Saturday, 6 April 2013

UAVs for patrols.

Great shot, but not routine.
"Patrolling the arctic with only a single engine is too dangerous!"  This is one of the most common arguments both the F-35 and the Gripen.  They imagine jet fighters maintaining a constant vigil while flying over the snowy tundra and then imagine the calamity in store for the poor pilot if his or engine flames out over the snowy wasteland.

Well...  This doesn't happen.  Keeping a multi-million dollar aircraft in the air by burning thousands of dollars of fuel per hour is a terribly inefficient way to detect incursion. The airspace over Canada's frozen north is monitored with ground based radar installations.  Every so often, a blip will come up and fighters are sent to investigate.  It sounds simple in principle, but Cold War mentality rears its ugly head from time to time.

The truth is, the threat of Russian bombers flying over the North Pole to drop nuclear payloads on Canada and the U.S. is so minuscule that it hardly bears mention anymore.  No, the priority now isn't to defend the airspace above the ice and snow, but the resources below it.

As the polar ice caps melt, what was once inaccessible now becomes a potential drilling site.  Who-owns-what becomes more important than simple bragging rights.  A substantial oil find, precious metals, or similar find could have major implications on the world stage.  Nations will not only have to positively lay claim to an area, they will need a physical presence.  This means surveying the area not with radars that look up, but by looking down.

Canada's current arctic patrol aircraft, the CP-140 Aurora.
Currently, the bulk of Canada's arctic aerial patrol duties are handled by the CP-140 Aurora.  A derivative of the P-3 Orion, the Aurora is primarily a anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft.  Designed for detecting enemy submarines hidden off coastal waters, the Aurora is more than suited for the task.  In fact, it's complete overkill.  Fitted with sonobouys, a MAD boom, and even torpedoes, the Aurora is brings a lot of equipment that will likely never even be needed, but you never know.

The Aurora makes for an excellent patrol aircraft, but it has its drawbacks, especially for arctic duty.  It carries a crew of 8-15 over the very inhospitable landscape, not only is this a potential safety issue (many Aurora aircrew are trained in arctic survival) but it is a cost issue as well.  Those crew-members need to be paid, fed, and otherwise provided for.  The aircraft itself is rather expensive, both to procure and maintain.  The airframe itself is nearing the end of its lifecycle, although it has been kept in service thanks to various costly life-extension programs.  The aircraft itself is stationed out of Comox, BC, and Greenwood, NS; meaning that a significant portion of its arctic patrol time is spent simply getting there.

Clearly there is a need for new patrol aircraft, both for arctic and maritime patrol.

There is a very good possibility of that aircraft being a UAV.

UAVs, also known as "drones" have been controversial as of late, with images if "Terminator" like war machines coldly hunting down innocent victims. The truth is, most UAVs are used strictly for surveillance. One of the most ambitious UAV designs in operation is the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.

Northrop Grumman's proposed "Polar Hawk".
Intended for the high altitude, long endurance (HALE) role, the Global Hawk can fly for up to 28 hours and cover 14,000 km at an altitude of 60,000ft. It packs an impressive array of sensors, cameras, and radar imaging equipment. Those images can be sent back nearly instantly to ground operators by a satellite link.

Canada was involved in the Global Hawk program previously, but backed out. Northrop Grumman is still pitching the Global Hawk to Canada, however, with two variants. The Polar Hawk, suited for arctic duty; and the MQ-4C Triton, specializing in maritime patrol.

The MQ-4C Triton

UAVs for arctic patrol seems like a no-brainer. It eliminates the risk of flying personnel over inhospitable territory, along with reducing the need for search-and-rescue assets if that aircraft went down. Instead, the UAVs operators can stay safe in warm at the airbase, handing off control at the end of their shift.  An arctic patrol UAV may also be just the thing for CFB Goose Bay.

As far as maritime patrol goes, a UAV is capable of doing much, but not all, of the job done by aircraft like the CP-140 Aurora. Again, the crew is kept safe at home base and can be easily switched off to avoid fatigue. A UAV is also much smaller and cheaper to fly, requiring less fuel and crew. In a manned patrol aircraft, accommodations must be made for relief crew, meals, survival equipment, and the like. This drives up weight, fuel use, and operating cost.

I am not suggesting completely replacing the Aurora with the Triton UAV. The Triton is nowhere near as capable, especially in terms of submarine detection, it is also incapable of carrying weapons. As a supplement to the Aurora, however, a UAV like the Triton could be invaluable. The CP-140 is getting on in years, and managing its airframe flight hours is now becoming a concern. Using a UAV for missions like fisheries patrol and search and rescue operations would allow the Aurora to concentrate more on its ASW (anti-submarine warfare) role.

Global Hawk flight profile.
It could be the right time to procure the Global Hawk. Despite its capabilities, it has met with limited operational success in the USAF. It turns out that the nearly 60-year old U-2 spy plane is capable of performing the Global Hawk's role at a cheaper cost, and that the RQ-4 hasn't matched expectations. Indeed, one of the reasons why the USAF is sticking with the U-2 is for its ability to take pictures with its wet-film camera. Yes, you read that right.  Current RQ-4s may be mothballed, and production ended. The U.S. Navy still plans on keeping its Tritons however, as long as it remains affordable.

As with anything else these days, one of the biggest questions is cost.  The Global Hawk isn't known for being cheap, but its development costs have already been paid for and the aircraft is operational.  It is also likely much more affordable than a future maritime patrol aircraft such as the P-8 Poseidon.  Perhaps Canada should take advantage of pending USAF Global Hawk retirement and attempt to  replicate the C-17 procurement by purchasing a few "lightly used" or surplus Global Hawks, along with the necessary systems. They could be converted to either Triton or Polar Hawk spec, or some combination of the two to make a Canada specific version. Canada would have different needs then the USAF, with no option of using a 55 year-old, single engine U-2 for arctic or maritime patrol.

Of course, any Canadian version of the Polar Hawk would be strictly unarmed.  No need to join the "Drone Strikes" controversy.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that the Global Hawk would probably the best UAV for patroling airspace. It costs less to buy and operate and it can patrol the airspace for extended periods of time, while being controlled from the ground. Consequently, these capabilities must be implemented in a fighter jet.

    In practice, this means that a quick reaction force must be capable of reacting very fast, if the UAVs senses an enemy aircraft. So the fighter aircraft should be capable of accelerating and climbing fast to its service ceiling and cruise supersonically until it reaches the enemy contact. All three eurocanards, typhoon, rafale and Gripen, can perform well in this role, wherein the typhoon is arguably the best of the bunch. The F-35's slow accelerations, low top speed and inability to supercruise means that the "5th generation stealth" aircraft is the least suited. The super hornet F-18 should do the job, but I don't think the F-18 can supercruise.