Innovation and Canadian Naval Aviation

Originally published on Canadian American Strategic Review July 2015

The Royal Canadian Navy has a long history of  innovative naval aviation applications. This is a characteristic that has served Canada well for decades. And, as Canada finally enters the era of the CH-148 Cyclone Maritime Helicopter, such innovation is a tradition well worthy of continuation. The Cyclone brings its own options.  How Canada takes up those options will have a  large effect  on how capable the RCN and  RCAF are in the ship-borne aviation role.

It’s noteworthy that, when the RCN began operating the McDonnell  F2H-3 Banshees,  the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonaventure was regarded as small  to host such  jet fighters. Even more noteworthy is that  the Banshee was the first Canadian aircraft able to carry Sidewinder missiles. After Banshees retired in 1962, the Sidewinder would not re-enter Canadian service until the missile armed CF-18 Hornets in the ’80s. [1]

Equally impressive is the feat of  equipping RCN warships to operate heavy Anti-Submarine Warfare helicopters. When the CH-124 Sea King  first went to sea with the RCN [2]  it was a 10-ton behemoth compared with the lighter helicopters commonly operated by our allies. [3]

With the CH-148 Cyclone on the verge of entering RCAF service, Canada  is once again  in a position to show innovation. Despite interminable Cyclone developmental delays, the Sikorsky helicopter still holds promise  to be a significant  improvement  in capability for both RCAF and  RCN. There is room for innovation though, the Cyclones can give our military  capabilities  that are rare among our allies.

Eye of the Cyclone – Airborne Early Warning for CH-148 Cyclone Maritime Helicopters?
Once they are ‘fully compliant’, Cyclones will  have imposing sensor capabilities giving them the ability to monitor large swaths of  territory, be it land or ocean. The sensor suite is not so well suited to aerial surveillance. This isn’t surprising. Airborne Early Warning (AEW) is not normally a capability fielded by anything smaller than an aircraft carrier.[4] This has been the historical pattern. But, as we’ve seen, Canada hasn’t always felt bound by historical patterns.

And now,  with the CH-148 Cyclone,  Canada  has yet another opportunity to be unbounded  by naval aviation conventions. In Britain, the Royal Navy  has been looking for replacements for its Sea King AEW fleet. The RN Agusta Westland Merlin shipboard  helicopters are in the same class as  Canada’s new CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopters. [5] The winning bid will see Thales UK fit its Searchwater 2000 AEW radar to Merlin airframes. But it’s a rival bid  from Lockheed Martin that will be of  more interest to  Canada and  the  RCN. Lockheed Martin’s approach was to hang an AEW pod  from the weapons pylon.

ft-opinion-ch148-cyclone-aew-daly-8Lockheed-Martin produces the Vigilance pod. Vigilance, as offered for the Royal Navy’s Crowsnest project to replace the obsolete Sea King AEW helicopters, was mounted on standard Merlin weapon stations on each side of the forward fuselage. A roll-on/roll-off radar operator’s console was also developed. The idea was that, once the new sensor and console were integrated into the helicopter’s wiring and systems, the Vigilance ‘package’ could  be readily  installed or  ‘unshipped’. When installed, each Vigilance pod  would cover a 180° swath, so two pods fitted on either side of  the helicopter, ensures ‘hemispheric coverage’. [6]

It is as this ‘bolt-on’ AEW system that Vigilance becomes of  potential interest to Canada. If the Vigilance pods and  RO/RO operator console can be readily accommodated  by a Merlin shipboard helicopters, the system could as easily be adapted to CH-148 Cyclones. Were this done, at a stroke, Canada and the RCN will gain both naval and battlefield AEW capabilities.



Image Courtesy of Stephen Priestley/CASR


Obviously, Canada no longer operates an aircraft carrier,  so where would Vigilance find a home? The natural  home would  be operating in concert with the Air Defence/ Command and Control variant of  any new Canadian  Surface  Combatant. The ability of any air defence vessel to place its ‘eyes’ at  range has obvious tactical advantages. Those are: extending range by placing the sensor platform closer to a threat, and the vessel itself not ‘radiating’ with its own radar. This means that  the vessel  is not giving away its own position with continuous radar emissions.

