RCN joins NATO initiative to learn from allies’ unmanned systems

Innovation / February 4, 2021

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) recognizes along with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies that remote and autonomous systems will be key enablers of future naval warfare and has joined the NATO Maritime Unmanned Systems Initiative (MUSI).

The goal of MUSI is to promote multi-national development and experimentation with remote and autonomous systems.

The various nations comprising MUSI are at different levels of development and implementation of their own various technologies.

“This is really a good opportunity for us to learn the lessons our allies have already had to learn themselves in implementing their own programs. Some of them are a bit farther ahead of us in this regard,” said Commander (Cdr) Chris Taitt, Section Head of Remote and Autonomous Systems and Command and Control, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (C2ISTAR) at Director Navy Requirements (DNR) in Ottawa.

Each nation has a fair amount to offer and learn from one another in niche areas, especially if they work together towards a more unified strategy and doctrine for NATO use of remote and autonomous systems, he added.

“Our participation in MUSI demonstrates that Canada continues to value collective defence,” he said.

“Recognizing that every NATO nation is resource-constrained, if we’re working toward common goals and find common efforts between our respective programs, it is a win on all sides.”

“It’s really about making available our experience and our assets in remote and autonomous systems as we acquire them.”

The RCN has several remote and autonomous systems projects at various levels of implementation, including the RCN ISTAR Unmanned Aerial System project, that it could demonstrate to and learn from NATO MUSI participants.

The ISTAR project, which is in the definition phase, will result in the acquisition of a tactical remotely piloted aircraft system for the RCN’s Halifax-class ships.

The RCN began using the PUMA Unmanned Aerial System on its Kingston-class ships in 2019. It was also recently trialled in the RCN’s new Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Harry DeWolf.

“PUMA is valuable tactically and also culturally with giving our operators experience in operating them and incorporating the data they provide into tactical decision making,” said Cdr Taitt.

“ISTAR is going to be a markedly more capable aircraft than PUMA, just by virtue of its size. It will be able to carry more advanced and sophisticated payloads. It will also be capable of operating at much greater distances from the ship.”

“ISTAR will represent a sea change in respect to operating a remote aircraft for the RCN, just based on the level of training and specialization that will be required to safely operate an aircraft of that type.”

Part of MUSI will be pursuing interoperability and commonality between unmanned aerial systems used by NATO allies.

“The RCN stands to learn a great deal from other nations’ experience, in terms of how you physically operate a new remote and autonomous system on a ship like the Halifax-class frigates that weren’t designed for remote and autonomous systems. After that comes integration into tactical decision making.”

One new unmanned aerial system alone could require up to 14 different antennas, and ships have limited space and power, so there is a need for an industry standard for controllers.

“The RCN is a unique customer in terms of wanting to acquire a broad array of systems and be able to use them all on the same ship, whereas industry users have specific applications that don’t necessarily overlap,” said Cdr Taitt.

“So that’s where the requirement for universal and multiple controllers comes from.”

Part of the RCN’s ongoing work is figuring out how new technologies or assets developed by this initiative could be integrated with the current and future fleet. The forthcoming Canadian Surface Combatant will have a multi-mission bay and an overhead crane that will provide the needed space and flexibility to store, launch and operate remote and autonomous systems.

Commonality between different nations’ subsurface systems is much more common than unmanned aerial systems, and the RCN stands to learn a great deal of valuable information about subsurface systems from MUSI participants.

The RCN launched the Remote Minehunting and Disposal System project to provide the RCN with the capability to conduct the full spectrum of naval minehunting operations and contribute to underwater domain awareness.

“As the Remote Minehunting and Disposal System will be a new system and capability for the RCN, we hope to be able to conduct joint training and exercises/operations with other countries and learn their concepts of operations,” said Cdr Jérôme Phaneuf, the Section Head for Naval Platforms, Director Naval Requirements.

“In addition, if there are commonalities between the systems of participant nations, we will study their lessons learned as well as their sustainment approaches, availability of assets, maintainability of assets and maintenance schedule.”

In addition to the Remote Minehunting and Disposal System project, there exists a requirement to identify potential submarine intruders into Canada’s northern waters to enhance sovereignty, as well as to conduct autonomous route survey operations to clear shipping routes in mined or potentially mined waters and provide navigational data to RCN ships.

“This exercise of sovereignty will be best conducted through efficient surveillance which will require a very clear understanding of the subsurface Arctic environment,” said Cdr Phaneuf.

“This environment is complicated by its geography and physical characteristics like the sea floor, ice coverage and underwater acoustics, which adds up to an abundance of complex and rapidly changing data.”

In order to accomplish the necessary level of data capture and analysis, a combination of mobile platforms (submarines, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles and drifting buoys) and fixed sites (sea-bed, ice surface and moored buoys) with persistent and semi-persistent surveillance capabilities. Canada could benefit from additional subsurface systems and from other MUSI participants already deploying these capabilities.

Further challenges MUSI could help explore include finding space for storage of a larger unmanned aerial systems and integrating the data they generate with the ship’s combat management system and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data from other sources.

As of November 2020, the NATO MUSI has 17 members: Canada, Romania, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.