Canada will upgrade four more CP-140 Aurora aircraft but has dropped plans to buy large, long-range maritime patrol aircraft. (Royal Canadian Air Force)
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Budget problems have scuttled Canada’s quest for a large, long-range maritime surveillance aircraft, with the focus now shifting to the acquisition of a smaller, more affordable plane, military and industry officials said.
In the meantime, as a stop-gap measure, the Royal Canadian Air Force will upgrade additional Aurora CP-140 surveillance planes.
Canadian Defence Minister Rob Nicholson announced March 19 that Canada was upgrading four more Auroras, bringing the total of modernized surveillance aircraft to 14. The Auroras were originally purchased in 1981, and the Air Force now expects the planes to keep flying until 2030.
In announcing the upgrade project, Nicholson said the deal represented the “best value possible for Canadian taxpayers.”
Over the last decade, other Auroras have received new wings and upgraded radars and sensors.
The Aurora is a long-range patrol aircraft used primarily for maritime surface and sub-surface surveillance. Its US military equivalent is the P-3 Orion.
The decision to upgrade more Auroras and delay the purchase of new maritime surveillance aircraft is directly linked to a lack of funding, Air Force officers said.
The ruling Conservative Party government’s Canada First Defence Strategy originally called for replacing the Aurora fleet with 10 to 12 maritime patrol aircraft by 2020.
The budget for that was set at CAN $3 billion (US $2.7 billion) but Air Force procurement specialists determined they could not purchase a fleet of large, long-range surveillance planes such as the Boeing P-8A for that amount of money.
Additional funding is not expected to be available in the future for the surveillance aircraft purchase as the military is planning other major procurements, such as the $9 billion to $14 billion purchase of new fighter jets and a $30 billion shipbuilding program to buy new supply vessels, Arctic patrol ships and a new surface combatant fleet.
A number of aerospace firms are positioning themselves to deal with the new fiscal reality facing the surveillance aircraft program.
Airbus Military has provided information to the Air Force on the use of its C-295 aircraft to fill the role of a medium-sized maritime surveillance aircraft. Airbus Military officials also have pointed out to the Canadians that Chile has acquired the C-295 in an anti-submarine warfare configuration.
Boeing and Field Aviation of Toronto are also working on what company officials call a “P-8 light.” That maritime surveillance aircraft would be based on a Bombardier Challenger 605 airframe but use technology developed for the P-8A Poseidon.
The baseline configuration features an active electronically scanned array multimode radar, an electro/optical/infrared sensor, electronic support measures, a communications intelligence sensor and automated identification system, according to Boeing.
On March 5, Boeing and Field Aviation announced they had conducted a test flight of a prototype to verify the handling qualities of the aircraft had not been affected by the airframe modifications.
Following further testing in the US, Field Aviation will deliver the modified demonstrator aircraft to Boeing in Seattle for integration of sensors and communications subsystems.
“We are going to take it for export to the global market,” said Brian Beyrouty, Boeing’s senior manager for international strategic partnerships for the Americas.
He noted there is a market for this capability among nations that might not be able to afford the P-8.
Beyrouty said the aircraft could be a solution for the Air Force when it finally acquires a new maritime surveillance aircraft. “It comes down to what the specific requirement will be,” he added.
The Department of National Defence had spent more than $1.6 billion over the last decade to upgrade the Auroras in various blocks. The new program announced by Nicholson to upgrade additional planes will add $548 million to that figure.
The project will extend contracts held by General Dynamics Canada, Ottawa; IMP Group, Halifax, Nova Scotia; and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, Richmond, British Columbia, all of which have worked on the Aurora upgrade.
The new work will involve the installation of upgraded avionics and missions systems, such as the Link 16 datalink, beyond-line-of-sight satellite communications capability and an improved self-defense system.
The aircraft also will be structurally overhauled with new wings and a tail.
In 2012, Boeing made a presentation to the Canadian Air Force, pointing out it could purchase a fleet of P-8As for around $3 billion. But Air Force procurement staff put that figure at about $5 billion when all elements, including simulators and new infrastructure, were considered.
Based on that, the Air Force determined that the P-8A was unaffordable. ■