The Future of the CP-140s

During the past few months there has been increasing speculation that the project to upgrade the CP-140 Aurora (the Aurora Incremental Modernization Project or AIMP) would be terminated. The decision by government is expected on 20 Nov 2007.

The Auroras were purchased in the early 1980's and were optimised for the role of maritime surveillance and control with specific emphasis on Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). The on board sensors also provided a limited capability for secondary roles such as Arctic surveillance and for tertiary roles such as Search and Rescue.

Since the end of the Cold War, other countries with similar aircraft have upgraded their mission systems, sensors and weapons and use these aircraft for multiple missions, most notably for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) in support of ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, while retaining and improving their maritime surveillance and control capability.

The eighteen CP-140 Auroras are currently in the middle of the third phase of an avionics and sensor modernization program, AIMP, begun in 1999 and intended to provide a similar Multi Mission Aircraft (MMA) capability while at the same time enhancing its capability in secondary roles, such as Search and Rescue and as an airborne command and control platform. The first prototype of the AIMP Aurora is currently being fitted out and it was expected that all aircraft would be modified by 2012.

A second project, the Aurora Structural Life Extension Project (ASLEP) was planned, but not funded, to refurbish the aircraft itself to allow it to fly until at least 2025.

Unfortunately, several months ago, DND quietly stopped further work on some elements of the AIMP project. Recently, the CBC reported that: "Defence Minister Peter MacKay on Thursday (20 Sep[2007]) confirmed DND is considering winding down the 30-year-old fleet and replacing it with new planes." The MND was quoted as saying: "We want to make sure we have planes that can fly safely, planes that can continue to play an important role in surveillance,"

On its face, this seems a reasonable position with which most people would agree. However, a number of questions arise:

  • what does the statement mean,
  • what are the alternatives for an Aurora replacement,
  • what are the implications for Canada.

What does the statement mean?

The MND statement implies that the AIMP is being terminated because the Aurora cannot fly safely and cannot continue to play an important role in surveillance. However, the Aurora has flown safely since the 1980's and for a modest investment can continue to fly safely:

  • Each of the eighteen Aurora has flown over 20,000 hours without a single major accident, a tribute to good design, excellent maintenance and superior flying skills.
  • To continue flying safely each Aurora needs certain structural upgrades before the 24,500 hour point if it is to continue to fly safely
  • The cost of this Aurora Structural Life Extension Program(ASLEP) is variously estimated at about $300 to 500 Million for eighteen aircraft (The Norwegians are conducting a similar upgrade to their six aircraft for $85 Million U.S)

With its 1970s era sensors it is true that the current Aurora is not an effective surveillance aircraft in today's environment. However, if the AIMP is completed the Aurora would become arguably the best surveillance aircraft of its kind in the world today - matched only by the Boeing P-8 Multi Mission Aircraft (MMA) - a program in which Canada was offered participation but declined because of the CP-140 AIMP program. The multi-mode imaging radar alone, with Canadian developed technology, provides an unequalled capability. Unlike traditional radars, the imaging radar will produce recognizable images of targets on land and sea from long range, greatly increasing its surveillance capability.

As the MMA acronym suggests, the AIMP was designed to provide flexibility in the employment of the Aurora. The project foresaw potential Aurora missions running the gamut from:

  • supporting our troops with ISR information and, potentially, air to surface missiles in combat operations such as Afghanistan,
  • defending the Canadian Arctic against unauthorized surface, sub-surface and industrial intrusions,
  • identifying and tracking drug runners, drift net fishing boats, ships discharging pollutants, and the like, in our Maritime approaches,
  • protecting our warships and Joint Support Ships from the ever increasing threat from submarines,
  • providing airborne search and rescue and co-ordination of domestic disaster relief operations.

The AIMP program is in its final stages - the development of the mission system is complete and the sensors have been procured and are in storage awaiting installation. Having already invested over $1 Billion in AIMP, completion will cost less than $300 Million. So there is little to be saved in cancelling the AIMP - more likely it will cost more in termination payments and lawsuits - witness the infamous New Shipborne Aircraft project where the government paid $500 Million in penalties for cancelling the contract.

