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Whatever replaces the CH-146 Griffon will be far more than another utility helicopter. When the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) lays out its request for information from industry, the high-level requirements could include options for networked crewed and uncrewed aircraft with speed, range, weapons, sensors, and data sharing that is unprecedented for RCAF tactical aviation.
When United States Army senior officers describe their Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, it’s often with terms like “transformational.” What comes next for Canada could be no less game-changing. Faced with a multitude of roles, at times in conflict zones against a broadening array of air- and ground-based threats, the RCAF is explicitly seeking a tactical system rather than a traditional platform-for-platform replacement.
“We’re looking at the problem with a very wide field of view right now,” said LCol Richard Morris, the lead for tactical aviation within the Director of Air Requirements.
The Griffon serves as an Army combat tactical transport helicopter, a Special Operations Forces aircraft, a domestic search-and-rescue asset, and a utility platform for domestic response to floods, wildfires, and other emergencies. Almost 45 mission kits have been integrated to meet different user needs since the airframe first entered service in 1995.
With the next Tactical Aviation Capability Set (nTACS) project, the RCAF is envisioning a next-generation system able to perform all those and more, starting in the 2030s.
“We’re looking at nTACS to deliver a vertical lift capability that is revolutionary in terms of reach,” said Morris. “Everybody is looking for that revolutionary step in technology that gives the benefit of speed and range from traditional fixed-wing, but also gives you the low speed, maneuverability, and flexibility of vertical takeoff and landing that rotorcraft have traditionally been able to provide.
“We’re looking at a multi-fleet solution,” he added. “That could be a combination of manned and unmanned capabilities. We’re not limiting ourselves at this point. What that balance will be between potential capabilities remains to be seen. I think tactics are evolving with the technological developments. The operational application of manned-unmanned teaming is also developing. And we have the impact of current conflicts that are potentially game-changing with respect to how we will continue to operate vertical lift platforms in the future against sophisticated weapons systems.”
A tactical aviation pilot who began his career on the Bell CH-135 Twin Huey and has flown the Griffon since the late 1990s, Morris knows the Bell 412 platform well. His operational flying was with 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron, where he served as a senior officer from 2007 to 2009 after the squadron was re-rolled to special operations. He also deployed to Bosnia, Haiti, Honduras, and Afghanistan — the latter as part of the final rotation of Operation Attention in Kabul.
While the project is led by the Air Force, the primary customers are the Canadian Army and Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM), which operates a modified variant of the Bell 412. Both have distinct operational needs. Whether one platform can meet their requirements is still unclear, Morris admitted.
The project team recently began preliminary discussions with both communities to gather their input into a future tactical aviation plan. “I think there’s the potential that we could have one fleet that will satisfy the needs of both. There will be some common requirements and, with respect to CANSOFCOM, some very specific requirements,” he said.
“Whether or not that leads us down the road of having a specific platform for SOF, I don’t know yet. That might be the ideal at the end of the day, but in the Canadian context, now you’re operating potentially another small fleet. It becomes problematic if you have a very small, bespoke, fleet that one squadron is flying. The ideal is that whatever overall fleet mix nTACS delivers, there is a suitable solution within there for CANSOFCOM requirements.”
The eventual solution may be heavily influenced by decisions made elsewhere. The U.S. Army FVL program has demonstrators flying and prototypes on the drawing board for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) projects. A decision on the latter is expected this year. Six NATO members have also launched a multinational partnership to develop a Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC) for the mid-2030s. Canada is an observer to both efforts.
Morris noted that while the proposed FLRAA aircraft, the Bell V-280 Valor and Sikorsky-Boeing Defiant X, were designed for strictly U.S. Army requirements, both manufacturers have “developed the potential for variations, driven mostly by other [U.S.] services that potentially incorporate some of the capabilities that we might desire.” The project team has spoken with both companies, he added.
The Air Force team monitored the American Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator program, and is now well connected with the U.S. Army Futures Command cross-functional team responsible for FVL.
“The U.S. Army has been extremely open and inclusive with us as they develop FVL,” said Morris, “to the point where we’ve also engaged with EDGE, the Experimental Demonstration Gateway Exercises, this spring. It’s an annual sandbox experimental event where they have — for the past couple of years — taken technologies that they see being incorporated in FVL and experimented with them to see if they are delivering the level of capability that’s envisioned. It’s everything from unmanned loitering weapons systems to command and control, and uncrewed systems.”
The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted engagement on both international programs. Morris attended his first FVL working group in two years this spring, and observed an NGRC steering committee in June where NATO Defence Ministers signed a memorandum of understanding to launch the concept development stage of the rotorcraft.
With allies well advanced on their next generation tactical aviation, and working to similar delivery timelines, the nTACS team has been the beneficiary of their early legwork, Morris emphasized.
“Obviously, we will be looking at the requirements through a Canadian lens, but it’s unlikely we would have a unique set of requirements that would differ significantly from both our NATO and Five-Eyes allies. We’re fortunate to be able to leverage the work that has been done already on both those fronts, and to be able to work with those allies.
“My team basically got exponentially larger, because they’ll be able to work with the U.S., U.K., Australia, and the NGRC participants to look at the same problem set,” added Morris.
All Western countries are trying to capitalize on “leaps in technology” and solve “essentially the same problems,” he said, but European allies might adopt an approach that the U.S. or Canada might not have considered.
