Trouble with transitions

Forgive BGen Michel Lalumiere if he begins to sound like a broken record. But his answer to any question about Air Force development and new capabilities–a new information network, fifth-generation fighter jet data fusion, remotely-piloted aircraft surveillance systems, enhanced search and rescue sensors, or the future of anti-submarine warfare systems–always begins with one word: people.

The key to any new or upgraded aircraft are the people. Pte Hugo Montpetit Photo
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The Liberal government’s defence policy of 2017 put some much-needed funding and a “lot of clarity” behind a lengthy list of Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) major and minor capital projects, everything from space-based maritime domain awareness and satellite communications, to air-to-air refuelling tankers, multi-mission aircraft and modernized helicopters.

But in an Air Force of just over 15,000 personnel, military and civilians, the transition from a legacy aircraft to a new one–or even the modernization of an existing platform with improved systems–can quickly strain the training and operational squadrons. Temporarily surging a capability as the RCAF did with unmanned aerial systems in Afghanistan is one thing; sustaining it for a longer period is another.

And as much as Lalumiere, the director general of Air Force Development, might wish to hit a pause button to allow aircrews, maintainers and logistics specialists the time to bring a new platform into service, the reality is that RCAF Wings have never been busier. And ensuring a level of high readiness for operations trumps all.

So, the first question when weighing the merits of any acquisition or upgrade project, which average around seven years to complete, is always the same: How will it impact people? Automation and artificial intelligence may one day lighten the workload, but for now every platform, even unmanned systems, remains people intensive. Any transition fraught with additional personnel requirements presents a problem.

The transition of aircrews from the CH-124 Sea King to the CH-148 Cyclone has been a key part of the maritime helicopter project. Mike Reyno Photo

“It’s always about people because we’re definitely not that automated yet,” Lalumiere told RCAF Today in a recent wide-ranging interview. “We think about people first … and we have to prepare well in advance for all of these transitions.”

The RCAF views existing platforms and acquisition projects through a lens of AIR Power: Agility, integration, reach and power. That translates as an ability to perform a variety of missions with a single platform over great distance while integrating seamlessly with allies, other agencies and sister services.

But it equally applies to maintenance, logistics, procurement, data architecture, information management, and other enabling systems–even government policy. An advanced fighter jet will not achieve its expected performance if what the military calls key “enablers” and supporting systems are not equally advanced.

“What does it mean to build a fifth-generation air force? It quickly goes beyond the fighters,” acknowledged Lalumiere. “A lot of what the fighter needs to operate at that level actually comes from the rest of the Air Force. It’s a very fundamental question from an organization perspective, because it means important investment: People and money. We think money is the hard part; it’s actually people.”

Daunting as that might seem, the Air Force has been here before, he noted. In previous eras of change, it has made decisions about the capabilities in which it would invest. “We have tough choices to make,” he said about the list of projects. “But we don’t have all the capabilities today that we might have described a decade or 20 years ago because we [recognized] we would have to pick and choose.”

Future Aircrew Training

Near the top of the project list is Future Aircrew Training (FAcT), a program that has evolved in recent years to encompass not only pilot training but also air combat systems officers (ACSO) and airborne electronic sensor operators (AESOPs).

The RCAF plans to retire its four CC-130HT Hercules tankers, operated by 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron in 2020/2021. DND Photo

Pilot training is currently delivered under two contracted programs, NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC) and Contracted Flying Training and Support (CFTS), while ACSOs and AESOPs are developed at 402 Squadron at 17 Wing Winnipeg, Man. NFTC and CFTS are scheduled to phase out in 2023 and 2027, respectively.

Incorporating ACSOs and AESOps under the same umbrella as pilot training is a way to better manage available training aircraft, instructors and course standards, and recognition that the current practice of integrating the three trades at the operational training unit is too late in the process and needs to begin much earlier, Lalumiere explained.

The RCAF has sought information from industry at regular intervals since 2013 on how the program should be structured and delivered. In early May, the government hosted a multi-day session with companies to brief on the planned procurement approach, key milestones and core requirements, and hold one-on-one meetings.

One of the objectives, said Lalumiere, is to capitalize on the experience companies have gained in recent years providing training services in Canada and globally. Many are now able to offer solutions that weren’t possible when the RCAF first initiated discussions almost a decade ago about future aircrew training.

