RCAF Priorities Outlined to Montreal Industry

In an address to Montreal aerospace industry representatives on Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Yvan Blondin, Commander of the RCAF, outlined the future procurement priorities of the Air Force, which go well beyond fighter replacement. The general touched on a variety of subjects, ranging from the effects of the delays in procuring CH-148 Cyclone helicopters to the force’s expanded presence in the Arctic. His message for Canadian industry was clear: find ways for the Air Force to save money.

One avenue for saving money prominent in the talk was the improvement and expanded use of flight simulators. This accords with some of Blondin’s previous comments that reducing maintenance costs and prolonging the service life of the current fighter fleet might involve less flying time.

Future capital acquisitions mentioned included an unspecified number of drones- from the context, it was clear that these were to be more than the reconnaissance drones Canada already uses- search and rescue transport aircraft (a role separate from the CH-149 recently acquired), and a number of disposable stores acquisitions, including new sonobuoys and torpedoes. The search and rescue and anti-submarine equipment particularly fill definite gaps. Canada is notorious for its poor search and rescue coverage given its territory, and transport and rescue squadrons field some fairly old airframes. Likewise, Canada still uses the Cold War-vintage Mk.46 torpedo.

It was difficult to get a sense of Gen. Blondin’s direction for the force from the talk. While he did indicate that a major reassessment of Air Force doctrine was underway internally, little that was really new seemed to enter into the priorities he presented. Gen. Blondin has been a supporter of the F-35 program, albeit hedging his bets a little more than his predecessor.

What was most interesting about the evening was the attitude among the industry representatives. They seem to recognise that this government’s procurement plans are likely to face re-evaluation, particularly the F-35 purchase. Several of these companies manufacture components for the F-35, but they seem fairly well aware of that program’s cost problems, and are unfazed by the prospect of having to reorient. One company which manufactures F-35 components, for example, also has contracts for the Super Hornet, the C-130 and a number of Sikorsky helicopters, as well as a civil aviation business line. The Canadian aerospace industry tends to specialise in discrete components, such as landing gear and avionics, and so generally have a wide pool of programs and clients in both military and civil aviation to balance out problems with any particular program.

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China, Drones and C4ISR

The US Air Force has a new idea for reconnaissance in Chinese airspace. Forget the U2s, the SR-71s, the recon satellites- the future is in drone bugs, tiny, self-recharging, semi-autonomous UAVs, or so Air Force reps told the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s annual conference. The reasoning is simple: you can’t shoot down a swarm of bugs with an S-300 missile (and even if you could, you’d look pretty silly doing it).

I’ve argued elsewhere that drone technology is a Pandora’s box, not only or even primarily because of its ethical implications for warfare, privacy and government abuse, but rather because the more governments fund drones’ development, the more the technology will proliferate and come within economic reach of unstable regimes, terrorist groups and the general public- the latter is already happening in commercial applications. The smaller and lower-altitude the drone, the harder to contain or control it becomes, and self-sustaining insect drones are from this perspective just about the worst thing one could invent, precisely because they are likely to become cheap and widely accessible at some point.

Another question is in what circumstances this capability would be used. It is one thing to confine it to crisis situations, but to use it in peacetime would guarantee a similar response. Constant low-level drone warfare is not a good idea or a good precedent, especially between great powers.

Meanwhile, as Shane Bilsborough reiterates over at The Diplomat, China isn’t so very far behind in either drone warfare in particular or the field of information dominance in general. This should come as no surprise- the 1991 Gulf War was a tremendous wake-up call to a number of rising militaries, and the lessons of the information-age battlefield translated very quickly in China into a new set of command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) doctrine on the one hand, and a corresponding offensive doctrine to disrupt these capabilities in an attacking force. These trends are well-represented in the book Chinese Views of Future Warfare , an anthology of translated Chinese articles.

China regards electronic, cyber and space-based warfare as the new “high ground” of naval warfare, assuming the place that air power has held since the Second World War. For the cyberspace part, see Richard Stone’s in-depth account of China’s development of offensive cyber capabilities in the March 1st 2013 issue of Science Magazine. A second aspect of this trend is China’s development of a wide range of relevant equipment, including Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft such as the KJ-2000, which are believed to be a generation ahead of American AWACS in sensor capability. And of course, China has developed and is believed to be mass-producing a full range of drones, from small battlefield models up to Global Hawk equivalents. The latter are of particular concern if they should be used for naval strike. There are other, equally dangerous missions which have been tested in recent exercises, including disruption of enemy communications and facilitation of friendly ones. Target-finding and designation are equally important- as China’s array of long-range anti-ship missiles, including ballistic missiles, grows, finding and coordinating strikes against target vessels becomes a networked function. In addition, China now has a full range of surveillance satellites for situational awareness and soon, targeting functions.

In short, China is no pushover in any aspect of C4ISR, least of all drone warfare. Its one major problem is coordination and equipment compatibility between different branches, exacerbated by inter-service rivalries.

Back the United States, which is beginning to introduce a new generation of tactical network, Rockwell Collins’ Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT). The idea is to create a jamming-resistant, frequency-hopping, secure ad-hoc network over a large battlespace with long range and low latency. It is being installed on the E-2D Hawkeye AEW aircraft, the EA-18G Growler Electronic Warfare Aircraft, and is the control link for the X-47B carrier UCAV. In future, it may supplant current systems such as Link 16. The Growler installation is particularly interesting, since one of the touted abilities of the aircraft is to jam enemy communications links while maintaining friendly ones. The significance of TTNT is its presumed capability to resist electronic warfare measures, such as those China is keenly developing. One wonders how many ways the electromagnetic spectrum can be sliced and diced before becoming useless to everyone.