So AIMP and ASLEP together might cost about $600 to 800 Million, spread over several years, providing Canada with a capable MMA, useful for years to come. However, it is well known that there is tremendous pressure on the Defence Budget to fund new helicopter programs, the Leopard II tank program, new ship programs and, of course, the war in Afghanistan, so terminating AIMP and not proceeding with ASLEP would serve to free up some funds for those programs.

What are the alternatives?

The Aurora missions listed above are important and consistent with Canada's defence policy objective of providing multi-role, combat-capable forces for the defence of Canada and Canadian interests. So it would seem to be a given that an Aurora replacement would possess similar Multi Mission capabilities, particularly as we have few other resources to do any of these missions - let alone all of them.

However, on 1 Oct, the Ottawa citizen reported that DND was considering replacing the Aurora in the 2016 timeframe with either a derivative of the Bombardier Global Express (modelled on the UK Astor program) or the Multi Mission Aircraft project being developed by Boeing for the USN (the P8 Poseidon, based on a Boeing 737). Additionally, within DND, a third alternative has been mooted - replace/augment the unmodified Auroras with Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs), perhaps in combination with the Global Express.

While the P8 satisfies the MMA requirement, the Global Express solution falls well short of the mark. The Global Express ASTOR (or Sentinel R1) is an unarmed, specialized aircraft which, according to the RAF website, "...will provide a long-range, battlefield-intelligence, target-imaging and tracking radar for the RAF and the Army and will have surveillance applications in peacetime, wartime and in crisis operations." Its radar provides a Synthetic Aperture imaging mode and a Moving Target Indicator (MTI) mode. These modes are effective primarily for land based targets and are only two of the five modes available on the AIMP imaging radar.

While some would argue that an unarmed, land surveillance capability is all that Canada requires, those that have fought Canada's wars would likely disagree. It would be akin to providing tanks without guns to the army - they can observe and report on enemy action but cannot engage the enemy - and it ignores the Maritime domain.

UAVs represent an emerging technology with great potential but they are currently used primarily for unarmed surveillance, although there are programs for adding weapons to selected types. However, it is likely to take much longer than 2016 before a UAV could satisfy the scope of missions envisioned for an MMA.

UAVs have proved themselves capable of the ISR mission and sensors similar to those on the AIMP could be placed in a large UAV and provide similar information. Most observers would agree that many Air Force combat roles will, in the future, be fulfilled by UAVs - but we are not there yet.

In the Canadian context, the following limitations are apparent:

  • UAVs have yet to prove themselves in the extreme weather and cold conditions of the Arctic.
  • The command and control infrastructure to effectively control long range UAVs does not exist in Canada
  • Large area surveillance is generally done from high altitude and there is no agreement on how UAVs will operate in airspace shared by civilian airliners. (This is especially problematical for UAVs when changing altitudes which the Aurora does frequently when it is desirable to fly very low to make the point that Canadian Forces are present.)
  • Finally, a UAV's capability is limited to the output of its sensors and the interpretation of the analyst on the ground - the crew in an aircraft adds visual context and judgement to events through direct observation - indeed those who fly the Aurora have many examples of crewmembers visually detecting targets missed by a sensor which happens to be pointed in the wrong direction at the critical moment

It is a central tenet of Air Force doctrine that "flexibility is the key to Air Power". Especially for a small power like Canada, that means that aircraft with multiple capabilities are essential. Given that the "war on terror" is unlikely to be won soon and given the melting of the Arctic icecap, it seems self evident that for the foreseeable future Canada needs all the capability possible to respond to expected and unexpected challenges - from supporting our troops in places like Afghanistan, to detecting land and sea incursions in the Arctic, to protecting our warships and sea lines of communication, to providing disaster response.

While the UAV and Global Express solutions could satisfy some of requirements to varying degrees, they both fail in providing the weapons and sensors for Anti Submarine Warfare.

The Aurora is Canada's only long range, rapid reaction, anti-submarine capability. While many believe the threat from submarines largely ceased to exist after the demise of the Soviet Union, the reality is that only the character of the threat has changed. In fact, more countries than during the Cold War now possess submarines, mostly ultra-quiet diesel submarines, ( Many of those submarines are equipped with Air Independent Propulsion and long range wake homing torpedoes making them serious threats to the interests of a maritime nation such as ours.