It may seem rather  late in the day  to start making further changes to the already chronically delayed  Maritime Helicopter Project.  The first  RCAF CH-148 Cyclones were only officially delivered  in  late June 2015 and even those aircraft  are not  ‘fully compliant’.  Those first six CH-148s Cyclone helicopters, despite Jason Kenney’s assurances that the MHP is “back on track”, will need to be brought to ‘fully compliant’ standards. [7]  So, how can we fit in AEW?

The entire CH-148 Cyclone fleet  would not need  to be modified to operate Vigilance AEW pods  –  sufficient numbers could be found  by modifying  the ‘Interim Maritime Helicopter’ Cyclones as they are refitted  to be ‘fully compliant’. This approach offers only a limited number of airframes … but sufficient for the needs of  the RCN fleet.  Nor would  these modified  CH-148s lose their native sensor suite – the full ASW and anti-surface warfare gear would remain fitted  (thus allowing surveillance and search-and- rescue missions  to be performed  while carrying AEW sensors). In other words, the AEW is added  while nothing is taken away.

Currently, Lockheed Martin does not appear to be actively marketing its Vigilance pods. No doubt, that would change quickly were interest evinced  by a highly motivated customer. In any case, the Vigilance is but one pod offering suited  to the AEW role. If  Lockheed Martin is no longer interested in Vigilance, doubtless a rival will be willing to make a similar pod. [8]

A Canadian AEW Cyclone would have impressive search capabilities across land, sea, and air. Truly, an asset  capable of  assisting  the  ‘Command and Control’ functions of  Canada’s new warships! The addition of an AEW capability to the Cyclone fleet might seem an odd suggestion, and there might be more than a grain of  truth in that. Canada’s history of  not being bound by convention in what aircraft are carried aboard our Nation’s warships has given us leave to be a little odd  in this area.  History has also told us that Canada may be first to push an envelope…but the world frequently follows.

[1] The RCN F2H-3 Banshees carried Sidewinder IAs (AIM-9B), the CF-18s carry AIM-9Ms.

[2] Beginning in 1956, the RCN performed shipboard ASW helicopter trials from flight decks of  frigates. The CH-124 Sea King would operate from frigates, destroyers, and supply ships.

[3] US Navy ASW SH-3 Sea Kings were operated from aircraft carriers. The RCN shipboard ASW helicopter trials from frigates in 1956 used 3.75-ton HO4S-3s (Sikorsky S-55s).  In 1963, the year that shipboard ASW Sea Kings entered RCN service, British and  Australian naval services were just taking on the 4.2-ton Westland Wessex  (Sikorsky S-58) for that same role.

[4] British Westland Sea King AEW  helicopters operate from Royal Navy  ‘Harrier carriers’. Crowsnest-modified Merlins will operate from  future Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.

[5] The Royal Navy’s Merlin shipboard helicopter is an Agusta Westland AW101 related to Canada’s cancelled  ASW CH-148 Petrel and in-service CH-149 Cormorant SAR helicopters.

[6] The exact shape of the Vigilance pods submitted for the RN Crowsnest contest changed. The first Merlin test pod was quite streamlined, the later installation was larger and  ‘boxier’.

[7] This apparently means work on the ‘Integrated Mission System’ (which coordinates and controls sensors), perhaps the promised more-powerful engines, and, likely, new gearboxes.

[8] Lockheed Martin’s Vigilance pod is built around a Northrop Grumman fighter-sized radar set, the AN/APG-80 (F-16) or AN/APG-81 (F-35) Active Electronically Scanned Array radars.


15 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces. I now write to let the thoughts in my head get out where I can see 'em. :)

Posted in Canadian American Strategic Review, Canadian Forces, CASR, RCN

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow DefenceMuse on
Canadian ~ American Strategic Review

CASR has announced that it will cease operations on 31/December/2016.

I have grateful to have been given the opportunity to write for them, and to repost my material on Defence Muse.

Previous Posts
December 2016
« Nov   Jan »
%d bloggers like this: