Changing with the Times: The Evolution of Canada’s CP-140 Aurora (RCAF Journal - WINTER 2016 - Volume 5, Issue 1)
By Colonel Iain Huddleston
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Canadian Naval Review, 11, no. 1, 2015, and the original writing conventions have been maintained.
Author’s note: This article was written in collaboration with Major Ray Townsend, 405 Long Range Patrol Squadron, Deputy Long Range Patrol Detachment Commander Operation Impact Roto 0.
In October 2014, two of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF’s) recently modified Block 3 CP-140M Auroras deployed to the Middle East to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) over Iraq in support of Operation Impact. Within 30 hours of the aircraft arriving in theatre, the crews, maintenance and mission support team were ready to launch their first mission—the first operational overland mission flown by the CP-140M. To date, the detachment has completed over 100 missions, cancelling only twice over a period of four months. The performance of the crews and that of the modernized sensor suite on board the aircraft have received a great deal of praise from coalition partners for the accuracy, clarity and timeliness of the resulting ISR product. Canada’s Long-Range Patrol (LRP) Force and the CP-140M are paving the way for the establishment of a robust Canadian Armed Forces ISR system.
The sandy landscape of the Middle East is not the traditional operating environment for the CP-140 Aurora, but over the past 10 years this long-range patrol aircraft has undergone a significant transformation and has proven itself capable of adapting to almost any situation. Originally designed for anti-submarine warfare, the Aurora Incremental Modernization Project (AIMP) and Aurora Structural Life Extension Program (ASLEP) are providing the RCAF with one of the most capable, diverse and reliable ISR platforms in the world.
AIMP was proposed in 1998 as a method to gradually upgrade the CP-140 through a series of “blocks” or phases. The approach sought to balance the requirement for a fiscally responsible way to upgrade the technology in the aircraft while minimizing the negative impact of a reduced fleet of aircraft on RCAF long-range patrol operations. An additional consideration was minimizing the personnel costs associated with any conversion training required for crew members and technicians. The pros and cons of AIMP have been debated over the years as budget pressures mounted and military priorities shifted and evolved. The program was actually halted in 2007, but it was restarted and refocused shortly thereafter. A recent commitment by the government has set the final number of upgraded aircraft at 14, an increase from the previous commitment of only 10. The 14 CP-140 aircraft will all undergo the ASLEP and AIMP modifications, allowing the LRP Force to sustain CP-140 operations until approximately 2030. Overall this is a reduction in the total number of available CP-140s, as the fleet was previously comprised of 18 Auroras and three Arcturus, a CP-140 airframe equipped with radar and communications only. This reduction is offset by a significant increase in the capability of each aircraft.
There are currently four incremental “blocks” within AIMP. Each block involves the upgrade or replacement of specific aircraft systems and sensors, with the most significant change in operational capability delivered with Block 3. Block 1 involved the replacement of a variety of legacy equipment and sub-systems, dealing primarily with critical supportability and compliance issues. Block 2 introduced a modern communications management system, including new high (HF), very high (VHF) and ultra-high (UHF) frequency radios, and satellite communications. It also upgraded navigation equipment and provided a modern cockpit which included a new autopilot and flight management system. In parallel with Block 2 but considered separately, an electro-optical infrared camera turret was installed underneath the nose of the aircraft. This replaced the forward-looking infrared system that was almost entirely ineffective in the traditional mission set. The new Wescam MX-20 and the associated Overland Equipment Mission Suite was the first real leap in operational capability that Aurora crews had experienced.
The current block, Block 3, replaces the mission computer, the acoustics system, electronic warfare system, magnetic anomaly detector and synthetic aperture radar, providing each operator with a modern display screen, touchpad and trackball controls. This is the point at which the old CP-140 earns the “M” for Modernized, reborn as the CP-140M Aurora. Block 4, which is in the design phase at the moment, will add a high-speed beyond-line-of-sight communication system, a modern tactical data link called Link 16 and an aircraft self-defence suite.
ASLEP is a parallel effort to AIMP, intended to reset the structural life of the aircraft. It includes replacing the entire wing and horizontal stabilizer, and a number of additional structural problem areas are also addressed. ASLEP will add as many as 15,000 flying hours to the structural life of the aircraft, increased to 40,000 from its original 25,000 hour lifespan. This is a key factor in extending the fleet to 2030. To date, the LRP Force has received half of the Block 3 modified airframes from IMP Aerospace in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with the remainder scheduled to be modified over the next four to five years. This time-frame includes the upgrade of all 14 aircraft to the Block 4 standard.
The Aurora’s introduction to the overland ISR role began in 2006 with the installation of the electro-optical infrared camera. With this, crews experienced an immediate improvement to their ability to conduct the maritime mission, primarily by being able to identify maritime vessels beyond visual range. This improved the effectiveness of the aircraft significantly across the traditional set of domestic missions including fishery patrols, northern patrols, and search and rescue operations. Training also began with ground-based units and against littoral target areas.
Extensive collaboration with Canadian and American personnel with previous experience operating unmanned aerial vehicles allowed the crews to gain insight into basic overland missions including reconnaissance, battle overwatch and convoy escort duties. The CP-140 brings significant capabilities to bear in the overland role, and the crews’ experience over water has translated directly to the new mission set, with the learning curve mainly rooted in understanding how the supported ground element thinks, communicates and operates. The CP-140 can be deployed quickly, and its long endurance allows it to contribute significantly to understanding of the pattern of life in areas of interest. Compared to an unmanned aerial vehicle, the Aurora is more capable of shifting its focus “on-the-fly,” benefiting both from the size and experience of its crew and also from the fact that they physically are above and still operating within the battlespace.
Since commencing overland operations in 2006, Aurora crews have been fine-tuning their abilities to utilize the electro-optical infrared camera in an operational context. Long-range patrol squadrons have supported a number of high-profile domestic security operations in the recent past such as the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and the G8 and G20 Summits in 2010. The Block 2 Aurora had its baptism of fire on combat operations during Operation Mobile, the 2011 intervention in Libya. The Auroras initially operated over water, then in the littoral regions and finally over land.
And now with the Block 3 sensor suite added to the original camera capability, the aircraft is becoming even more effective. Both electronic warfare and synthetic aperture radar systems have been added to the mix in order to refine the information it is providing to ground and air elements. This evolution has created a high demand for the asset, with the Aurora recognized internationally as a platform of choice for ISR collection almost 10 years later.
In 2009, the CP-140 was fitted with a high-resolution mapping camera, the Canadian-made Applanix DSS, in a belly bay originally fitted with a large format film camera system which was used for maritime reconnaissance. A two-aircraft, 60-person detachment was charged with the task of mapping the terrain of a large area of Afghanistan so that accurate maps could be created for Canadian and coalition partners. Given the high speed and endurance of the Aurora, it was ideally suited for this mission. With guidance and technical expertise from the Mapping and Charting Establishment, the Aurora and its crews completed the mapping mission in only one month of flying, mapping over 100,000 square kilometres in detail.
The ability to plug and play specialized equipment such as the mapping camera and various role-specific communication systems is testament to the versatility of the aircraft. The LRP fleet leverages the expertise in the Maritime Proving and Evaluation Unit to explore new technology to augment the standard sensor suite in support of particular missions. In addition to equipment, the size of the Aurora allows the core crew to be increased, assigning subject matter experts and liaison officers who can add value directly to the mission at hand. In 2011, Operation Mobile was the test case for this approach, and such augmented crew coordination achieved great success. First steps were taken by integrating Forward Air Controllers from the British Royal Marines in order to conduct naval gunfire support missions along the shoreline of Libya. Subsequently, Canadian Joint Terminal Attack Controllers joined the CP-140 crew for overland strike coordination and attack missions during which the crew was tasked to locate and identify specific targets within designated areas of operation before coordinating fighter strike assets to engage them. Domestically, the CP-140 has often integrated Environment Canada officials into the crew. This occurred, for example, in 2014 in order to provide accurate assessments of flooding in and around Winnipeg.
