by Chris Thatcher
Got an idea to further the Canadian Army’s digital transformation? A trial of new technology for your brigade? An experiment with digital tools or new ways of employing them for your company?
If so, there’s a team in Army headquarters that wants to hear about it. And soon, there will be an app to capture suggestions and help the Army decide in which ones to invest.
“Ultimately, we want every soldier to be a force developer,” said Brigadier-General André Demers, Chief of Staff, Strategy (COS Strat).
Last summer, the Army released a digital strategy, titled Modernization Vital Ground: The Essential Digital Pivot to be Effective in the Pan-Domian Fight. Originally one of 20 initiatives nested in the 2020 Canadian Army Modernization Strategy, digital transformation has been elevated to its own pedestal and positioned as the vital ground the Army must seize if it is to modernize for a rapidly evolving technological fight.
“We are really recognizing that to do the transformation we want to do from an Army perspective, the first step is to move into the 21st century from a digital perspective,” Demers said. To maintain integration and interoperability with allies, “the common language will be the digital network — without that you are not a modern fighting force.”
The strategy is an acknowledgement that the Army must change its entire relationship with technology, at every level and in every function. And that won’t happen unless the force is willing to experiment — to encourage “participative force development” and trial emerging technology down to its lowest echelons.
“We want to make sure that every soldier that comes up with a good idea can test it, and that there is a way to feed it back through the system that will then influence our conceive and design process and drive doctrine, that will then drive more experimentation, that will drive equipment procurement,” Demers explained. “We need to be better at capturing that.”
The strategy has five aim points to help “guide” Army units and members on a transformation path, explained Colonel Dan McKinney, Director Land Command and Information (DLCI) and the document’s lead author. The first is a cultural pivot intended to accelerate digital innovation. The second is digital leadership, spearheaded by a leadership hub within Army headquarters. Third is participative force development, encouraging experimentation from the lowest levels up. Fourth is integration of technology in day-to-day business processes. And the fifth is interoperability, specifically through experimentation with allies at events like the U.S. Army’s Project Convergence and the multinational Bold Quest.
The document acknowledges that many of those aim points are also among the potential barriers to successful change, especially the suboptimal digital culture, digital literacy, leadership, expertise, procurement practices better suited to large platform projects, and maintaining interoperability as partners like the U.S. Army advance more rapidly.
“We tried to capture all the challenges we would face,” said McKinney.
No potential barrier is more prominent than leadership. Disrupting people’s comfort with the status quo is a major obstacle, Demers admitted, “but to get this moving forward, we want to make sure that the leadership is supporting this.”
The strategy was among the first documents reviewed and endorsed by Lieutenant-General Jocelyn Paul when he assumed command of the Army last summer, and digital transformation has been an intense focus of Army Council. The Army is in the process of creating a new directorate solely focused on Digital Transformation, under COS Strat, that will serve as the link with “participative force development” from across the Army.
“The best way to get buy-in is to get soldiers excited about this through grassroots experiments,” Demers noted. “But the biggest way to address (obstacles) is command buy-in, and we have that with the current leadership. Once we get over our ability to resource it properly, recognizing that we will need to make investments from some other areas into the digital transformation, then we will be well on our way.”
The app to collect and assess soldier suggestions is still in the prototype phase. But once ready, it will have pattern recognition to be able “to do some match-making” and allow soldiers to connect ideas with similar intent, McKinney said. “The idea is to have a pipeline intake process so we can then decide more centrally what we will invest in.”
MORE HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
The crux of participative force development is digital advancement through experimentation, drawing out ideas from soldiers and facilitating more collaboration with the private sector on technological solutions at a stage in defence procurement where the military and industry do not typically engage.
Though the strategy is less than a year old, already examples are emerging of innovative trials. Several companies joined a mortar platoon to demonstrate networked digital fires, and a number of companies collaborated with 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group Headquarters and Signal Squadron on maintaining the resiliency of the command and control (C2) function of a command post or headquarters in dispersed operations against an enemy with modern sensors and precision-guided weapons.
Borrowing a page from the Covid pandemic playbook, where company employees had to disperse and work remotely yet still adhere to corporate command, the trial sought to replicate that on the battlefield.
And in May, during Exercise Maple Resolve, the Army will partner with Amazon Web Services to experiment with the provision of a tactical network as a service. For the first time, the opposition force, played by the 12e Régiment blindé du Canada, will operate with a digitized C2 network as it confronts the rest of 5 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group.
“What we are trying to get out of it is lessons learned,” McKinney explained, that can inform the Army’s Land C4ISR projects. “We are going to deliver a tactical effect for Maple Resolve, but really the strategic goal is to help us figure out what the healthy mix of partnership with industry is going to look like in the future. How much of the solution do we want to be with industry as a service, and how much do we truly need to own ourselves?”
Expanded experimentation is an effort to break from the historical pattern of asking industry for a specific solution to an Army problem. Instead, the Army is hoping that by exposing industry directly to its “problem space,” the collaboration will identify approaches or solutions more quickly than either might have developed on their own.
