Lockheed Martin’s Ottawa facility gunning for the next generation of Canadian warships

Lockheed Martin Canada’s facility in Kanata is developing a reputation in the naval industry, one it’s hoping to capitalize on with the announcement of a competition for the contract to design the Royal Canadian Navy’s next generation of warships.

The largest defence contractor in the world established its Ottawa location more than two decades ago and largely focuses on the repair of military equipment and development of rotary and mission systems (RMS) – basically, the computer systems that runs some of the most powerful defence equipment on the planet.

 

Two years ago the company moved out of its location on Solandt Road to a 109,000-square-foot facility on Palladium Drive where 165 employees currently work. There remains space for as many as 350 workers – depending, of course, on how many contracts the company acquires.

“It’s quite a strategic move to move to this building, to be scaleable,” says Stephen Bobyn, director of operations and enterprise excellence at Lockheed Martin Canada RMS.

The Ottawa Business Journal recently took a tour of the secure Lockheed Martin Canada facility. The building, with high warehouse-like ceilings – even in the offices – is designed for growth. Barely half of the manufacturing floor is currently in use, where the company’s workers tinker and construct the computer systems to be implemented in Canada’s Halifax class warships or the new Arctic/offshore patrol ships, currently in construction.

The brain of the boat

The local Lockheed Martin facility has made its claim to fame on its combat management system (CMS 330). The CMS integrates signals from radar and other combat sensors, displaying the information on a series of screens and consoles. In other words, it’s the brain of the boat.

Picture the crisis scene from your favourite nautical war movie, with naval officers rushing about the control room, reading screens detecting incoming torpedoes, advising evasive action: This is a combat management system like the CMS 330 in (cinematic) action.

If Lockheed Martin Canada is successful in its bid to design Canada’s next generation of warships, the Kanata facility will be charged with designing the CMS, with other Canadian operations in Halifax and Montreal handling aspects of complex software and systems testing for the ships.

In one of its largest contracts, the company used the CMS platform in performing midlife modernization service on the 12 Halifax-class ships, the standard-bearer of Canada’s navy.

Upgrading the systems on the Halifax class is easier said than done, and involves reintegrating modern systems with outdated technologies. These ships were first built in the late 1980s, says Mr. Bobyn, and were designed to run on the 286 processor, an early CPU introduced by Intel in 1982. Why Canada has continued until now to use warships designed 30 years ago is a reflection of Canada’s naval production cycles.

“The short answer is, ‘Because they work,’” says Mr. Bobyn. Demands on Canada’s warships make it more economical to build one set of 12 ships to last, compared to the US fleet that features hundreds of warships produced in a continuous process.

The Halifax ships are a bit of a pet project for Mr. Bobyn: He worked for the Department of National Defence for more than 33 years, including when the ships were first commissioned, and has now seen them through the completion of their midlife checkups as he transitioned to Lockheed Martin a year ago. He says his story is a reflection of the company’s good standing with the Canadian government.

“What that speaks to is the relationship between Lockheed Martin and DND,” he says.

A Canadian speciality

The facility’s CMS has received international attention. New Zealand is implementing the system into two of its own frigates, and has even brought the ships to a Victoria shipyard to have it installed. Mr. Bobyn says that its work on the Halifax ships led the Royal Canadian Navy to give a strong reference to their New Zealand counterparts.

The company is also moulding the product for use in Canada’s Arctic/offshore patrol ships, where surveillance is more of a priority than combat capabilities.

“It’s evolving into a very adaptable product,” says Scott Newport, operations engineering manager at the facility. Mr. Newport has been with the company for a year now, and was formerly involved in telecom manufacturing for players such as Nortel and BlackBerry.

He explains that the design of the CMS is meant to be modular: the operating system remains more or less consistent, but the team can add or remove plugins based on the needs of its customers.

It also means that the company can design for obsolescence: When you’re designing systems for a ship that needs to be in service for 30 years, your platform needs to be able to adapt to unforeseen advances in computational technology. (Imagine computing capability today versus the 1980s.)

The armed forces workforce

Working at the Kanata facility demands a highly specialized skillset, and Mr. Newport says that long-term employment is in their best interest. As the company is usually working on just 12 ships at a time, it isn’t practical to outsource the manufacturing process in bulk orders. Nearly everything, down to the wires, are built on-site by the local team.

This translates into a workforce with a unique skillset, from electrical wiring to building and designing ruggedized computer cabinets. Mr. Newport says some workers in the room have been on the line for more than 30 years.

Throughout the floor lies hardware in various states of construction and repair. A motorized target made of heavy, rusted metal, is in for a tune-up for obvious reasons: It’s designed as target practice for Canadian army tanks.

Much of the technology in for repairs comes back from the military, and therefore is highly classified. That equipment is handled in a room in the centre of the building with walls of heavy metal, impervious to any and all network signals to prevent intelligence leaks. Access to the room is on a must-have basis: Mr. Newport himself doesn’t even have clearance.

Open waters

The unused space on the manufacturing floor, left unlit and closed off by a wall extending halfway up to the ceiling, is waiting for whichever contracts the company acquires next. Though the much-discussed F-35 fighter jets are Lockheed Martin products, it is unlikely that this facility would have significant involvement in their delivery if the Canadian government does fulfill its contract to replace the aging CF-18s.

The request for proposals for the Canadian Surface Combatant fleet is between pre-qualified bidders and is being carried out by the prime contractor for the project, Irving Shipbuilding Inc. The competition will be jointly evaluated by the shipyard and the federal government, with the winning design expected to be selected by summer 2017.

Whether or not Lockheed Martin Canada is successful in its bid for the next generation of warships, the team stakes its future in the adaptability of its CMS, which has become a flagship product. Neither Mr. Newport nor Mr. Bobyn can say with much certainty which contracts will take up real estate in the facility, but they don’t seem concerned.

“It’s all to be determined,” says Mr. Bobyn, but his smile reveals a confidence that the space will be put to good use.