What is a Multi-Role Boat

... and why do we need them to be tactical?

With the return of each frigate from Operations ArtemisReassurance and Caribbe, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) has hailed the success of its interdiction and boarding operations. Those frequent (and risky) counter-piracy, counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism missions have identified the need for new rigid hulled inflatable boats (RHIB) that are capable of operating at greater distance from the Halifax-class frigates, at greater speed, and with enhanced communications – the Multi-Role Boat (MRB).

The old paradigm of hailing a ship to permit a naval boarding party to embark has given way to more uncooperative scenarios, often conducted at some distance from the frigate, and with an RHIB that must operate in a semi-autonomous – and potentially autonomous – mode for longer periods of time.

“To conduct all of the taskings that we see now, whether it’s interdiction, theatre introduction, non-combat evacuation, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, search and rescue, diver support, maritime domain awareness or sea control, we need a bigger boat with longer reach, interconnectivity with an IT domain, and the ability to launch and recover fully loaded,” says former navy commander Mark De Smedt who is now leading the new MRB project to address that capability gap for the Royal Canadian Navy.

The RCN is preparing to seek funding approval (later this summer) to begin the definition phase of a project to acquire a multi-role boat for the Halifax-class ships – a capability that will also be useful for the new surface combatants when the time comes. As a key “operational enabler,” the need for new RHIBs has been part of Navy Outlook briefings for the past three years, but is now being listed as a high priority.

Although the statement of requirements is still being developed, and the industrial technological benefits and value proposition have yet to be defined, the navy will be seeking a twin engine capability with the fuel capacity to provide a range of 100 nautical miles.

In the past, a frigate might have come to within a kilometre or less of a target vessel before disembarking the RHIB. Today, however, in order to maintain an element of surprise, the ship is often at extended distance. With the new MRB, the RHIB may transit a dozen or more nautical miles to maintain an element of surprise. In more complex littoral environments, it may also have to navigate estuaries further inland.

July 2015 – Enhanced Naval Boarding Party climbs aboard HMCS Winnipeg from an RHIB during Operation Reassurance.
July 2015 – Enhanced Naval Boarding Party climbs aboard HMCS Winnipeg from an RHIB during Operation Reassurance.

“We are looking at something that can do at least 30 knots fully loaded for a defined distance that could be beyond the horizon of the mother ship, and can relay information and voice data back to the ship, and have the ability for a self-defence crew weapon pintle mount for situations where there is increased risk,” De Smedt explains, noting that the new RHIB will now be a node contributing to the overall C4ISR picture.

To meet RCN needs, the project will potentially include radar, UHF with tactical satellite connectivity, and possible EO/IR sensors, as well as the ability to integrate that data to enhance situational awareness. Whether it is updating target vessel information for the RHIB boarding party, or streaming imagery or biometric data of suspects back to the frigate, the multi-role boat will serve as a relay in that data exchange.

With the rapid evolution of the Maritime Tactical Operations Group and the enhanced naval boarding party program, the navy is closely monitoring the special operations forces’ RHIB. “Many of the capabilities we are considering are similar to SOFCOM,” De Smedt says. For instance, shock-mitigating seats to reduce wear and tear on the crew and boarding team may be a requirement.

“In essence, the new MRBs will have the connectivity to provide enhanced Situational Awareness to allow it to conduct tactical missions such as ISR, particularly in the littoral. This could augment the ship’s helicopter capability, freeing it up for higher priority or longer range missions,” notes Robert Gascoigne, the marketing manager of Canadian defence systems for Ultra Electronics Maritime Systems, one of the companies likely to bid on the project. “Not quite on the same scale [as a helicopter], but if you are operating within 10-12 nautical miles of the ship, the RHIB will be able to do some of those complex taskings.”

A former Sea King pilot and exchange officer with the United States Navy, Gascoigne has seen firsthand the evolution of the RHIB. From a work boat used primarily for ship-to-shore personnel and cargo transportation, the newer RHIBs require a level of connectivity to integrate with unmanned aerial, surface and subsurface vehicles, the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter and the frigate.

