When you think of underwater warfare, what comes to mind? For most of us, it’s the imagery of a bygone era: the German U-boats of the Second World War, lurking in wait for military and civilian ships attempting to cross the Atlantic, or the menace of Soviet ballistic missile-armed subs prowling the seas during the Cold War.
Today, the threat posed by enemy submarines is as real as ever, even if it’s not regularly in the news. In fact, technological advances mean modern-day submarines are quieter, stealthier, and even harder to anticipate.
For the Royal Canadian Navy, the ability to successfully anticipate underwater threats has diminished in recent decades as existing sensors age. But a program, known as the Underwater Warfare Suite Upgrade (UWSU), will mean a return to cutting-edge sonar capabilities for the RCN.
Responsibility for monitoring undersea threats falls primarily to the Halifax-class frigates, which are nearing the completion of a refit, and will eventually be replaced by the future Canadian Surface Combatants (CSC).
The upgrade is necessary says Peter Giles, of General Dynamics Mission Systems–Canada, one of the companies putting forward a bid to complete the work for UWSU. Part of Team Triton, the Canadian team bidding on UWSU, General Dynamics and Ultra Electronics Maritime Systems have a long history of made-in-Canada underwater technology development. Together with Raytheon Canada Limited, they form Team Triton.
Giles is the Product Manager for Underwater ISR at General Dynamics Mission Systems–Canada and is in charge of running the company’s sonar business out of its Halifax office. He explains that the capabilities currently onboard the Halifax-class frigates were designed for Cold War-era warfare. This means they were primarily designed for threats in the open waters of the North Atlantic.
Nowadays, Giles says, “Canada is operating against a wide variety of potential threats, from different countries in shallow water in areas with a lot of traffic. And that’s an important change that’s driving UWSU requirements.”
As Giles explains, the current system was designed to look for submarines, not for torpedo detection.
“Submarines are large platforms and have very particular acoustic signatures,” he explains. “Torpedoes, on the other hand, are very dynamic and an extreme threat to a ship.” Countering that threat will be a major focus of the UWSU program.
The biggest change that UWSU will deliver will be the addition of more “active” sonars, which will replace the previous dependency on “passive” sonars.
The sonar systems currently onboard the Halifax-class ships (which were actually delivered by General Dynamics) were very good for their time. The underwater threats of today, however, require the use of new active sonars.
Active sonars both project sound and listen for it bouncing off underwater threats (unlike a passive sonar, which merely listens). The sonars being upgraded as part of UWSU will also have a longer range than the current system. The difference, Giles believes, “Will be a game-changer for the Canadian Navy.”
The new sonar system will be operated by a designated sonar team, who will detect, classify, and attempt to localize threats when they are encountered. This information will then be relayed to a command team through a combat management system. The command team will then decide how to engage or avert the threat.
“For example, the command team could deploy their maritime helicopter to go and try to neutralize that threat submarine,” Giles explains. “Or, if it’s a torpedo, the command team could initiate a torpedo counter-manoeuver and perhaps launch their torpedo decoy.”
The ability to seamlessly interface with airborne resources will be a major selling point in Team Triton’s bid for UWSU.
In fact, General Dynamics is currently delivering both of Canada’s primary future airborne underwater detection platforms: first, through a refit of the CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft, which is currently ongoing, and second, through the new CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopters. Both platforms rely on sensors that are dropped down to water level in order to detect submarines and other threats.
If Team Triton is successful in delivering the new sonar systems under UWSU, there will be a major advantage in the systems being directly compatible with the Cyclones and Auroras.
Giles explains that the interoperability would make operating multi-static sonars easier to do: “The idea is that you could have sonar transmitters in various locations, and then you can have receivers listening in other locations. So by having compatibility between the various platforms, the various transmitters and receivers, you can multiply your sonar coverage over a larger area.”
There’s an added security bonus as well: by locating transmitters and receivers in different locations, you can mask what you’re doing. Receivers are more difficult to detect, while transmitters are much easier. By locating transmitters away from a ship, you increase the ship’s level of protection. Having both naval and airborne capabilities designed by the same company will mean seamless interoperability.
With the Halifax-class modernization project wrapping up, and CSC coming on line by the late 2020s/early 2030s, Team Triton recognizes the need to conduct the UWSU program in a short space of time. As such, the team’s plan is focused on delivering this upgraded capability within a minimized installation time frame. And that’s good news for the future of underwater warfare defence.