANV's - Autonomous Naval Vessels). There's a whole host of reasons for this, most of which centre around the fact that a live crew limits the performance of air tasks much more than it does of ground tasks or naval tasks (although I think the Navy should be the next frontier for unmanned vehicles, not the Army).

As far as I'm aware, the CF currently has two drones: the Sperwer TUAV (above), and the Skylark mini-UAV (below).

With the world's second-largest landmass to patrol, including vast tracts of territory virtually impassable by land, and the world's longest coastline to protect, Canada has need of long-range, high-endurance UAV's that can perform credibly over water and in extreme cold. We also have need of battlefield UAV assets (TUAV's that perform the role the Sperwer is trying to fill), and I'd suggest that arming them would be a good idea. Even at a unit level, Canada should be looking at miniature UAV's that can be deployed by individual units needing to see over the next hill or into the next walled compound before they assault their target.

I'm also of the opinion that once the technology catches up, we should be looking at unmanned fighter aircraft (not autonomous, but without a crew in the aircraft). It's long been the case that the limiting factor in fighter performance is the pilot - put him or her on the ground with a joystick and a top-notch data-link to fly the beast, and let the aircraft loose.

I'm sure that folks within the CF are doing just that on a strategic level, we're just not hearing about it. But I've also been reliably told that the Air Force was slow off the mark when it comes to UAV's - which is one of the reasons the artillery branch is so involved with the Sperwers in Afghanistan: the Army, as an end-user, drove the process to a large extent. I fear that pilot-centric Air Force types have been a bit shortsighted in the past, and I sincerely hope the organization has woken up a bit and realized that much of their future lies in exploiting this technology.

Unfortunately, as this Globe editorial from last week (just catching up now from the family camping trip) states politics factors too much into everything the CF does: how much money do we have, and how are we politically allowed to spend it?

Last April, it was reported that the Conservatives had rejected a plan by the Defence Department to buy Predator unmarked aircrafts - to be used both in Afghanistan and for surveillance of Canadian coasts - from the U.S. firm General Atomics. Having just been chastised by the Auditor-General for untendered military contracts, the government was apparently concerned by the optics of spending more than $500-million without opening it up to competition - especially since a British Columbia company also looking to sell drones would have been overlooked. Since then, little progress appears to have been made on choosing a supplier, with reports suggesting the government is now targeting 2009 for new drones. Meanwhile, the Quebec-based firm Rheinmetall Canada says that it has been standing by for months with low-cost upgrades to the current fleet that would improve the existing drones' endurance, but that it has yet to receive the green light from Defence.

I've had the bulk of that confirmed by folks I know in uniform. I'm not going to say we should have purchased the Predators on an ACAN - not without knowing more about the CF's overall UAV plan and which platforms could be feasibly used for other purposes. I suspect the Predator would be able to perform the widest range of tasks if we don't have the ability (read political will and money) to specialize right now, but I don't know that for sure.

Here's what I do know: if the CF, and specifically the Air Force, is interested in developing the political will required to fund the broad, multiple-aircraft spectrum of UAV operations our country requires, it would make sense to have the public know a bit more about how folks in the sky-blue uniforms view Canada's needs and the solutions they propose. Sole-sourcing is a useful procurement option for DND, but taxpayers become legitimately leery when it seems to them that's it's being used often. In this case, perception is guiding the reality.

That doesn't mean the CF shouldn't sole-source a UAV immediately, just as the Globe editorial suggests - perhaps we should. But the mandarins at DND need to justify such a course of action before anyone, including me, will jump on board and support it.


Blogger Chris Taylor said...

Depends on what we want to use them for. Predators have kinda short legs for our coastal patrol needs -- 25,000ft ceiling and 400nm range. They'd be pushed around by inclement weather an awful lot.

For the long-range coastal patrol I'd suggest the Global Hawk, 65,000ft ceiling, 12,000nm range and 35hr endurance. Put an appropriate sensor package aboard and she can act as patrol/SAR/ice spotter etc.

For a tactical role the MQ-9 Reaper seems to be the way the States and several allies are going.

12:07 p.m., September 04, 2007  
Blogger Lord Kitchener's Own said...

It does seem as though (as strange and futuristic sounding as it is) long-term unmanned aerial units are going to be the future of air defence. It's not unheard of to hear people talking about fifth generation fighters like the Lightning II as the last breed of manned fighters (maybe overstating it a bit, but it lets one see where things are heading given the rapid advancement of technology in the 21st century). This would seem to mean that now would be a good time to start using these types of vehicles more frequently, to keep our Air Force ahead of the curb in development and deployment. If you're flying Global Hawks and Reapers in 2008-2015, how much more prepared are you for whatever's out there in 2020-2050?