Team SkyGuardian is combining the best of Canadian industry with the advanced medium-altitude, long-endurance MQ-98 to fulfill Canada’s RPAS project requirements. General Atomics Photo

Of note, CAE and KF Aerospace, the two prime contractors for NFTC and CFTS, in May announced a joint venture called SkyAlyne to develop and deliver military aircrew training in Canada. While the two companies continue to manage the existing programs, the joint venture will focus on building synergies between them.

Among the FAcT requirements is an increase in the throughput of all three trades. But that will create a demand for more trainers. Aircrew training today is primarily provided by serving qualified flight instructors, but the door is open for a greater mix of military and contracted instruction, he said.

The RCAF is also seeking input from industry on the location and quantity of training centres and possible consolidation. To aid industry with their eventual proposals, “we have a few studies ongoing that try to describe the airspace capacity over those training areas and what we can do within that,” added Lalumiere.

But what concerns him most is the transition phase.  “All of this will have to be seamless,” he said, noting that both the legacy and new programs might overlap at the same locations for a period, again creating a huge demand on people.

Strategic Tanker Transport Capability

The RCAF had also planned to hold off on a decision on the next air-to-air refuelling tanker until after the next fighter jet was announced. However, as most replacement contenders are capable of fuelling whichever aircraft is acquired and could interoperate easily with allies, the STTC project is now a higher priority.

A Royal Canadian Air Force CC-150 Polaris from 437 Transport Squadron takes off to conduct an air-to-air refuelling mission during Exercise Maple Flag. OS Erica Seymour Photo

One of the reasons for that is the lack of agility with the five CC-150 Polaris aircraft. Just two are fitted for tanking and both are probe and drogue; two more provide passenger and cargo transport, and the fifth is fitted for strategic government transport.

A recent report prepared for the RCAF on the health of the Polaris found the “fleet is doing well, but the [aircraft are] not interchangeable,” said Lalumiere. That lack of agility and interoperability with allies is driving requirements for both boom and probe and drogue refuelling systems, and for greater sensor and network interoperability.

The RCAF plans to retire its four H-model CC-130 Hercules tankers, operated by 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 17 Wing Winnipeg, in 2020/2021. So, whether the CC-150 replacement requires five, six or more aircraft remains to be seen.

To address Lalumiere’s perpetual people challenge, the Air Force would like a jet with the endurance to reach any destination on one fuel stop, though he said a market analysis would inform what’s possible. “If we do two [or] three fuel stops, and my crew day is actually over after one fuel stop, we need to put split crews at these stops,” he observed. “We need to be more effective.”

Canadian Multi-Mission Aircraft

Arguably one of the more captivating projects on the Air Force Development list is CMMA. Originally billed as a replacement program for the CP-140M Aurora long range patrol aircraft, Air Force officials have now indicated the eventual solution could be a mix of aircraft. Recently retired RCAF commander LGen Mike Hood spoke often at public events and in interviews of transferring much of the world-leading ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) and anti-submarine warfare technology on the Aurora to a Bombardier-built platform.

The Grob G-120A is currently being used for primary and basic training at the Southport Aerospace Centre in Portage la Prairie, Man. Cpl Vicky Lefrancois Photo

But at an industry outlook in April, officials suggested rather than a one-for-one platform replacement, CMMA could be a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft.

“It’s been pretty amazing what has been accomplished with the CP-140,” said Lalumiere. But “I think the [future] challenges will be of such a magnitude that we will have to come to them with a holistic set of capabilities.”

Rather than a single project with a start and finish date, he said the more likely scenario is a rolling introduction of platforms and systems with open architecture to match the pace of technology. “We can phase in what we need when it’s ready and we can continue phasing in as the next capabilities become ready.”

Remotely-Piloted Aircraft System

Once known as the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System, or JUSTAS, the project to acquire a remotely piloted aircraft (RPAS) now has a more accessible name. But the requirements remain largely the same. Today, though, industry is better equipped to meet them.

Lalumiere believes the market has evolved since the RCAF first stood up a project office in 2005 to look at a medium altitude, long endurance unmanned capability, to the point where challenges such as operating in unsegregated air space, that once seemed “like mountains,” have now been largely resolved.

