From theory to policy: The strategic engagement of S&T
In April 2007, the Department of National Defence released its first-ever Defence Science and Technology Strategy, focusing not only on the work of its scientists but also on the obligations of policy makers who incorporate its recommendations. Defence Research and Development Canada, now in its 60th year, will lead its implementation. Dr. Robert Walker, CEO of DRDC, spoke with Chris Thatcher about the strategy and some of its implications.
Defence-related technology was once largely the domain of the military; now much is developed by the private sector, and it is increasingly global in scope: how has that changed what you do and the way you do it?
That is one of the key realities of why this strategy is so important. The nature of defence science has changed radically. When I started my career 30 years ago, you saw within the defence lab all the S&T that would matter to our defence department for the future. That’s no longer the case. S&T is a global enterprise. With the pace of innovation and the more frequent introduction of what we would call disruptive technologies, the ability to predict what S&T will matter in the future is becoming more of a challenge. And the lifetime of a technology advantage a military will have is becoming shorter and shorter.
We need to be smart in how we access others’ knowledge to be suitably agile and flexible to anticipate the things that will be important. The roles of the labs have evolved from being uniquely in the business of knowledge generation to being what we call S&T integrators, trying to pull together leading S&T thought from around the world and interpret it for decision-makers, to draw their attention to ideas and technologies that will affect the way they work, that will challenge the battle space.
We lived in a fairly unique timeframe during the Cold War. We thought of it as the norm but I would argue that the Cold War was a very untypical time in human history and resulted in a unique approach to many perspectives of defence. What our Canadian military is experiencing in Afghanistan with the uncertainty of operations, the fog of war, an adversary that will adjust to take advantage of our vulnerabilities in ways that are hard to anticipate, the need to be more adaptive and resilient – these perhaps are the more typical conditions of conflict that militaries of the past found themselves in. To some degree, we forgot about them.
The strategy offers a good diagnostic of some of the challenges we are facing and provides guidance on how we need to adapt, to be better at anticipating disruptions, at partnering, at accessing others bright ideas, and to be better working together across that spectrum of defence organizations.
Strategic partnerships are clearly crucial: how does DRDC draw out those ideas from allies and private industry? And how do you manage the relationship with other departments now, especially as the JIMP (Joint, Interagency, Multinational, Public) concept evolves?
There is no question that way up on the hit list is the relationship with our international partners through instruments such as NATO and bilateral relationships. Canada has always been a niche contributor to the larger defence S&T fabric and we see more of that in the future. The Canadian philosophy is to choose carefully what you are good at, but be of world-class calibre. Only in that way can you become a valued and trusted partner of bigger players like the US, UK and many European nations. Science and technology is often the early opportunity for engagement with our allies and opens doors that our operational communities, materiel communities and policy communities then step through. That’s always going to be a priority for us.
Working with industry is both key to our future and in many ways the biggest challenge – especially the need for competition. For industry to co-invest with us in technology development, their first question is, what’s the return-on-investment. The notion of establishing win-win relationships that give industry the opportunity to be both supplier and a partner is a challenge. On the other hand, working with us gives industry the opportunity to intimately understand the defence problem and be more competitive on the international market. The strategy identifies some issues we have yet to resolve, such as rationalizing the research-development-acquisition cycle with the government priority for competition. The model today tends to be competition at every stage from research through acquisition. Arguably, another approach would be “competition offramping” and “onramping” – to have competition for the selection of an industry partner earlier in a technology development activity, but stay with that partner through acquisition so long as certain performance conditions are met. You get “off” the relationship with industry only if something fails.
We are also committed to moving to a process of more continual technology refresh. The sweet spot of Canadian industry has always been at the level of systems and sub-systems. We tend to be integrated within global supply chains and typically at a system and sub-system level – it is rare for Canadian industry to provide military platform solutions. The adoption of a process that, between large re-capitalization of platform assets, offers more continual upgrades of the technology base within those platforms plays to the strength of Canadian industry, and offers more of an incentive for partnering. The reality is that our current business model in the department is not necessarily aligned to do that; it tends to be focused on the big platform buys. In between that we make do. As we adjust our business process to allow for this, I think it will introduce enormous opportunities for Canadian industry to work with us more strategically on maintaining capabilities. These are fairly substantial policy questions that we need to explore both within the department and with central agencies to make sure we’ve got the conditions for that to work.