Of course, pilots want to fly, so this always makes changes like this more difficult. In the interim, does anyone have any up-to-date info on the government (and Forces) plans for the post-CF-18 fleet? Are the F-35A's pretty much what's going to happen? Other contenders? Is there a timeline? It seems to me, even with the CF-18 fleet in service to around 20017 or maybe 2020 that still means just 9-13 years before we need replacements, and given how long a big procurement like that takes, we must be getting cloe to decison time. No?

3:36 p.m., September 04, 2007  
Blogger fm said...

Chris (and everyone else),

There is an intermediate type of Predator designed for maritime surveillance (it's fitted with a radar) but still retains its excellent video capabilities as well as some hard points for weapons. This aircraft, called the Mariner, has performed trials in Australia for just exactly the same sort of mission that Canada would likely use it for. It has an endurance of 30 hours and a range of 6000 nautical miles. See here for details of the trials:


The aircraft is now in competition with Global Hawk for the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program -- a joint USN/Australian effort. Australia joined the US program last year some time and I understand a winner is likely to be announced by the end of this year.

I think Australia and Canada have similar requirements here, but I think it's little bit more complicated than simply one or two aircraft. Australia, like the US, is starting to gather quite a few unmanned aircraft to fill distinct roles. The Skylark and Raven is being used at the patrol level by regular units and special forces. The Scan Eagle is being used at the battle group level for more persistent surveillance (20 hours). The I-View (an Israeli UAV) is on order for artillery locating units. It may displace the Scan Eagle when it arrives, but it may not. The Scan Eagle has been supplied (in Iraq and Afghanistan) on a contract basis with Boeing, and where there is a requirement for more surveillance assets than the army has available, Boeing may get that contract again. Australia is contracting for logistics, medical services and helicopters in East Timor and the Solomons, so there's no institutional resistance to that sort of thing. The Scan Eagle and other UAVs have been launched and recovered in trials from patrol boats recently, so there is obviously an evolving requirement there. Plus the civilian Coast Watch organisation (the group of companies that provide airborne surveillance assets for Australia's joint customs/ADF border security command) have openly talked about introducing UAVs into their surveillance system. The Mariner was proposed as a candidate there and in the next round of contracts for surveillance hours, it might get a look in. Beyond the immediate EEZ environment (and the Coast Watch tasks) comes the long-range strategic surveillance and intelligence requirement that is being developed under BAMS. The Mariner may fit into this role as well, but it may end up configured rather differently than the Coast Watch coastal variant (a greater intelligence payload), so it could easily evolve into two different fleets of the same aircraft type. Or Global Hawk could win the competition and then it definitely would be overkill for the Coast Watch requirement. Finally, at around 2012 when Australia has to decide on its second round of purchases for F-35s (the final two squadrons), the Defence Minister has indicated that Australia will decide whether a portion of these aircraft should be UCAVs -- which would usher in yet another fleet of UAVs.

So, if Canada's experience is anything like Australia's (or that of the US), you aren't just going to end up with just a few UAVs. And it won't just be the Air Force getting their hands dirty.

Hope that perspective from Down Under is useful.

9:38 p.m., September 04, 2007  
Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

FM, as always, your perspective is welcome - and informative, I might add. Quite frankly, I think there should be more lessons gleaned here in the Great White North from our Aussie cousins. We tend to get a bit too focused on the giant to our south.

I think Australia and Canada have similar requirements here...

Except as far as temperature requirements are concerned - big tracts of our territory get frightfully, deadly cold. Other than that, I'd tend to agree with you.

So, if Canada's experience is anything like Australia's (or that of the US), you aren't just going to end up with just a few UAVs.

That assumes our politicians are actually going to fund to the military requirement level, and not to the politically acceptable level. Our history suggests your hope is a faint one on that count.

9:18 a.m., September 05, 2007  
Blogger Chris Taylor said...

Cold and windy, up in the basal stratosphere. I'd be worried about a 220kt Predator variant spending a lot of time and fuel fighting significant 40-80kt winds aloft. Global Hawk is at least 100kts faster -- I think its range, speed, ceiling and endurance would be the logical choice for our maritime surveillance.

11:13 a.m., September 05, 2007  

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