Canada and UAVs

(This article is a precis of Bill March's presentation at the 2009 CAHS national convention in Belleville:)

Bill March tells the story of a briefing into the crash of a certain Canadian Forces aircraft.

The PowerPoint presentation flashed onto the screen was a blank.

The recovery team that went to the scene of the crash near Kabul found nothing there: every single scrap of material had been removed by the frugal Afghanis among whom it had crashed — and there was no pilot or crew members to give testimony for there was no crew.

The aircraft was a CU-161 Sperwer unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

“This one remains on the books because they cannot find the airplane,” said March, a long-time CAHS members who “pinch-hit” for another speaker. “Possibly it’s a black-market toaster. We just don’t know where it is.”

That strange incident was only one of the Sperwer’s historical distinctions: it was an aircraft bought by the army (not the air force) and was intended to be operated, maintained and flown by artillerymen – though it was, technically speaking, owned by the air force. And on an hour-by-hour basis, March said it appears to have been the most expensive aircraft to have been in Canadian military service.

The Sperwer is, in March’s words, “an interesting piece of technology”. Taking its name from the Latin phrase for “little owl”, it entered the Canadian Forces inventory right after the federal government announced it would commit troops to Afghanistan back in late 2001. It was to be used to provide UAV surveillance of convoys, in particular.

The Sperwer (which is now leaving Canadian military service) is a French product with a fuselage roughly the size of a Cessna 150. It is capable of operating as high as 20,000 feet – which caught the attention of the air force, which belatedly assigned some pilots, navigators (whoops … air combat system operators) and maintenance personnel to the project, producing what March figures to have been one of the most truly integrated units in the Canadian Forces.

It is of composite construction and powered by what he calls a modified “lawnmower engine”— which is inexpensive, but has a different cost. That’s because its distinctive sound and normal operating altitude of about 1,000 feet betrayed its presence to “the bad guys”.

As well, “it doesn’t take off so much as it is thrown into the air by a hydraulic launcher — a catapult — the same technology that you use to break down medieval walls … that’s the technology involved.”

The problem with this is that the rapid acceleration of the launch could damage the sensitive surveillance electronics aboard the UAV. That was taken in stride: because enemy forces had come to associate the presence of the Sperwer with artillery shells raining down on them, they would generally flee when there came the sound of one that — without their knowledge — had no surveillance capability because of damaged electronics. “So it basically did its job and the bad guys went away,” March said.

Canada initially acquired 14 CU-161s; flying in what March called “the edge of its operating envelope” in the heat, high altitude and dust of Afghanistan, seven were lost within only one month. Because of the Sperwer’s technical shortcomings, many other NATO partners decided to end their use of this type, putting their remaining aircraft up for sale.

The Canadian government took the opportunity to buy some of these used UAVs. This purchase “didn’t really really replace the losses; all it did was sorta give us more fodder for the catapult,” said March, adding it can be thought of as “19th Century technology dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th Century — and trying to operate it in a 21st Century combat environment.

All things considered, "it did a pretty good job.”

That allowed March to make several observations about the human factors involved in the Sperwer’s operation. The ground station was a “tin box” containing a TV screen and a joystick with which it was controlled – all mounted on the back of a truck into which were rammed an operator, and, often, a pilot, a payload operator to operate the surveillance camera, intelligence officer. Given that there was no air conditioning, personnel efficiency could not be maintained – in the opinions of the air force personnel overseeing the project – beyond four hours at a time. The army looked askance at this becuase its personel traditionally were expected to remain alert and at their stations for 18 or 20 hours at a time; only belatedly did it acknowledge the air force’s view.

With the work of the Canadian military contingent in Kabul nearing its end in 2003, the Sperwers eventually were brought home – only to be sent back over to Afghanistan when it was decided to send a Canadian force to Kandahar. Soon, the inadequacies of the Sperwer were enough that the Canadian Forces began looking for a replacement. The air force’s first choice was the American-built General Atomics Predator B, a “big honkin’ airplane” with the wingspan of a Boeing 737 and the ability to carry 2,000 lbs. of ordnance and a sophisticated surveillance package. “It’s great – not only can you find somebody, but you can ‘reach out and touch them’ at the same time”.

There were two problems.

It was, as March put it, "pretty expensive”.

As well, the U.S. Air Force was buying more at that time and a potential Canadian order could not easily be fit into it.

What to do? Well, another producer of UAVs was Israel, which had even battle-tested them. Moreover, the manufacturer, Israeli Aircraft Industries, was eager to please and eventually received the $95-million contract for the lease of its Heron UAV, plus training and other support services. The project was dubbed “Noctua” (Latin for a “night owl”. The contract covers two years (which would take us to the planned end of the Canadian Forces' stay in Kandahar and district) plus an option to renew for a third year.

The Noctua is smaller than the Predator B and carries no weapons, but is still quite capable, having 24-hour endurance and a ceiling of 30,000 feet. The sensor payload is classified, but is clearly capable of listening to cellphone conversations. Four airframes have been leased; three for service in Afghanistan and one for training in Alberta.

