The Return of ASW: The Canadian Perspective


2017-12-16 By Robbin Laird

In an interview earlier this year, the Chief of Staff of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Lt. General Hood highlighted what he saw as a key area of competence for the Canadian Air Force and Navy, namely anti-submarine capabilities. He underscored that their new helicopter and their evolved P-3 which has been tagged the CP-140 provide core capabilities going forward until a new maritime patrol aircraft would be added a decade out.

“What do we need to put onto the new manned platform from the standpoint of the evolution of the network? Canadian industry has played a key role in shaping capabilities onboard the CP-140, and I would see that role continuing on our replacement manned aircraft. It’s less about the platform (than) the brains of that platform.”

I travelled with Murielle Delaporte to Nova Scotia to visit the 12th and 14th Wings of the RCAF to have a chance to talk with the helicopter ASW Wing (12th) and the CP-140 Wing located in Nova Scotia, namely, the 14th. It was clear that the Canadians are working the 21st century revival of ASW and thinking through where they would go next.

With the return of the Russian global engagement, and Putin’s skillful use of military power, the rude awakening of the second nuclear age with the North Koreans as nuclear extortionists, and the pushing out into the Pacific of the Chinese military, preparation for high intensity or high tempo operations has returned to the forefront. As skill sets are reshaped for the decade ahead, it is not simply bringing back older skill sets; it is about adapting historical lessons learned to 21st century technologies.

This is notably true with anti-submarine warfare, where the new skill sets adapt the alone and unafraid focus of the P-3 crews to the mastery of the new technologies, which allow for an ability to leverage reachback systems, robust networks, and distributed strike.

In the North Atlantic, the U.S. and its allies are shaping what the U.S. Navy calls a kill web approach.

In effect, a Maritime Domain Awareness highway or belt is being constructed from the Canada through to Norway.

How best to meet the challenge in the presence of new 21st century technologies is a work in progress. Canada’s approach to engage in the revival of ASW systems, platforms and skill sets is to evolve the capabilities of its CP-140 and to add a new innovative helicopter to the mix in the North Atlantic and the Pacific.

The CH-148 Cyclone was crafted as a replacement for the Sea King, which could incorporate Romeo type technology into a larger aircraft, which could also do Search and Rescue. And the helicopter had to be designed to land on Canadian sized frigates in high sea states.   The helicopter also had to fit within the Canadian concepts of operations, whereby the crew could multi-task while in flight, without a need to return to the ship to reconfigure for changing missions.

The new helicopter is built on a commercial S-90 foundation but the defense customizations fit where 21st century technology was going, namely an information, communications and decision making transformation. This means that the CH-148 actually is not simply a replacement for the Sea King but rather the inclusion of a new platform within the new maritime domain awareness strike context.

Canada’s CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopters are now well into test and evaluation. Crews are reportedly impressed with their anti-submarine and above-water warfare suites. MCpl Jennifer Kusche Photo

The work flow onboard the helicopter very much fits into what the Block 3 upgrade to Aurora provides along with the P-8 — the front end and back end of the aircraft shape a workflow for the entire flight and work crew. Screens in the cockpit of both the Cyclone and the Aurora bring the data in the back forward to the cockpit.

As Colonel Sid Connor, the 12th Wing Commander put it: “The tactical officers in the back of the aircraft are in charge of working the missions, while the pilot focuses on flying the aircraft.  That continues as a key thread but now there is a clear opportunity to move tasks around onboard the aircraft as appropriate to the mission.

“Depending on the mission, and the conditions and different flight regimes, we will choose to push tasks that are primarily done in the backend, we can actually push to the front end as appropriate.

“On an older aircraft, the two pilots in the cockpit focused almost exclusively on flying. Because the Cyclone is a fly by wire aircraft, depending on the regime of flight, the aircraft is flying the aircraft.

“There will be a primary pilot who’s monitoring aircraft flight and that frees up the second pilot to take on some of those mission tasks, to be operating the EOIR system, for example, or adjusting the radar or taking over tasks that maybe are not the primary task related to the mission you’re doing, but is still important with regard to augmenting information. It’s information flow, management of information, for sure, that’s going to be important to keep that crew dynamic going.

“The Cyclone is an information rich aircraft and managing the flow of information to determine how best to meet the task is a key challenge and opportunity generated by the new technologies onboard Cyclone.”

A work in progress is to determine exactly who does what, but SA for Search and Rescue is now available to the front end of the aircraft which obviously allows for better decision-making and outcomes. What the helicopter will connect to in terms of information flow is a work in progress, but the platform is coming to the force PRECISELY when the entire maritime domain awareness and strike enterprise in the North Atlantic is being reworked, and this helicopter has the information tools to both contribute too and leverage the new approaches being shaped.

