Title: Ultra Electronics Canada: a center of excellence for military communications

Subtitle: The world’s largest supplier of tactical radios isn’t resting on its laurels.


Over the years Canada’s defence industry has evolved into a market of targeted niches serviced by one, sometimes two, highly specialized players who focus intensely to be the best in the segments that they tackle. One such company is Ultra Electronics Canada, which according to its president Alan Barker, strives constantly to be a leader in the provision of smart electronic solutions that increase platform capabilities.


“Although we are the world’s largest supplier of tactical radios, we are probably one of the most under-the-radar Canadian defence sector companies,” says Barker. “That probably has a lot to do with the fact that we export a lot of what we produce.” Though active in Canada for more than 60 years, Ultra Electronics was set up in its current form in 2002, as a subsidiary of Ultra Electronics Plc., a London Stock Exchange listed marketer of tactical & sonar systems, aircraft & vehicle systems, and information & power system.


Since joining Ultra Electronics Plc., which has locations in more than 40 countries, its Canadian division has become a key part of the global group, and now accounts for between 10 and 20 percent of its overall revenues. Much of the division’s success stems from its impressive capabilities, which include more than 250,000 square feet of Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) and Canadian and International Industrial Security Directorate (CIISD)-cleared engineering and production space, with on-site design, production and test capabilities.


The world’s largest supplier of tactical radios

Ultra Electronics is probably best known for the more than 40,000 tactical radios that it has built and which are now deployed in 33 countries around the world, including Afghanistan where they fill a key part of the Canadian Armed Forces communications needs. Over the years, numerous versions of these radios have come out of the company’s Montreal production facilities.


The most recent, the GRC-245 radio, which comes with an encryption management system and associated equipment, is designed for use in combat operations to connect battle field commanders to sub-units. This state of the art Software Defined Radio (SDR) system, can be deployed either on the ground, in a tent or mounted on a truck, from which military personnel can exchange images, voice and video communications. “They are extremely versatile,” says Barker. “Furthermore, because they contain wholly Canadian intellectual property, they have no ITARs restrictions attached, which means they can be exported freely.”


“You can’t feed your family on the Canadian Defence market, so we try to export as much as we can to keep capabilities here strong,” says Barker candidly. “Naturally the US, the world’s largest defence market, is the obvious place for us to ship. However we have achieved broad acceptance and have sent thousands of High Capacity Line of Sight (HCLOS) turnkey radio communications systems to a variety of international customers including Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Jordan and many others.”


A relentless focus on constant innovation

According to Ken Walker, the company’s vice-president (government relations), one of the reasons that Ultra Electronics is able to maintain its dominance in tactical radios and in many other markets is its relentless focus on constant innovation. “We reinvest close to 10% or our revenues in research and development,” says Walker. “These generate significant improvements over time. But they have also increased our brand name, because customers know that each new product that we introduce will include the most modern and up-to-date technology.”


Among the company‘s numerous R&D initiatives, are work that it is doing with the Canadian Security Establishment (CSE) on how to expand radio interoperability capabilities, a particularly challenging assignment, at a time when cryptographic technology is advancing by leaps and bounds. Ultra Electronics’s Tactical Communications Systems (TCS) division achieved a special honor late last year when it was recognized by Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology) and the National Research Council as a Canadian Innovation Leader for its development of advanced radio communications systems, which link scientific research with commercialization, jobs and economic growth. 


It’s a success that hopefully will be repeated in the future, adds Barker. “Canada is an excellent place to conduct research and development,” says Ultra Electronics’s president. “We have excellent universities, which provide us access to good people. In addition, Canada also has excellent tax incentive systems to encourage research and development. That all makes it much easier for companies like us that want to innovate.”


Magneto Inductive Signaling

Defence experts of course have long known that modern warfare isn’t a just a picnicking exercise, designed to fit paper solutions designed by armchair strategists. Today’s armed forces are increasingly deployed in difficult operating environments in which traditional solutions simply won’t cut it.


As a result, Ultra Electronics provides a growing range of secure, wireless communications and signaling products, which use AC magnetic waves (as opposed to electromagnetic fields) to establish links directly through intervening media. “Our capabilities and innovation in this area provide a clear and competitive advantage to special forces and other personnel, that need to communicate through obstacles such as buildings, caves, tunnels, bunkers and even water, that are not penetrable by radio waves,” says Barker.


