Each year, one of the Canadian Army (CA)’s four divisions is given the responsibility of being in a state of High Readiness. To prepare, their members undergo a full year of intense training, culminating in Exercise MAPLE RESOLVE (Ex MR).
Taking place annually at Canadian Forces Base/Area Support Unit Wainwright in Alberta, Ex MR is planned and conducted by staff at the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre (CMTC). It offers a full-scale dress rehearsal for combat and serves as a validation of each participating division’s high readiness.
Beginning in July 2017, it is 4th Canadian Division (4 Div)’s turn and in response it has created Taskforce TOMAHAWK, which will stand in High Readiness until June 30, 2018. Taskforce members took part in this Ex MR 2017 from May 14-29. The following article is one of a series of dispatches from the field.
The most charitable way to describe the weather in Wainwright, Alberta would be “variable.” Lieutenant Matthew Walsh would undoubtedly use more colourful language.
Valuable Canadian-American collaboration
Lt Walsh was there with other members of the 4th Artillery Regiment (General Support), Royal Canadian Artillery, or 4 Regt (GS) RCA for short. The unit was there working alongside U.S. National Guard members from Idaho and Wisconsin. The National Guard brought a pair of RQ 7B small unmanned aerial systems (SUAS) or, as they are more commonly known, drones, for deployment in support of Ex MR.
The RQ 7B carries no munitions, only cameras. For purposes of the exercise, 4 Regt (GS) RCA provided Surveillance and Target Acquisition support to the U.S. drone team members who, in turn, were locating targets using laser designators.
“They can determine a grid and call for fire, passing essential target information to the artillery firing units on the ground and engage enemy assets,” Lt Walsh explained.
Or, they would be, were it not for the weather, which kept the SUAS grounded more than anyone would like. Which is not so say, as Lt Walsh pointed out, that nothing is getting done.
“We’ve been pretty unlucky with weather in terms of getting the airplanes up. But we have got airplanes up and we have been able to get good positive ID on enemy forces.”
Drones can offer a bird’s-eye-view alternative to live soldiers observing enemy positions from the ground.
“Usually you have to have an artillery FOO, or forward operations observer, on the ground in a Light Armoured Vehicle identifying enemy positions for engagement using either the optics in the vehicle or binoculars,” Lt Walsh said. “So, without having to have a FOO in support of manoeuvre troops on the front line, you’re using an aerial vehicle that’s got a different vantage point with respect to the battlefield.”
“Using both SUAS and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance [ISR] assets will increase opportunities to call for fire,” he added. “If you have both FOOs and UAS, it’s a force multiplier for the ground commander.”
Integrating the differing technologies used by the two countries has presented other challenges, but challenges that were much easier to overcome than the springtime dew, frost, and even some ice that have been keeping the drones earthbound.
“Some of the upgrades that the Americans have loaded on their system,” noted Lt Walsh, “have meant they’re not able to integrate our systems into them, but we’ve found ways around that. It’s working out kinks and it’s an open conversation trying to figure out the best way that we can enable operations. It’s been a great experience getting to work with them. They’re just as motivated as we are to get SUAS up and flying because the more we put up, the more opportunity we have to practice our skills as coalition partners.”
New BLACKJACK unmanned aerial vehicle on horizon
The trio of units’ work is well-timed to coincide with the impending arrival of a new SUAS to the Canadian Army (CA): the CU-172 BLACKJACK.
“They’re very similar to the system the Americans are using here on exercise,” Lt Walsh explained. “So this year, we’re out here getting used to operating with them, not having flown an SUAS in support of Army operations in a few years.”
The CA fielded an ISR capability in Afghanistan in the form of the Sperwer Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (TUAV) and later deployed the Scan Eagle SUAS.
Since the expiration of the Scan Eagle lease in 2015, the CA has had limited capability to collect, manage and disseminate tactical ISR information. The BLACKJACK SUAS will close these gaps. Delivery of this system to 4 Regt (GS) RCA will commence in fall 2017.
Warrant Officer 1 Jacob Kazmierski, a Wisconsin National Guard member on his second visit to Wainwright for Ex MR, agreed that the collaboration has been a success, even with the less-than-ideal weather.
“I was here two years ago,” he said. “It was a really good experience and that’s why when we were asked if we would want to come back this year, I strongly recommended it to my chain of command. I feel it’s very valuable for all the soldiers – the more senior people as well as the junior people. It gives us a really good mission set in a short timeframe and a chance to work with a lot of different people doing a lot of different stuff.”