“The idea behind the experiments is to allow industry and the field force to work together to figure out what is needed to solve the problem,” McKinney said. “There is a lot of innovation happening in the private sector, and for the military to be competitive we have to be fast followers to what is possible.”
Moreover, the experiments generated through participative force development are an indication of the Army’s willingness to innovate and “trying new ways of doing business,” said Demers.
Current procurement practice does not offer much flexibility for adapting to the fast pace of technological change, and experiments will need to be followed by funding for industry to remain engaged. But the experiments show the Army is “willing to take risks,” he said. “As we are engaging internally with the broader procurement community – they are tracking what we are doing – these are proof of concept of the way we can evolve this forward.”
Just how far the Army is prepared to go in the application of technology through contracted services is still being debated in wider National Defence circles. But there is a desire to expand the space in which industry can operate. The military will need to own the “kill web,” said McKinney, but the Army is open to software, infrastructure, and other areas as a service.
“These are part of the ongoing discussions,” he said. “We are running these trials to see what are the changing rules when you partner with industry like this, what are the changing rules with the field force? We have learned some interesting things, but we are still developing the technology.”
ZERO DAY INTEROPERABILITY
While greater experimentation is a key to digital transformation, the Army’s capacity to do so is limited, Demers acknowledged. It will continue to leverage Defence R&D Canada as much as possible and has recently “re-energized” the Canadian Army Land Warfare Centre (CALWC) with more resources and a shorter horizon focused on the conception and design of hi-tech capability through more agile procurement. In particular, CALWC aims to “accelerate” the conceive and design cycle of the Army’s three urgent operational requirements intended for the augmented forward presence battle group in Latvia — anti-armour, air defence and counter-uncrewed aircraft systems (CUAS) — to ensure they have the necessary doctrine supporting them.
“We need to make sure that as we deliver those to the field force, we have the concept and doctrine and structure to integrate them,” Demers explained. “Anti-armour for an infantry battalion is not that complicated to integrate, but CUAS or reinvigorating our air defence, with the technology of today, needs a bit more thinking behind it to make sure we integrate with the Air Space Coordination Centre and various communication networks that are available within a coalition.”
Once those capabilities are delivered to the battle group in Latvia and reach initial operating capability, likely by the summer of 2024, CALWC will resume its primary focus on the Army of Tomorrow, but with a greater emphasis “tied to digitalization,” he said, as the Army delivers the Land C4ISR projects that will provide its next-generation information highway.
Those six projects are central to harnessing the Army’s data. However, the strategy flags interoperability with allies and, in particular, the ability to share raw data, as a potential stumbling block. Through NATO working groups, the ABCANZ Armies (American, British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand) framework and experiments like Project Convergence and Bold Quest, the Army hopes to remain in step with the digital pace of partners who are rapidly advancing their networks.
“The goal is Day Zero interoperability,” said McKinney, meaning Canada must demonstrate in experiments and on binational and multinational exercises that it can plug in seamlessly and share data, not “just show up [as part of a coalition] and figure it out.”
For Project Convergence 22 last fall, the Army commander led the Canadian delegation, a clear signal “that we are serious about integrating more and more into the experiments,” noted Demers. That included experiments on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensor integration and precision targeting. Both of those will be among the many threads at the next Project Convergence (PC) in the spring of 2024, but tied to data management and conducted at the tactical edge.
“We are looking at a niche capability the Canadian Army can provide at the strategic-operational level to make sure we stay a relevant partner within those experiments,” he added, noting that more units within the Army are looking for opportunities to participate.
“We are looking at the outcome of those experiments that have happened so far to instruct not only how we are going to participate in PC 24, but also how we can use some of the work that has been done to accelerate our own force development process.”
“All of this is not possible without a network that is interoperable and ‘federated’ with the experimentation network they are using for Project Convergence,” stressed McKinney, who in February led a team to U.S. Army Futures Command “to do a deep dive into network integration and sensor integration, to make sure we are ready for the next PC.”
Digital transformation at the tactical edge will be an ever-evolving effort as the technology changes. While there is no end-state, the Army does envision a desired state of revolutionized decision-action cycles through new uses of data and the ability to “integrate, synchronize and visualize Land domain effects within a larger pan-domain context.”
For soldiers operating at that tactical edge, one of the objectives of the strategy is “to have unprecedented agency from the field force on their own digital tool set,” said Demers, setting them firmly as vital digital contributors in that broader domain battle.
Already, experiments such as 2 Brigade’s decentralized command post have “changed the attitude and emboldened people within the Army to try things,” said McKinney. “I’m fielding requests from all over the place to support different trials.
“I would say we are just getting started,” he emphasized. “We’re now in the assembly area, the main force is moving to the line of departure, recce elements are forward of the line already, but we haven’t crossed the line of departure ‘en-masse’ yet. That starts with all the projects being unlocked. This is a huge piece to move. We are talking transforming the Army.”