As the LRP Force prepared to deploy on Operation Impact, the Canadian mission to Iraq that began in the fall of 2014, it was immediately apparent that the mission would be quite different from Operation Mobile. The strike coordination and attack missions during Mobile took place at a point in the operation where the battlespace was relatively well defined, the enemy had been identified and a robust coalition command and control structure established. Operation Impact, however, would begin with very little in place, and the aircraft and crews would immediately be over hostile territory, with no previous confidence-building period. The number of crew members with experience of Operation Mobile who remained in Greenwood and Comox was low, adding to the challenge of training and preparing them for this new fight. And this would be the first operational deployment of the CP-140M Block 3, with the associated support network that the new systems require being stress-tested for the first time in anger.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is more dispersed than forces in Libya, and given its early successes against the Iraqi security forces, ISIL forces are armed and equipped in a way that makes them almost indiscernible from allies on the ground. Also, there are no Western coalition ground elements supporting the operation, reducing overall situational awareness of the ebb and flow of the “front lines.” Points of interest are, as a result, less obvious, and the enemy is well versed in the need to utilize natural defences such as darkness and cloud cover to cloak their movements.
It is in this environment, though, where the Block 3 aircraft comes into its own. Undercast cloud cover and darkness certainly still hinder ISR operations; however, the CP-140M is equipped with a multitude of sensors to collect essential information even when objects of interest are obscured by cloud. The inverse synthetic aperture radar / synthetic aperture radar enables the aircraft and crew to collect large amounts of radar data and identify vehicular movement on the ground when weather is an issue for other types of sensors. In addition, the tried and true “Mark 1 eyeball” has again proven its worth, allowing the crew to scan the horizon for breaks in the cloud and thereby providing opportunities to gather video information despite the weather. Adding modern night vision goggles to standard crew equipment has also proven to be an enabler, allowing crew members visually to cue the tactical crew and sensors to points of interest within the battlespace below and around the aircraft.
Although the aircraft itself has been described as having James Bond properties, the sleuthing skills of Sherlock Holmes more accurately describe the work of the crew. While the pilots scan the skies for breaks in the clouds and for conflicting air traffic, the tactical navigator acts as the maestro of the sensor operators and communicators, orchestrating the simultaneous gathering of information in several formats. The information is recorded, with an initial correlation performed immediately as part of the ongoing mission. Information can be immediately transmitted to ground stations within line-of-sight of the aircraft for further processing and exploitation. All the while, crew members are manning the observer windows looking for significant activity on the ground that might merit further investigation or require the aircraft to manoeuvre for safety reasons. The observations and information recorded during each ISR mission reveal clues as to how the enemy conducts operations and what he might be planning next. The CP-140M Block 3 and crews have been persistently collecting clues since October 2014, and they are improving their investigative abilities with time.
As mentioned, the CP-140M is currently limited in that it can only transmit information in real-time to ground stations within line-of-sight of the aircraft. This results in a time delay in the passage of potentially critical information. In order to address this limitation, the Commander of the RCAF recently approved the installation of an interim Beyond-Line-of-Sight (iBLOS) VIASAT ArcLight capability on three CP-140M. This upgrade, involving among other things the installation of a new satellite antenna on the upper fuselage of the aircraft, was accomplished in record time through collaboration with key industry partners, IMP Aerospace, L3 Electronic Systems and General Dynamics Canada. Two of these aircraft have already been utilized in theatre, and the new capability has proved useful in providing near real-time information to Canadian and coalition partners. Beyond-line-of-sight capability is the capability most easily associated with what one would see in the movies if James Bond were to ask for an ISR feed. The ability for the theatre commander to see what the crew in the aircraft is seeing reduces the ambiguity of combat engagements and allows for a faster targeting process. It also enables a more dynamic tasking process which helps make the time the aircraft spends on-station more effective.