“The RHIB may be over the visual horizon, but the command team on the ship is watching the boarding taking place in real time,” Gascoigne said. “In the counter-narcotics role, for example, video is very important because now you have continuity of evidence. Ten years ago, this was Star Trek stuff; now we have software-defined radios that are able to form mesh networks and stream high-bandwidth data.”

For most deployments today, frigates carry what the navy calls an “interim” capability – a 7.2 metre special operations RHIB similar to what it has traditionally used, but with a more powerful engine. “It has better capability when it is loaded, it can achieve plane and proceed at about 30 knots,” De Smedt says. However, it still has the same launch and recovery limitations as the current RHIB.

March 2016 – HMCS Fredericton
March 2016 – HMCS Fredericton (Photo: Corporal Anthony Chand)

At present, the frigate’s single davit (the crane-like device used to raise and lower small boats and large equipment) can only launch and recover the RHIB with two crew members onboard – the boarding party must scramble up and down a side ladder. So the MRB project also intends to replace the ship’s davit system and its two torpedo and cargo handling cranes with a new multi-role launch and recovery system.

Adaptable starboard and port-mounted multi-role cranes would allow a commander to quickly launch two interdiction teams simultaneously, or a 12-man RHIB and an unmanned vessel, and manage all of the cargo handling and other lifting functions the cranes currently perform, notes De Smedt, adding that the system must be able to handle a safe lifting load of up to 15,500 pounds.

While a competition will attract international bidders, Gascoigne believes the navy won’t have to look that far to meet its requirements. “We think the technology to do this very much resides within Canada, from the boat to shock-mitigating seats, radars, AIS or onboard displays,” he affirms. “The east coast of Canada has always done very high quality boat building – you don’t operate in the North Atlantic with a rinky-dink boat.”

Moreover, as countries seek modernization programs for their frigates – Lockheed Martin Canada Mission Systems & Training is already under contract to upgrade the mission systems of New Zealand’s frigates and is proposing solutions to both Romania and Chile, based on its Canadian frigate modernization program success – many countries will also be looking to upgrade their RHIBs, thus generating strong export opportunities for the winner of the Multi-Role contract.

The project team released a request for information in late 2014. Interest has been high from manufacturers such as the multi-national incumbent, Zodiac Milpro, which supplies the Navy and Special Forces with their current RHIBs.

March 2014 – The naval boarding party of HMCS Regina approaches a dhow during routine maritime security and counter-terrorism operations off the coast of Africa.
March 2014 – The naval boarding party of HMCS Regina approaches a dhow during routine maritime security and counter-terrorism operations off the coast of Africa. (Photo: Cpl Michael Bastien, MARPAC Imaging Services)

A strong contender is Dartmouth-based Ultra Electronics Maritime Systems, which has been extremely proactive. The company has teamed with Halifax-based Rosborough Boats, builders of several rough water inflatable workboats for the coast guard, fisheries and the RCMP, and the recent winner of a competition for the RHIB for the Navy’s Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS).

Ultra has highlighted the capability of small businesses in Atlantic Canada to military and government procurement officials at various trade shows and through demonstrations. “The introduction of technologies like the ORION high capacity, software defined radios will allow the MRB to be a part of, and feed into the Common Operating Picture,” says Gascoigne.

Almost 30 years ago, De Smedt was the deck officer on HMCS Protecteur when the navy trialed a new RHIB. The ship was deploying for three months and the test equipment soon became the preferred small boat for transport and other operations. “It was so superior to what we had that there had to be some tethers put on it because everybody wanted to use it.”

That trial later led to the solution deployed on the new Halifax-class frigates and, by all reports, has served the ships well. But new requirements demand a more robust capability, and the uncooperative nature of many operations means a boat built for multiple roles.

Chris Thatcher is a freelance writer specializing in defence, security and technology.