10970 Karmin McKay: The aim of the thesis

Editor’s Note: This article is the fifth in a series. Future articles will include: Generals and RSMs are people too, What is TDV, you are your own career manager, and several more. Common themes intertwine between them all.

I was selected to attend the Royal Military College of Science Technical Staff Course in 1988/89. A key portion of this course was presenting a thesis which if deemed of sufficient merit would earn the CGIA, a master’s degree. The British Army Staff presented us with a list of about 20 projects which they were interested in viewing.  A Canadian military engineer invented a device that used water to disrupt the firing circuit of a bomb preventing it from exploding. I teamed with 2 Australian Signallers that were my neighbours. We selected Application of Fibre Optics on the Battlefield. The hidden agenda and real aim of our thesis was   Maximum International Travel. We had a sponsor, the R&D lab of fibre optics (FO) for the UK version of Bell Canada. It was in Wales and we had monthly visits with them. They have their own rugby team in The World Rugby Cup so that was already one extra country. A month after, the entire course flew to Germany to visit a BAOR Signals Regiment. The rest returned on the Herc 8 hours later while we stayed in Germany for another week to work on our thesis. Success, a week in Germany.  We went to visit a British Army Reconnaissance Regiment that patrolled the then East German border. I asked a simple question “What is your biggest problem?”  It provided the quest for our thesis. We were taken about 800 m from the border to look a series of gullies and woods in low ground. The WO with us stated, “We expect that they will cross the border in this area. There is always fog down there at night and most mornings. We will never see them or know when they have crossed the border until they are beside us.” We would build a system to detect the enemy vehicles using FO cable.

And we did. That was the easy part. Mean maximum Pressure (MMP) “is a criterion for expressing the ground pressure of a vehicle, either wheeled or tracked, It is referred to as a “system”, since it has relationships to soil strength and vehicle trafficability, such as sinkage resistance.” In layman terms a person in high heels can put more pressure on the ground than a main battle tank. Armoured fighting vehicles (AFV) have different MMP as well as distance between their wheels / tracks. No two AFVs have the same MMP and distances between their wheels. Not only could we detect in real time over a 20 km distance but identify a vehicle and its location. Not only that but the relationship between the transmission lost in data passing down the cable was a direct one to one to the MMP of the vehicle. I then drew up the operational aspects of the solution and the Aussies had to do the math which I failed in Apple Sci. Now for the best part of the thesis. In our research, we discovered a complete lack of R&D on the effect of blast waves on FO cable (artillery shells). We found the right software and then we got paid our salary to blow up plastic explosive for 4 Wednesday afternoons. And other guys were flying a kite with a camera to see if it would suffice for a cheap UAV. All three of us just liked blowing things up. We had all the data we really needed the first afternoon. Our explosives WO was great to talk to but finally said he had real work to do and was also getting short of explosives. We presented our findings. The R&D sponsors were gobsmacked by our findings, a bunch of cowboys outsmarting them.  The R&D scientists did not know about MMP.  It made common sense for us to try MMP against data loss during transmission caused by the MMP on the FO cable. We used a bicycle powered by an Australian major for our proof-of-concept test.

They invited us to write and present papers at the 1st European Fibre Optics Conference in Amsterdam Netherlands in June 1989. Aha, an opportunity for more international travel. We earned our CGIA which is a large fancy paper which became a master’s degree.  I wrote two papers, one based upon the surveillance system and the other on the blast effects. I was informed in April 1989 that both papers had been accepted. I was in the New Tank PMO at the time in Ottawa. I presented my dilemma to my Colonel who was the PM and he said, “well you must go. And your conference is the week before the NATO Tank Gunnery Championships (Canadian Army Trophy).  You will represent the PMO at the competition.”  I was on the team that had won this trophy in 1977.  I was also the Firepower lead (BIG tank cannons and bullets) on the tank project. And I did. The Australians were not allowed to attend.  Our thesis exceeded all our expectations for its both the academic and travel outcomes. When asked if I would be presenting at the conference in 1990 my answer was short sighted as I said that I did not expect to ever work with FO again. I was on the New Tank Project. As I was on the CF Boeing 707 flying back to Canada, I was informed that the project had been fired by the government (along with others) as part of cost cutbacks in a peace dividend about 6 months before the Berlin Wall came down. Intentions can change overnight, capabilities cannot. Both material and personal training. I later worked with FO in Land Requirements.