For the first time in the history of the LRP Force, a comprehensive pre-deployment simulator-enabled training package has been developed in order to prepare crews for the operational theatre. 404 Long Range Patrol and Training Squadron and the Maritime Proving and Evaluation Unit combined forces to provide flight deck and tactical crew training in the overland mission prior to departure. Flight deck training was conducted using detailed visual simulation of the theatre operating environment in the CAE Full-Motion Flight Simulator, while tactical training took place in the new Procedural Crew Trainer (PCT) that replicates the tactical crew stations of the CP-140M. Within the PCT, 3-D targets are generated which allow Airborne Electronic Sensor Operators to operate their systems, including the electro-optical infrared camera, and the refinement of crew tactics, techniques and procedures. The advantages of simulation in this context include the ability of the simulator and training staff to inject challenging scenarios to gauge crew preparedness and to provide a detailed replay, debrief and evaluation of crew performance.
In the near future these efforts will be augmented by the arrival in Greenwood of an immersive Operational Mission Simulator (OMS). This device is more capable than the PCT and simulates the look and feel of the Aurora’s tactical compartment, as well as the sensor capabilities. Operating in the OMS it is easy to lose oneself in the simulated mission—the crew is effectively transported into the area of operations, and benefits hugely from the experience gained.
The long-range patrol contingent established itself for operations in theatre very quickly thanks to a robust Deployed Mission Support Centre (DMSC) and a comprehensive self-sustaining supply maintenance kit that arrived courtesy of a single CC-177 Globemaster flight. The DMSC is a home-grown command and control capability which proved its worth during Operation Mobile and which has been critical to the success of CP-140M ISR operations from the outset of Operation Impact. Contained within two Mobile Expandable Container Configuration shelters, the DMSC houses all of the required communications, briefing, replay and exploitation equipment to support Aurora operations. The DMSC is unique to the Aurora fleet and has been designed to “plug and play” into any long-range patrol operation—over land or over water.
The LRP self-sustaining supply kit is another innovation that supports the operational readiness of the aircraft and the effectiveness of deployed maintenance crews. Given the large number of sensors and corresponding parts associated with the effective operation of the aircraft, preparing the spare parts list for a prolonged deployment can be overwhelming. The LRP maintenance community has refined the supply requirements from Operation Mobile for Block 3 operations and evaluated and prioritized the spare parts and tools required to support this first CP-140M deployment. As the logistical chain for aircraft parts into theatre can be cumbersome, the combination of parts and support material that was provided in the initial supply kit has mitigated delays that might have been necessary to repair aircraft. To date the detachment has lost only one mission due to unserviceability, which is testament both to preparation and planning and to the dedication of the team on the ground.
The RCAF has been armed with cutting-edge technology in the form of the CP-140M Block 3 Aurora. However, while AIMP and ASLEP have addressed a range of technological and structural issues, the airframe and a lot of its constituent parts are original and are, today, as much as 35 years old. The previous Commander of 1 Canadian Air Division, Major-General Pierre St-Amand, identified historical poor serviceability and spare parts availability as long-term problems for the Aurora that could undercut the advantages gained through the two upgrade programs. In order to take full advantage of the investment made, the LRP Force will need to improve the way it conducts maintenance activities.
These aren’t the only problems facing the fleet, of course. The new sensors, systems and expanding mission set meant that the entire family of tactics, training and procedures had to be reviewed and revised—and in many instances created from scratch. This was a daunting challenge in and of itself, but paired with the scope and scale of the maintenance issues, it seemed truly formidable. In an effort to frame the problem in a more constructive way, these two challenges have been captured in a long-term roadmap, called the LRP Get-Well-Program (LRP GWP).
The LRP GWP has two internally focused thrusts: Thrust 1, Operationalize the CP-140M Aurora; and Thrust 2, Aviation Maintenance Renewal. A third thrust, which focuses on linking the LRP community with all of its external stakeholders, is called Thrust 3, Leadership Engagement.
Initiated in late 2013, the LRP GWP uses the concept of “incremental and early success” to motivate and drive the team forward, and over the past 18 months, these successes have been many. On the maintenance front, changes to unit mandates and manning, the adoption of civilian best practices and a more effective distribution of authority and accountability have resulted in overall fleet serviceability increasing from an average of 40% to almost 55%.