It’s not a precise analogy, but much as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has made data management as vital as flying the aircraft, FVL leaders have spoken of moving bits more than rotor blades, and emphasized data links and modular digital systems. Not surprisingly, a data-centric approach will be among the key attributes for nTACS.
“It needs to integrate into future Canadian Armed Forces and allied networks,” said Morris. “Every platform, every soldier on the battlefield is now a sensor and must be able to access available data on battlefield networks, and contribute data to the overall operating picture.”
Consequently, the Air Force will be seeking an open systems architecture. In part, that’s to ensure interoperability. But it should also help manage sustainment costs by more easily upgrading or expanding mission systems and sensor suites without being hemmed in by manufacturers’ proprietary software.
“With an open systems architecture approach, if we have a bespoke requirement for a specific mission system, we should be able to plug and play an OEM’s solution,” said Morris. “There should be little non-recurring engineering, no significant integration costs, and it shouldn’t affect certification because mission systems are separate from safety of flight or flight control.”
The current cost and time required to certify new software is one reason upgrades occur all at once rather than incrementally.
“It allows for the evolution of technology, to more readily in the future inject capability more rapidly, at an affordable rate, or maintain the operational relevancy of a capability over a longer period before we have to do a major upgrade,” he said. “We’re stressing affordability and sustainability.”
Both the FVL and NATO NGRC programs are making the same request, he added. “The idea is to challenge industry to provide a revolutionary capability, but in an affordable and sustainable manner.”
A third key attribute for nTACS will be survivability. The greater speed and range are part of the equation, but so too are access to data and robust mission systems. Greater situational awareness will enhance the safety of not only the aircrew, but also soldiers in the back, said Morris.
“Operators will have more access to current information – almost real-time battlefield updates. As a section gets on the aircraft, the section lead could pull out a tablet and access tactical data and updates while on route.”
As a former SOF pilot, Morris noted that more data and new technology won’t necessarily change the core missions, “but they will certainly enable operators to conduct those missions much more effectively.”
Extending the Griffon
By Chris Thatcher
While the hunt for the next Tactical Aviation Capability Set (nTACS) is underway, the RCAF is extending the life of the CH-146 fleet until the mid-2030s. In late May, the Canadian government awarded Bell Textron Canada a contract worth approximately $800 million to extend the life of the Griffon fleet.
The contract is a follow-on to an award in January 2019, valued at about $90 million, to prototype the design and installation of a glass cockpit, integrated sensors, communications, cryptographic equipment, cockpit voice and flight recorders, navigation systems, automatic flight control systems, and control display units — as well as a new electronically controlled Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6T-9 Twin-Pac engine.
Known as the Griffon Limited Life Extension (GLLE), the project is intended to address obsolescence issues with critical components and parts across the fleet, and meet North American and European civil regulatory requirements.
“It really is just sustaining the current level of capability we have,” explained LCol Richard Morris of the Directorate of Air Requirements. “There’s no intentional increase in capability for the fleet.”
If additional sensors are needed, they would be acquired through a separate contract, he said. “GLLE will integrate the [existing WESCAM MX-15 EO/IR] system into the cockpit more fulsomely than it has been in the past, but it doesn’t replace the current sensor.”
The upgrade of 85 aircraft will make the fleet easier to sustain and interoperate with the rest of the Canadian Armed Forces and allies. While the Griffon supports Army, Special Operations Forces, and search-and-rescue technicians, the fleet is being brought up to a standard baseline configuration. The exception could be the five helicopters operated by 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 8 Wing Trenton, which require a hoist and other SAR-specific mission kits.
The initial plan with Bell called for three prototypes to iteratively develop and design the installation process. According to the government, Bell will modify the first nine helicopters and “then manage a competitive process to sub-contract suppliers to install modifications on the remaining 76 helicopters.”
“Prototyping is probably a misnomer,” said Morris. Bell was able to complete most of the process with 3D computer-based modeling, which “negated the requirement to do a lot of the physical prototyping or discovery.”
In the end, just two Griffon platforms were required to finalize the design and build the workflow manual for the eventual subcontractors.
Bell Textron Canada was first awarded a contract for the CH-146 Griffon in 1992, and delivered 100 to the RCAF between 1994 and 1998. As the original manufacturer, the company still holds the intellectual property rights and was deemed “the only company certified to assess and define necessary design changes and associated repairs to the aircraft,” according to Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC). The first upgraded CH-146 is expected by 2024, and the entire upgrade program should be completed by 2028. The first prototype is expected to fly this spring.
During a presentation to the Vertical Flight Society in 2021, Bell’s program manager for GLLE outlined an approach to manage costs by using “off-the-shelf products” from the 412EPX line where possible. The overhaul of each CH-146 includes rewiring and installing some 40 wiring harnesses and power cables, a new console, and “a mix of avionics from the commercial 412,” as well as a mission management system integrated with the MX-15 EO/IR imaging system (which was introduced on the Griffon about seven years ago) and new radios and cryptographic equipment in the nose of the aircraft, he explained. Several of the Griffon’s many antennas will be removed, replaced, or repositioned.
The government intends to begin retiring the Griffons as nTACS delivers after 2030, but the modernized systems should give the Air Force coverage if the nTACS takes longer than anticipated.
“GLLE will provide us a bit of flexibility left or right as we approach that time,” Morris acknowledged. “As we all know, major projects never go exactly as planned in terms of dates. But GLLE also gives us the impetus to look at the Griffon replacement with earnest, because even with the upgrades, the airframes are getting long in the tooth.”