If the government accepts General Rick Hillier's plan to acquire Joint Support Ships to support Canadian operations on a global basis, we must be prepared for some of those operations to be opposed by countries with submarines. We have recently seen a Chinese submarine tracking a USN Task Group - just like the Soviets did during the Cold War. The submarine remained undetected until it surfaced, within torpedo range, near the Task Group, ( Effective protection of a naval task group depends on a "defence in depth" approach combining fixed wing aircraft, such as the Aurora, maritime helicopters and ASW frigates.

It is well accepted that during the Cold War everyone with nuclear submarines operated in the Canadian Arctic. As the Northwest Passage becomes more important we should expect more submarine activity, rather than less, complicated by the presence of China's increasingly formidable submarine capability. As it stands, only the AIMP Aurora or the Boeing MMA would be capable of any effective action, augmented by the limited capability of our four submarines.

What are the implications for Canada?

The point of the foregoing discussion is not to argue against a new aircraft program to replace the Aurora. Sooner or later that must be done. Rather, it is to emphasis the conclusion that not proceeding with the AIMP and ASLEP is likely to result in "short term gain for long term pain".

This is so because it is highly unlikely that DND will be able to actually acquire a suitable replacement for the CP-140 by 2016 resulting in an extended capability gap. Indeed, it can be argued that we are suffering a capability gap at the moment because the current Aurora capabilities are already limited by obsolete sensors and equipment maintenance challenges - challenges AIMP will fix beginning in 2009 when the first AIMP aircraft would be operational - at least seven years before a new aircraft could be available.

With the exception of the recent C-17/C-130J programs, where there were no real alternatives, the competitive nature of new aircraft procurement in Canada typically requires much longer than ten years to actually put operational aircraft on the ramp - witness the Sea King replacement program(s) and the "fast-track" Fixed Wing Search and Rescue aircraft project.

Even if it were decided to procure the P8, the aircraft is still under development with a planned production decision in 2013. Given that virtually every similar development program has taken much longer than planned it would be highly optimistic to expect that Boeing could actually deliver to Canada useful numbers of aircraft by 2016. (As a current example, the Maritime Helicopter Project (MHP) is widely believed to be two years behind schedule) In any event, we would be in the queue behind the USN who plans to order in excess of 100 aircraft and Australia who have already committed to the P8.

The CP-140 replacement will be a particularly contentious and politicised procurement because Bombardier will argue that some variant of the Global Express or Q 400 will meet Canadian requirements. Again, recall the MHP procurement once it became politicised. Additionally, our predilection for customizing existing aircraft to satisfy unique Canadian requirements will add to the procurement time.

All of this assumes that Defence is capable of funding and staffing another multi-billion dollar acquisition program - which will need to begin spending for definition work by the end of this year if there is any real expectation of success by 2016.

In a paper published in Air Force Magazine (Vol. 31, number 1) Col (ret'd) Terry Chester speaks at length on the usefulness of the Aurora and on the Law of Unintended Consequences. In this case, the unintended consequence of the good intention to replace the Aurora is almost certain to result in a very limited capability for Arctic and Maritime surveillance in the near term and no long-range aircraft capable of ASW for many years.

Many will recall that we spent millions of dollars to keep the Sea King flying although it had almost no operational utility because its sensors were either un-repairable or hopelessly obsolete against current threats. Failure to proceed with AIMP will provide a similar result for the Aurora. Both AIMP and ASLEP can be accomplished for $600 - 800 Million which when spread over several years is, in Defence terms, not a bad investment to ensure we have a viable multi mission aircraft while the new aircraft acquisition program plays out.

If, against the odds, DND succeeds in acquiring new aircraft in a timely fashion, the Aurora will still be useful during the transition program and will also provide a showcase for the Canadian technology incorporated in its sensors and mission systems.

The conclusion is clear. Government must re-instate the AIMP and fund the ASLEP immediately. The cost is not great compared to the resulting capability and an upgraded Aurora provides insurance against the inevitable delays in the new aircraft project. More importantly, it allows Canada to maintain an important surveillance capability in a time of rapid change in climate and in national policy in the Canadian Arctic.