BGen Michel Lalumiere. DND Photo

But the personnel requirements posed by unmanned systems loom large. Managing the data processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) generated by the sensor suite in a long range and long endurance capability–which is the true force multiplier aspect, he noted–requires a sizeable force.

“This will be the keystone project that will initiate the delivery of a sustainable PED capability by the RCAF,” he said.

“[My staff] have not agreed on how many trades they’ve been describing to me, but I know we are already into double digits,” he added of the number of people required to stand up a squadron and sustain the capability, including the distribution of data, from a main operating base and forward locations in Canada and on international missions.

One key question still to be answered is whether the RPAS solution is one platform capable of ISR and target acquisition and strike missions, or two with distinct domestic and expeditionary configurations and payloads. “The analysis work is looking at that,” he said.

But whatever is acquired must be interoperable and able to share data with 5 Eyes (Canada, U.S., U.K, Australia and New Zealand), NATO and coalition allies, a process that likely has defence policy implications, he added.

Griffon Limited Life Extension

Replacement of the CH-146 Griffon may provide the next major helicopter procurement opportunity for industry–and with some intriguing possibilities. The RCAF, National Defence and Bell have been closely monitoring the structure of the 20-year-old utility helicopter and believe it can continue to perform “yeoman’s work” in conflict zones from Afghanistan to Haiti, Iraq and Mali until the early 2030s with a limited life extension.

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The CH-146 Griffon will soon go through a limited life extension program that will address several obsolescence issues with its avionics and other onboard systems. Mike Reyno Photo

The project would address several obsolescence issues with avionics and other onboard systems, meet new regulatory requirements, and improve connectivity.

But the RCAF is also looking beyond 2030 to the eventual replacement. Like CMMA, the eventual solution might not be a single aircraft but rather a “tactical system,” observed Lalumiere, with the agility, integrated weapons and sensors, satellite connectivity, and endurance to fulfill a range of roles from escort and transport to close air support and perhaps attack. “Is it going to be only one aircraft or is it becoming a system? I’m going to be fascinated by the answer.”

Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue

With a new search and rescue airplane selected in the Airbus CC-295W, the RCAF has completed one of the lengthier procurement processes and is now into delivery of the first aircraft in 2019 and construction of a new search and rescue training centre at 19 Wing Comox.

The first of 16 CC-295Ws will be delivered to the RCAF late in 2019. They will operate alongside the CH-149 Cormorant, which will soon begin to go through a mid-life upgrade to bring it up to the latest AW101 standard. Mike Reyno Photo

Though the CC-295W is expected to be a game-changing capability, its entry into service underscores Lalumiere’s people management challenges. SAR is a 24/7, year-round, high-readiness service that can’t be disrupted. Yet over the next few years, fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircrew training, new simulators, the Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue, and training provided to CC-130H crews in Trenton will all be consolidated into a single, effective and holistic schoolhouse.

“Part of the decision to acquire the CC-295W was also the retirement of the H model Hercs, including the tanker models,” he explained. “The plan is to transition [those aircrews] to FWSAR,” allowing the RCAF to maintain a high-readiness posture while simultaneously undergoing training on the new and upgraded aircraft. “These crews will help us achieve that success.”

TIC3 Air

Underpinning the success of many of these new and pending platforms is a little-known project called Tactical Integrated Command, Control, Communications – Air (TIC3-Air).

Future Aircrew Training has evolved to encompass not only pilot training but also air combat systems officers (ACSO) and airborne electronic sensor operators (AESOPs). Mike Reyno Photo

Historically, the RCAF has purpose-built its data links for each expeditionary operation or domestic exercise, forming ad hoc networks to move, process and access the data generated by aircraft mission systems and payload sensors. TIC3 Air aims to build a more durable information highway, including establishing permanent Link-16 ground entry stations at locations across Canada.

The project also involves modernized traffic management and air defence radios and cryptography. The challenge, said Lalumiere, is that no sooner has the project team defined a capability then the technology improves and “new needs start to surface.”

TIC 3 Air will “clean up” and optimize the various systems, he said, but it, too, will draw significantly on RCAF professional personnel at its core for success.

“We will ensure that this capability will be integrated in the larger enterprise ground IT infrastructure supporting the [Canadian Armed Forces]. This remains a key priority in the Information Management Group.”

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