In its recent Defence Industrial Strategy, the UK attempted to ensure it would have capabilities to meet future need. Is that a consideration in your long term strategic planning with Canadian industry?
Buried within the wording of the strategy, it says we will engage industry across all the departmental decision-making processes, including strategy and force development. Currently, industry is largely absent from that internal dialogue around setting priorities and capability objectives. We do that internally and then go out to industry seeking solutions. We all recognize we need ways of getting insights from industry upstream in that decision-making process. One of the best ways is engaging industry through S&T activities. We are looking at new models by which we can get industry exposure to our earlier thinking in our force development decisions. The challenge is doing this fairly, recognizing that it is not a singular entity but many industries, and giving all an opportunity to have that exposure in a fair and transparent way. If we can do that, everybody will benefit.
Back to strategic partnerships with other departments, how is that being managed?
We benefit enormously from the fact that the defence institution invests in long term planning, and has a multi-year budget to support that planning. This is more of a challenge for many other departments because they do not tend to work in a multi-year budget context. For the introduction of new capabilities, their departments tend to go to government on a needs basis, looking for funding within the mandate of the current government. One of the challenges we’ve identified in working with other departments, particularly those engaged in security, is strengthening their long term planning capability, which gives science and technology the opportunity to have traction with them. Interestingly, the dialogue we’re having with many other departments is around how some of the business planning tools used within defence could be applied to their context to help them identify how S&T could affect their agenda. In particular, we’re exploring exercises with the public security community around domestic issues – planning with respect to terrorism, CBRN, preparations around Vancouver 2010 – to show them how new technology could help them do those tasks better.
The strategy notes the need for “full service” S&T capability: How is DRDC affected by the so-called retirement tsunami? How will it affect internal capability?
That’s a tough one. The rate of departures has not played out to date with quite the same doom and gloom as has been suggested. But we are seeing people leave. We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve been able to continue to attract a number of Canada’s best young researchers. I’m encouraged by the general move to a younger community at DRDC. However, you don’t want to see 35 years of accumulated experience in people walk out the door, so one of the things we’re looking at is more use of scientist emeritus programs, allowing people to work past retirement on their terms to be a bridge between the younger people and the experience they represent.
Where we tend to find the gap, frankly, is in our middle and senior management capacity. You always have fewer of them and you tend to see the hole more dramatically when a smaller number depart. We’ve been looking at ways of filling our management capacity by drawing on people from the Forces and bringing in experienced people from other departments to augment what would have otherwise been our internal management development programs. That said, competition for human resources is probably the biggest challenge that we’re all facing.
The strategy identifies eight mission-critical outcomes. Within those, which pose the greatest challenge to S&T?
The eighth priority, which talks about having decision-making processes within the department informed by S&T, has been and remains the biggest challenge. The previous seven speak to where the Canadian Forces see themselves operationally. But we need decision-making to have a S&T underpinning. Developing the skill sets in our science community to provide that kind of insight and advice is the challenge. And it’s not only identifying who in the organization has that capability – it is allowing them to do it. People within DRDC must be seen as welcomed and credible partners at decision tables with our senior military staff dealing with force development, material or information management, making decisions on how to procure capability. That, to my mind, is the most difficult capability to develop and likely the one that is the most important.
Has that capability not been well recognized over the past 60 years?
I can probably rhyme off a dozen examples of military capability that is now considered commonplace that began as an eureka in the S&T community – the haul down systems that are used for helicopter landings on frigates; the notion of variable depth sonar for long range detection of submarines; the notion of putting a transponder on aircraft and monitoring those transponders from space to facilitate search and rescue that’s led to our SAR-SAT constellation of satellites. However, I don’t think we have established the conditions that maximize the frequency with which those kinds of ideas occur. With this strategy, we want to make sure our science workers are well informed of the problem sets so that they come forward with those types of solutions. But we must also get them the opportunity to be at the decision table so they can actually put those solutions forward for consideration. That’s an extremely important dynamic.