In the same time-frame, on the operational side, the approach to force development and training has been reviewed and streamlined. The CP-140M has been cleared for operations across its mission set, despite significant technical issues with the radar system in particular. Incremental improvements have stepped the aircraft forward to the point where we now stand, entirely capable of prosecuting the overland mission in Iraq. These efforts have been characterized by a renewed focus on collaboration between the LRP Force, supporting engineering organizations in Winnipeg and Ottawa, and industry partners. This focus on collaboration is also opening doors to strengthened operational links within the RCAF and externally with the Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Navy.
With the recent emphasis on overland operations, it would be easy to forget the traditional strength of the CP-140 in anti-submarine warfare. International exercise opportunities and local missions with the Royal Canadian Navy allow crews to hone their skills on the new Block 3 acoustics system. With vastly increased processing power, new digital sonobuoys and a colour-mapping display system, the original capabilities of the aircraft have been significantly enhanced. Crews are capable of monitoring more sonobuoy channels and have more control over the buoys once they are launched and in the water, improving the accuracy and usefulness of the acoustic data collected. Paired with the improvements in the mission simulator and other training devices, the LRP Force will be much better prepared for operational missions in the challenging and complex underwater battlespace of the future. Initial results against a variety of live submarine targets have been very encouraging—again underlining the impressive multi-role character of the new CP-140M.
While technological challenges remain, the flexibility offered by the Aurora is simply unmatched by any remotely piloted ISR platform, and the capabilities inherent to the new Block 3 rival those of any other manned ISR aircraft. The Long-Range Patrol Force is well equipped to meet future challenges. The contribution to Operation Impact has been a successful joint effort between the teams at 14 Wing Greenwood and 19 Wing Comox, which is commanded by Colonel Tom Dunne and where one of the two operational LRP squadrons is located. The CP-140M Block 3 Aurora is rapidly being established as the pillar upon which Canada’s overall intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system will be built. Canadians should be proud knowing that these capabilities exist to defend the country and to contribute to its international commitments.
This article was originally published in the Canadian Naval Review in March 2015. Since that time the LRP Force has maintained its commitment to Operation IMPACT, now with more than 200 overland ISR missions flown. While the tactics, techniques and procedures required to effectively collect battlefield information are well developed, those focused on making best use of that information are not. The challenges include hard-to-solve issues such as communication capabilities and information-technology infrastructure, but there are also many easier-to-solve issues associated with improving the accuracy and clarity of reporting, refining RCAF targeting methodologies and further developing ISR doctrine. In order to begin addressing these issues within the RCAF, the Commander 1 Canadian Air Division directed the ISR Functional Integration Team (FIT), led by Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Johnston and myself, to develop an RCAF ISR directive, the first version, released in June 2015, is called “Spiral Zero.” This directive establishes an initial framework within which the interaction between command and control elements, collection platforms, intelligence support organizations and other ISR stakeholders can be characterized. “Spiral Zero” is the first cut—meant to focus and promote discussion—and is expected to evolve as lessons are captured and learned. It has been primarily driven by the experiences of the LRP Force, and its scope must also be expanded over time to include the range of RCAF ISR capabilities. Colonel Pat Thauberger, the new Wing Commander at 14 Wing, is focused on these issues and many others. There is a lot of work to be done, but the bar is being moved forward in important, even critical, ways in support of flying in formation and improved integration across the Canadian Armed Forces.
Colonel Iain Huddleston is a pilot with considerable experience on the CP140 Aurora, Nimrod and, as the Commanding Officer of 429 Squadron, the CC177 Globemaster. A former wing commander of 14 Wing Greenwood, he is currently attending the Royal College of Defence Studies in the United Kingdom.
AIMP―Aurora Incremental Modernization Project
ASLEP―Aurora Structural Life Extension Program
DMSC―Deployed Mission Support Centre
ISIL―Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
ISR―intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance
OMS―Operational Mission Simulator
PCT―Procedural Crew Trainer
RCAF―Royal Canadian Air Force
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