Impressive – but this project has not been without problems. There exists a set of U.S. government regulations called ITARS (for “International Traffic in Arms Regulations”) covering the sale or transfer of technology that could conceivably be used against the U.S. or its interests. That meant some American technology could not be used in this Israeli system — which the Canadian Forces planned to use in co-operation with American forces in Afghanistan. No sensitive American technology could be fitted on it, “which made it very interesting in terms of communicating with the Americans, but we got it overseas,” said March, adding that replacement surveillance technology could only be integrated with “great difficulty".

Getting spare parts was challenging, too, because Arab countries maintain a commercial boycott of Israel, requiring parts for the UAVs to be shipping from Israel to Canada, then placed aboard an aircraft and sent back to a Canadian supply base before being sent to Afghanistan. It was also March’s impression that training standards differed between Israeli instructors and no standard exam or evaluation was administered.

Finally, upon its deployment to Afghanistan, veteran Canadian personnel noted the Noctua’s relatively small size and recommended it be preceded and followed by “chase trucks” that would keep away other vehicles. That suggestion was ignored and the unhappy result was that an American serviceman driving a pickup truck ran into a taxiing Noctua, setting back its operational use by several weeks.

Despite all this, the Noctua system was deployed into Afghanistan in the spring of 2008 “and has really been instrumental in saving lives and taking the fight to the enemy,” March said.

He added tracking a hostile foe requires much regard for the “pattern of life” — that is, the civilians around the target — so as to avoid casualties and bitterness against the NATO forces. But when a target is identified and can be struck, the usual prescription is an artillery strike or a pair of 500-lb bombs delivered by a NATO aircraft. “That seems a bit much, but if you’ve spent time and money tracking him, you want to make sure this guy is dead — and the best way to do that is through overkill,” he said.

Assessing the Canadian UAV experience so far, March said several important issues remain to be addressed.

For example, despite a decade of work in this field, there still is no permanent Canadian UAV squadron or standardized training, so that instruction is done on an ad hoc basis.

There are also a host of interesting personnel and psychological issues.

For example, where will the operators of tomorrow come from? Trained military pilots like to fly, but “don’t like the idea” of sitting behind a desk and controlling a UAV, especially when most UAVs have automatic takeoff and landing programs in them. One potential source could be navigators (whoops, air combat systems operators), who theoretically have “air sense” and experience with sophisticated electronic systems.

And what about “being at war when you’re not at war”?

USAF UAVs are launched “in-theatre” but are controlled (via satellite) from a facility at Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert. Operators typically spend “eight hours hunting and killing things and watching on screen; at the end of the shift, they just go back to their homes,” March said. That means the stresses of a kind of combat flying, “including collateral damage” are taken home, and vice-versa. “There’s a big psychological study being done on this.”

Three are other interesting questions. Should there be medals and commendations for UAV operators who have shown exceptional skill in their work? And do UAV operators deserve flight pay? “The financial people and pilots say no; the operators say, ‘Hell, yes!’ — because of the need to keep up their skills,” he said, adding, “These are some of the really interesting issues and stuff, mundane as they are, that you have to deal with as the technology progresses.”

There are still more problems. After a UAV has collected data, somebody, somewhere, must analyze what’s been collected; still more work is involved if its data has been encrypted. March said it’s been estimated that a cross-Canada flight by, say, a USAF Global Hawk UAV would collect enough data on a single flight to keep every single analyst in the Canadian Forces working flat-out for 30 days. “That means more requirements for analysts and how to store the information that’s kept. And what are the legal implications of ‘Hoovering’ up all of this electronic data?”

 And what of the future? For the Canadian Forces, the UAVs covered under the Noctua lease are to be returned to the vendor in 2011 or 2012. The Canadian Forces has announced a follow-on program called JUSTUS (Joint Unmanned Surveillance and Target Acquisition System) that aims to create in the CF a “robust capability to operate UAVs here and overseas” and senior officers have talked about using UAVs to enhance the CF’s Arctic surveillance capability. Alas, the earliest that a replacement UAV could be in place would be 2014. What happens in the interim to the expertise developed by Canadian Forces personnel?

One solution would be to attach Canadian personnel to UAV programs operated by the USAF (at isolated Creech AFB in Nevada) or RAF (which is in the process of moving its UAV program to RAF Waddington).

For northern operations, there is the problem of communication frequencies that will have to be reacquired (by the federal government from the private sector, to which they were recently sold). In any event, satellite coverage that would permit sending data to and from northern UAVs extends only to about 60 degrees north latitude.

Beyond that technical element, there is another challenge: despite the proven reliability of UAVs, agencies like Transport Canada, NAV Canada and the public, too, “have great difficulty with us flying them in the same airspace as manned aircraft,” March said. For help on all this, plus the challenge of operating UAVs in cold-weather environments March said there is a growing pool of experience not in the USAF (which has hitherto operated most of its UAVs in deserts) but in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which recently has been operating UAVs to patrol the Canadian border from bases in New York state and North Dakota.

“ It’s going to be the technology of the future,” said March. “We’re pushing hard and talking about spending about $1 billion of taxpayers’ dollars to do it.”

 - Will Chabun