Preserve Canada’s Strategic Surveillance Capability

The CDA Institute is pleased to showcase the Executive Summary of a study by the Maritime Air Veterans Association, “Preserve Canada’s Strategic Surveillance Capability,” which was submitted to the Defence Policy Review Committee. The full study is available here.


Canada’s geography has insulated our nation from conflicts on our soil; however, our geography also presents a massive three-​ocean frontier consisting of the world’s longest coastline and a massive Arctic archipelago to defend. For the past 65 years, Canada has maintained a credible maritime surveillance capability, which has significantly extended our awareness of domestic and military activities beyond our shores and has safeguarded our sovereignty.

Canada acquired a fleet of 33 Argus maritime surveillance aircraft in the late 1950s to conduct anti-​submarine (ASW) patrols over the Atlantic and Pacific with periodic sovereignty forays to the Arctic. Designed and built in Canada by Canadair (now Bombardier) the Argus was the most capable ASW aircraft of its era. In the early 1980s the obsolete Argus fleet was replaced by 18 CP-​140 Aurora ASW patrol aircraft and three CP-​140A Arcturus Arctic and Maritime Surveillance Aircraft. However, Canada’s surveillance capability has now been reduced to an alarming level. Canada has already disposed of two Arcturus and turned the third into a permanent maintenance trainer; and is in the process of updating and extending the life of only 14 of the 18 Auroras with the intention to operate only ten aircraft in a rotatable pool of 14 to achieve a life expectancy to 2030 at a reduced pace of operations. Four Auroras are to be scrapped.

During RIMPAC 2015, a multi-​national exercise in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy publically stated that the systems in the updated Aurora are performing at level they hope to attain with their newly acquired P-​8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft in ten years. During the current Operation Impact in Syria and Iraq the updated Aurora is acknowledged as one of the most successful and capable ASW and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft in the world.

The Need

Fleet sizing studies for the Aurora procurement indicated that 24 aircraft were required to deal with the two-​ocean sub-​surface threat posed by the Warsaw Pact nations and their satellites. The government unilaterally reduced the number of aircraft to 18 Auroras without a commensurate reduction in tasking. The current fleet size of 14 updated and life extended Auroras to produce ten Auroras for operations is insufficient to fulfill the surveillance requirements for a country with the world’s longest coastline and largest Arctic Archipelago. In addition to the two-​ocean commitment, global warming has expanded the requirement for Arctic ISR to monitor shipping activity, search and rescue, communications relay and ASW. There is also a growing need to provide ISR support for international expeditionary missions such as Libya, Syria and Iraq. Despite this increased demand for overland and maritime surveillance, the RCAF is being forced to scrap the remaining four Auroras because of budget and associated manning constraints.

Operations in Libya, Syria and Iraq have demonstrated the requirement for persistent surveillance with a stand-​off weapons capability. The RCAF and Canadian industry have the capability to modify and equip the Auroras to carry any weapon currently certified on the U.S. Navy’s P-​3C aircraft, including air-​to-​ground stand-​off weapons. An Aurora stand-​off, ground attack weapon capability would provide an alternative to the contentious use of armed unmanned air vehicles (UAV) against fleeting targets for the foreseeable future. Moreover, with the increasing use of surveillance UAVs, the Aurora’s communication and data management systems can be readily configured as an airborne UAV controller to provide line-​of-​sight, operator control of UAVs in theatre.

The Opportunity

There is an urgent requirement to allocate incremental funding to the RCAF to take advantage of the narrowing window of opportunity to update and life extend the four Auroras currently to be scrapped. This will restore the Aurora fleet to its original size of 18 aircraft. A decision is urgent because Lockheed-​Martin will likely close the wing and horizontal tail production line necessary to life-​extend the four remaining Auroras if there are no follow-​on orders. Also, restoring the fleet to 18 aircraft will require additional RCAF manning and funding to operate the last four Auroras.

As an alternative to acquiring armed UAVs, a modification program, already implemented by the U.S. Navy, should be considered to provide the Aurora a stand-​off ground attack capability. Also, any future program to acquire surveillance UAVs should include the modification to the Aurora software to provide line-​of-​sight control of in-​theatre UAVs.

The enhanced life expectancy of the updated Aurora will enable operations to at least 2030 when the Aurora will require replacement. The Boeing P-​8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft would be a viable replacement candidate. However, liaison with industry is recommended to assess if a maritime version of the Bombardier C-​Series airliner could be a home-​grown option in much the same manner as Canadair developed the Argus from the Bristol Britannia airliner.


The Government of Canada is rightly concerned about the opening up of the Arctic due to global warming. A full fleet of 18updated and life-​extended Auroras would provide an extensive capability to meet that requirement in the near term with minimal investment. It would also provide a viable counter to the ever growing submarine threat in the Atlantic and Pacific.

Canadian defence industry innovation and partnership with the Government of Canada has delivered a state-​of-​the art alternative to the more expensive Boeing P-​8. The Aurora update solution is sufficiently scalable and flexible to garner the attention of foreign governments, particularly with the Canadian capability to life-​extend hundreds of foreign P-​3C aircraft as part of a systems upgrade. This represents an immediate export opportunity, which could create and maintain high paying jobs in Canada.

Modifying the Auroras to carry air-​to-​ground stand-​off weapons and to provide direct, line-​of-​sight control of UAVs in-​theatre could provide a near-​term solution to the debate over the acquisition and use of weapon-​capable UAVs.


It is recommended that update and life extension modifications be completed on all 18 Aurora aircraft before the window of opportunity closes.

It is recommended that RCAF manpower and associated funding be increased to restore the Aurora fleet to its full 18aircraft capability.

It is recommended that planning be initiated now to replace the 18 aircraft Aurora fleet by 2030 with a fully ASW/​ISR capable aircraft with sufficient range and endurance to meet Canadian strategic (sub-​surface and overland) surveillance requirements. Such planning should consider the possible development of a maritime version of the Bombardier C-​Series airliner in the same manner that Canadair developed the Argus from the Bristol Britannia airliner.

Click here to read the full study.

R.D. Daly, Brigadier-​General (Retired), is President, Maritime Air Veterans Association. E.S.C. Cable, Colonel (Retired), is Strategic Studies Coordinator, Maritime Air Veterans Association.

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