Along with the introduction of the new helicopter, the CP-140 is evolving its capabilities, or to put into the words of the RCAF Chief of Staff, the “brains” of the aircraft. During our visit on September 19, 2017 we spent a full day on the base flying on the Aurora, being briefed on the evolving approaches to training for ASW and other operations, and discussing the way ahead with Lt. Col. Bruno Baker, Deputy Commander of the Wing, which provided insights with regard to the evolution of the Canadian P-3.

The various block upgrades have introduced new technologies for sensing, analyzing and communicating information for operations onboard the aircraft. Block Three is the game changer for the Aurora operationally. Block Three brought basically all new capabilities in the tactical side of the airplane for ASW, communications, and just a new way to look at things.

As Lt. Col. Bruno Baker noted: “The capability enhancements were such that we gave a new designator to the airplane.  Block Three modified airplanes are referred to as the CP-140M.

“Improvements were made in all areas, but the biggest change was in the acoustic sensing area. We added new computer and sensing capabilities.

“The technology onboard –notably the display screens and the interchangeability of data displayed on those screens including in the cockpit — now allowed for a different workflow as the cockpit crew could now see the information being generated in the back end so that enhancing SA to all stations, including in the cockpit, provided a greater synergy and potential for new workflows throughout the airplane.

“Block Three has also brought us an increased level of automation in the aircraft. So the sensors, as opposed to just spinning raw data that the operator needs to look at and analyze and make a decision what he’s looking at, there is a level of interpretation that is done by the systems that is actually tailorable by the operators: how much they want, how much they want to look at, what do they want, what type of information.”

As these new technologies are introduced, training needs to be provided to shape appropriate skill sets both to handle the information and to work in the evolving decision making environment. And this is being done as the transition is being made from the land war role of the Aurora as an overland manned ISR asset to a back to sea multi-mission ISR/Strike asset.

At the heart of working that transition is the training squadron in the 14th Wing of the RCAF. And within the 404 Squadron, the RCAF has an impressive simulation capability to shape the way ahead. During our visit on September 19, 2017, we had a chance to meet with and discuss the challenges with the key members of the 404 Squadron responsible for the simulation training within the Wing.

The team has years of operational experience and serve as Department of National Defence (DND) employees, rather than being contractors. Under the umbrella of 404 Long Range Patrol and Training Squadron, the Thorney Island Simulation Centre is located adjacent to the Hornell Centre at 14 Wing Greenwood. Classroom instruction and administration for CP140 aircrew and maintenance personnel take place in the Hornell Centre, while aircrew simulation takes place at Thorney Island.

The Canadian government owns the source code for the simulation activity, so that the team can work the simulation environment directly to adapt to evolving developments facing the ASW force. They work closely with industry in shaping new scenarios for training as well as training on a regular basis to ensure that ASW skill sets are enhanced, even as the overland operations became a key element of what the Aurora force has been doing over the past few years.

It was clear from our discussions, that the team is leaning forward to thinking through how to deal with the new threats and context of the threats in terms of training crews for the decision making and information environment in which they are operating and will operate in the period ahead.  Even though the group has embodied knowledge of doing ASW in the Cold War years, they are keenly aware of the new technological and threat environment.

And like the rest of us, they are sorting what it means for concepts of operations for a 21st century combat force. The simulation training facility provides a significant complement to real world flying, something especially crucial when flying an older aircraft, even if it has seen a service upgrade on the airframe. As with other air forces, there is the challenge of striking the right balance between simulated operations and actual flying operations.

According to LCol Ray Townsend, Commanding Officer 404 Long Range Patrol and Training Squadron

“We’re well positioned for the next decade to be a stopgap. We’re able to be the ones that can perform key 10’Oclock and 2’Oclock duties for Canada and North America in the ASW area.

“There are so many other nations that are transitioning right now with the introduction of the P-8 and Triton, from Australia to the UK to the Americans, to Norwegians. A lot of people are doing that transition right now, and as you know with any transition there is significant downtime. We can provide a major role as the transition unfolds.”

In short, the Canadians are working the return to ASW and the evolution to an MDA-Strike capability relevant to 21st century concepts of operations..

Lt. General Hood, referred to evolving the brains of the aircraft and the network in which it evolves and then sourcing a new platform.

Bombardier was always going to play a key role in determining what platform that might be into which the brains would be inserted, but now the new relationship with Airbus may broaden the choice.