Ultra Electronics got into the business in 2008, when it acquired Nova Scotia-based Magneto Induction Systems Limited. “These products, which range from voice and emergency communications equipment for first responders, to remote initiation and fire control systems for military applications are extremely resilient to conventional electronic warfare countermeasures,” says Barker. One particularly promising product for Ultra Electronics has been its “Rockphone,” voice communications systems which is manufactured its California facility for the US Army. The system is currently also in trials for police, fire and mining customers.


EW, SIGNINT and marine capabilities

One of the advantages that accrue to a company that is part of a global organization which devotes considerable resources to research and development is how well innovations can be transferred and leveraged among the various divisions. One example is Ultra Canada’s leader role in the provision of modern electronic warfare and signals intelligence (SIGNINT) systems.


These include a complete suite of active and passive electronic warfare (EW) airborne, naval and ground radar and communications systems which Ultra Electronics supplies the growing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance market. Among that many feathers in Ultra Electronics’s cap are the COMINT Systems which it committed to support the Olympic and G-8 events in Canada, integrated radar jamming capabilities for the US Air Force, ELINT Analysis Software for UK’s Royal Air Force and COMINT and ELINT Systems for the Japanese Navy.


Ultra Electronics Canada is also known for its positioning within its global parent organization as a center of excellence for toned and low frequency sonar. In fact the company has made considerable efforts to expand its anti-submarine warfare capabilities and now offers a complete range of traditional and multi-static sonobuoys and fully integrated sonar systems for both warships and submarines. Its key focus is on the design and production of active-passive sonar systems. Key successes in this area include passive towed arrays targeted for the Victoria Class submarines, torpedo defence arrays sold to both the Royal Navy and to Turkey, and towed Active-Passive Sonar Systems exported to Australia.


A center of excellence with a focus on exports

Over the longer term says Barker, the company’s focus on exports is likely to continue to progress. For example efforts in India, where Ultra Electronics is currently pursuing a large communications contract, could also substantially change the company’s profile. “If we want to do business there, we will need to partner with a local supplier,” says Barker. “Things move fairly slowly in India. But we are patient and willing to wait. That’s how the game is played. We have been meeting with several key market leaders there to see which will provide the best partnership fit.”


South Korea, which could spend up to $1 billion over the next ten years to implement next generation communications technology, also looks to be a promising market says Barker. Although the country has an extremely tough industrial and regional benefits (IRB) policy, which means the equipment would be produced in-country, the bid would spin off considerable design, engineering and other work into Ultra Electronics’ Montreal facilities. Barker also sees opportunities in the Netherlands and the United States, where Ultra Electronics is bidding on an Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) defence department contract that could over the long term be worth as much as $500 million.


That said, Canada too, despite recent tightening in defence department budgets is also high on Ultra Electronics’s radar screen. For example the Canadian Armed Forces have been itching to get the Underwater Suite Upgrade (UWSU) program underway, to upgrade sonar capabilities in the country’s 12 Halifax Class frigates. Request for proposals on the program, which experts say could be worth between $50 and $60 million are expected to be issued sometime this year. “We are looking at all opportunities to grow Ultra Electronics Canada’s core capabilities, through innovation, partnerships with defence R&D establishments and universities and through on-going participation with government programs,” says Barker. “Our goal is to transform the overall perception of our company, so that we can expand our reach both here in Canada and abroad.”



Company snapshot

Name: Ultra Electronics Canada, Ultra Electronics Canada Defence Inc.

Parent company: Ultra Electronics (listed on the LSE)

Key contacts: Ken Walker, vice-president (marketing government relations), Alan Barker, director

Phone: 1-902-440-3143

Web-site: http://www.ultra-uems.com/

Locations: Dartmouth Nova Scotia, Montreal Quebec, Ottawa Ontario and San Bernadino California

Products: Tactical radios (Montreal), electronic warfare systems, (signal intelligence, jamming) builds and maintain sonar applications, magneto inductive signaling and communications.

Number of employees: 375 (including 140 engineers and 110 technical staff)

Sales: $200 million



Peter Diekmeyer (peter@peterdiekmeyer.com) is Canadian Defence Review’s Quebec Bureau Chief.






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