When one thinks of S&T, the human dimension is perhaps not top of mind but it is of increasing importance. How are issues like leadership, interagency collaboration and trust in the field being explored?
You’re getting to the heart of what I think are the most significant issues. The human dimension is fundamental to our new way forward. The Canadian defence S&T community has been at the forefront of putting an increased focus on the human dimension of defence and its implications. The Cold War was the technological war: S&T was focused on chasing what was perceived as the next Soviet response to our response to their response in weapons systems. It was a very stable doctrine and the human dimension was not a high priority. Since the Cold War, we‘ve rediscovered that conflict is a human endeavour and there are many, many ways that the human dimension comes into play to ensure success. Over the last five years, the largest and most rapid growth in our expertise has been around human issues – whether those issues relate to human interaction with systems, human interaction with humans, interaction with adversaries or colleagues, allied governments or allied departments or, frankly, in societies such as Afghanistan. The rigour of scientific methodology can add enormous value and insight into behavioural effects, human systems integration, the human dimension of command and control, system autonomy, or trying to come to grips with complexity. Effective S&T outcomes could be pre-deployment advice to our military to increase their cultural awareness as much as it could be better add-on armour to deal with IED vulnerability.
You’ve mentioned the use of “disruptive technologies” by adversaries: What role does DRDC play in trying to determine or understand adversarial intent?
Societies and cultures approach each other and their relationships to government institutions in enormously different ways. Simply trying to understand why that is the case and, therefore, where the tensions are likely to be is profoundly important for an institution like the Canadian Forces that has to engage on societal, organizational and individual levels. Translating that into useful guidance about how an adversary like the Taliban might change its tactics in the coming days, weeks and months as perhaps its current approach fails and it seeks solutions requires a mix of people with training in anthropology, social and cultural behaviours, team dynamics. One can imagine any number of decision aids that might help soldiers and commanders in the field with advice on how they might react under certain circumstances. For one, we want to get better at “red teaming” – anticipating what courses of action an adversary may take based on conditions on the ground and lessons coming out of theatre. It’s an exceedingly difficult undertaking because you’re essentially reading minds.
Finally, let’s move from the human dimension to autonomous systems. Much has been done with uninhabited vehicles but how close are we to fully integrating them into operations? And what are the remaining challenges for true autonomous systems?
There is an acceptance, at least within the military, that uninhabited vehicles have a substantial role to play and will play an increasingly important role in operations. If one looks back from a decade ago when the first unmanned aerial vehicle ever flew in combat to where we are today, the world has changed dramatically. Two observations: One, the easy piece has tended to be unmanned airborne vehicles; unmanned ground vehicles are far more challenging. Second, while we’ve gone to uninhabited systems, by and large these systems all have an operator, just not inside the platform – they are not really autonomous systems. The move to autonomy has the potential for a very profound impact on our military.
I personally think this is generational. For my generation, the notion of
trusting a system to make decisions on relatively complex matters is beyond the pale. We can’t imagine it occurring and we wouldn’t trust the system to do it. The new generation is much more comfortable working in a virtual world and interacting with various kinds of technologies and would be much more amenable to having certain decisions taken by machines. It becomes more problematic the more complex the decision you’re looking for the machines to make. The notion of trust between systems, machines and humans, is an enormously difficult subject and while we will see a radical introduction of uninhabited vehicles into the battle space, the replacement of the operator with autonomous machines will be gradual. In our work on system autonomy, a large part is examining distributed decision-making where it’s shared between human and non-human actors, and how one builds trust and confidence for the human element in what the machines have done. But it is inevitable.
Dr. Robert Walker is assistant deputy minister, science and technology, for National Defence and the chief executive officer of DRDC. He has served with the agency for 28 years, most recently as director general of R&D programs.