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On a different note, James Holmes’ article in Foreign Policy (and related note at The Diplomat) does a good job highlighting some of the imponderables of China’s naval development, as well as some of the differences in naval thinking between China and the West.

I’m not one to wade into the debate over America’s future as a world power, but if you’re interested in the state of the issue from an academic perspective, here’s an article that summarises it fairly well.

Top Five Security Challenges for the Next Ten Years

They aren’t what you might think- or even what I might like to write about. North Korea, Iran- these are the least urgent problems in security and defence policy right now.

1. Population

The world’s population is set to increase to around 9 billion by 2050. This will occur in the nations least equipped to handle this growth, primarily in Africa and South Asia. The really dangerous thing about this trend is that it is occurring just as robotics is making demonstrable headway in replacing even relatively skilled human manufacturing jobs. If the manufacturing-based development of East Asia moves over to Africa in significant volume, it will provide far fewer wages than it did in China. Add to this a global financial system that is still far from stable, and we could be faced with the necessity of reinventing the global economy as an issue of human security.

On the other side of the coin, a number of nations- notably China- are in a very bad place demographically. They face an ageing population, a consequence of the continuing One-Child Policy. Thirty-five percent of the Chinese population will be senior citizens around 2050. The countries facing this problem are present-day powerhouses for the global economy. We had better hope they’re rich enough to become importers of goods and services.

The really interesting prediction is that the middle-case projection for world population shows growth slowing after 2050 and continuing to hover around the 9 billion mark- in which case, that is the number that we will have to learn to live with, and create a stable system for. This assumes, of course, that growth doesn’t simply continue until there’s a population crash.

In any case, the population growth differential between developing and developed nations will see this issue gradually take first place in the security agendas of developed nations. The more obvious issues, such as immigration policy, will give way to dealing with the rise of new super-populated countries (Nigeria will be one), and finally, the global potential for explosive unrest as the majority of the world’s population demands a greater share of the world’s resources from the minority.

2. Computers

Technological evolution has gotten away from us. Cyber-warfare and cyber-espionage are already constant facts of life. More importantly, we are watching as increasing shares of the global economy are computerised (creating human insecurity), and likewise critical infrastructure (creating strategic insecurity). China was perhaps the first nation on Earth to base an entire generation of military doctrine on using another nation’s dependence on computers, electronics and the electromagnetic spectrum against it. We know that individuals can pose significant threats to critical infrastructure, power grids, computer networks, urban infrastructure. Arguably, victory in a future conflict may no longer belong to the more technologically advanced power, but the one that can most effectively disrupt their opponent’s technology while minimising its own vulnerability.

The only way to effectively respond to this kind of threat is to become much more conscious in our decisions about the use of computers, the complexity of computers, the design of critical systems, to be much more coordinated and aware of what exactly we are gaining and what we are losing as we upgrade in all of these areas. In other words, computer advancement must become a matter both of security policy and of public debate.

3. Drones

They’re coming. They are now relatively cheaply available from countries like China. The United States has set the precedent that they can be used against threats to national security in peacetime- and now, for surveillance against American citizens on American soil. And the monopoly of developed nations and major military powers on drone technology is about to evaporate. The time to foresee how drones might be used when they become available to nations of all stripes, political systems and allegiances was seven years ago. Now, the precedents are set, and if other nations should follow the example of the United States, then we have a problem. We don’t know what drone warfare might look like when all parties, including private buyers, criminal and terrorist organisations gain access to this technology or if there is a way to contain it.

4. Climate/Water/Food Security

Sea levels- rising. Droughts- increasing. Extreme weather events- increasing. And, as all emergency management professionals are painfully aware, there are a large number of overdue natural disasters pending, ranging from major seismic events to solar storms. Security and defence policy makers would do well to think a little less about tinpot regimes that might someday be worth nuking back to the stone age and a little more about what could very well be a perfect storm of circumstances in the next thirty years that might render global security in terms of population movement, famine, infrastructure problems and conflicts over scarce resources totally unmanageable.

5. The Unknown Future War

With the threat of major conventional war relatively low, many countries nevertheless seem to be arming for one. No one knows what it might look like, and the doctrines under which it will be fought are at this point more theoretical than many military planners would like to admit. But chances are that it will involve at least the United States, if not other developed countries, in fairly short order. The likeliest geographical locations are troubling- both bestride sea lanes that are crucial to the global economy. I’ll leave you to guess.

What isn’t on this list and why:

North Korea

North Korea is dead and doesn’t know it. It has consistently refused the China’s consistent offers to help it develop on the Chinese model- its only hope for salvation. The only question is how it will die, and how many lives it will take with it. Unless the regime is utterly suicidal, its only threat to security on a global scale is the prospect of a nuclear Japan, which may just make the Chinese hit the roof.

Iran

Everyone knows what is likely to happen if Iran goes nuclear. Israel will certainly launch airstrikes. The United States may become involved. If Iran is allowed to remain nuclear, Saudi Arabia will follow. My bet is that China, which now has more riding on Gulf oil than the United States does, will buy Iran off.

Terrorism

A threat perception out of all proportion to the risk. Heart disease, auto accidents, AIDS- all are bigger threats to life and limb in the developed world, except in one respect. Small terrorist threats can elicit totally disproportionate responses, causing the developed world to spend lives, treasure and reputation in far greater amounts than the terrorists could have achieved themselves.

Energy

Still a live issue, but a critical one mainly for Europe (doomed to high energy prices), and China, which will effectively dominate the market for the foreseeable future.

Anyway, that’s the view so far. We’ll see what people have to say at the World Conference on Disaster Management next week. That’s always a place where you’re bound to hear some interesting perspectives on the future.