Take every opportunity to advance your professional capabilities whether military or civilian.  Attending RMCS was a game changer for me in both my military and impending civilian career. It prepared me for some remarkably interesting, exciting and challenging work in both the Army and on civie street.

Some of you reading this note will be selecting thesis topics soon. As I have just shown, a thesis can be interesting, fun and provide long lasting benefits. A thesis does not have to be a series of endless calculations and judged by how heavy the final document weighs. The more interesting that you can make it to yourself, the better the final product. Our initial proof of concept was completed using old FO cable and a bicycle built in 1933. It worked and we had many vehicles for the actual MMP testing. Our team leveraged the strengths and experience of all three of us; my tank and recce experience and their joint ability to work with calculus.

Some of the fun parts of RMCS. While visiting a British Helicopter base, as we studied flight at RMCS, I got to fly a Lynx helicopter. The pilot asked me what I wanted to do, and I stated a loop as the Lynx was one of the few that could do one in 1988. My two thesis partners in the back seats were not impressed. He stated, “not allowed to do that with us in the helicopter, but I could stall the helicopter if I wanted.” So down we went to gain airspeed and then straight up in the air until we stalled and then started falling. I loved it, the Aussies not so much. Stalling an attack helicopter is much more fun than stalling a glider. I also broke the new British tank while test driving it. When asked what I did, I responded that I drove it like a Leopard in an attack. I had completed the same movement in Germany years ago. Accelerated down a hill and then a hard left turn. He responded,” you can’t do that. The tank computer cannot handle it”. As soon as I had turned hard left the engine stalled, and it took 5 seconds for the computer to reset so that we could move again. New British tank for Canada , not if I could help it.

We had some diplomatic privileges while in the UK. Beer was back to $4 a case. Just like Germany we had a monthly ration of duty-free alcohol.  A friend of mine seemed to have as many different bottles of liquor as the local LCBO. I asked him why so many different bottles (think 100) and he replied that he wanted everything that someone might ask to drink. I asked him if he spent $100 a month in Canada on alcohol a guest might ask for. He had bottles of liquor not opened when it came time to return to Canada. He also quit buying hard liquor. I mixed Smirnoff Vodka 50/50 with water and used it for windshield washer fluid because it was cheaper than buying windshield washer fluid. Of course I only put Vodka into my washer fluid when a British officer could see me do it. I received an invitation to have tea with the Queen (as did all the other Canadian students) as well as an invitation with VIP seating to watch the Queen Mother’s Birthday Parade. Both were excellent.

How did I get posted to RMCS other than the Career Manager said so? I requested it. I also earned a position. That is not always the case. Your branch leaders may have already recognized your talent and send you on the course. I sold my house in New Brunswick to my roommate (class of 80) and 3 weeks after closing he was informed that he was posted to the UK in 3 months to attend a year long technical course. I had bought the house a year earlier a day before he was going to put an offer on it. As Gomer Pyle used to say “surprise, surprise, surprise”. He went to the UK in 1985 and I went in 1988. I was his best man when he got married in Wales in 1988.  I wrote several technical articles related to tank gunnery which were published in Canadian military journals. I continued to try to improve Canadian tank gunnery practices in combat conditions with other trials. How? I had completed a four month long Armoured Advanced Gunnery Course and as a tank squadron Battle Captain and the gunnery officer was responsible for gunnery training and planning gunnery live fire exercises. I was able to informally allocate tank rounds to use in pursuit of my interests. We had a thermal pointer (indicted heat, no recognition capability at night) on the Leopard C1 tank with a stated maximum engagement range of 800m. I used British Centurion gunnery techniques on the German tank (not permitted, they said) and had 9 hits of 10 rounds fired at 1800m. If we went to war, the squadron would be firing at night to 1800M not 800M.  Pushing back against the status quo can provide benefits to yourself and the Army. It can also get you into trouble with the Army. Occam’s razor depending upon your leader’s opinion. I applied the principal often. In army talk, it is called the KISS principal.

For Part 4 of this series please see here

For Part 3 of this series please see here

For Part 2 of this series please see here

For Part 1 of this series please see here

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