Interview with Colonel Christopher Renahan, Director Land Requirements, Canadian Army

As the largest component of the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian Army is responsible to ensure that its soldiers are well-equipped, well-led and ready for operations both at home and abroad. This includes the procurement of capabilities and equipment and the training of military personnel to be ready for a wide range of scenarios. 

In this interview, we had the opportunity to speak with Colonel Christopher Renahan, Director Land Requirements, Canadian Army. Colonel Renahan is an Armour Officer who is a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada and has served with the Royal Canadian Dragoons in Canada and internationally in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. He completed the Land Force Technical Staff Programme and has been employed in the Directorate of Land Requirements on a number of occasions working primarily on armoured fighting vehicle related projects for the Canadian Army. Colonel Renahan assumed the role of the Director of Land Requirements in June of 2018 and contributes to the management and delivery of the Canadian Army’s capability development and equipment programme.

We all went through some work-related changes and challenges due to the Coronavirus. How is the DLR team managing their mandate during the remote working constraints of the COVID-19 crisis?

This has been an extremely challenging time for many people, but as for being set up for business continuity, the DLR team has been quite well positioned. Since our role before COVID-19 required that we travelled often and worked from remote locations at times, the majority of our personnel are equipped with smartphones, laptops, tablets, and or other mobile devices, so we are well-equipped to adapt to work-related changes.

One limitation has been the need to prioritize access to the network and other resources for those directly involved in the response to COVID-19. We have been able to work within those limitations by minimizing our use of network resources, logging in at off peak hours, and doing as much as we can offline or through other collaborative tools that have been made available to us. Some of our Army experience may even be helpful as all the teleconferences that have replaced face to face meetings are reminiscent of, and demand the discipline of, tactical radio communications and voice procedure we are all familiar with.

The real limitation is what I think most of us have been dealing with, and that is juggling the demands of family, parenting and childrens’ education, along with the duties of the job. It has taken some real creativity and patience to keep on top of all those demands, and in most cases, we have been able to balance work requirements to ensure that individual and family needs are placed first, to make sure we get through this challenging time as best we can.

Under Strong, Secure, Engaged, the Government of Canada planned to invest up to $8.8B over 20 years in 28 new equipment projects for the Canadian Army. There were some very ambitious timelines provided, and a bow-wave of programmatic activity for DLR over the next two years. Can you share with us the general status of the Investment Plan (updated in 2019) and its timelines?

I will need to leave the status of any Investment Plan updates to others.

The Canadian Army continues to work to meet the Strong, Secure, Engaged timelines and budgets as coordinated and managed by the Department. We have been very successful in moving our projects through the approvals process, with the majority of our projects making advancements through the gates of the Department’s project approval process. Those that haven’t yet are due to the longer timelines assigned to them by Strong, Secure, Engaged, so we remain on track. And while there have been some challenges and some internal delays, they have not translated to delays in project delivery timelines in the longer term.

Please give us an overview of the major capital programme for the Canadian Army. What are some of the major projects coming up? 

That is a tough question to answer succinctly based on the wide range of the programme.  I think the easiest answer is to refer back to the Investing in the Canadian Army portion of Strong, Secure, Engaged.

We have achieved some significant milestones over the past recent years related to some long-standing projects. This includes the fielding of the last of the Upgraded LAV 6.0, Tactical Armoured Patrol Vehicles (TAPV), and Medium Support Vehicle System (MSVS) trucks. As these projects wind down and address outstanding items, that will allow us to move personnel to newer projects to make sure we have the people in the right place when needed.

Right now, we continue to support the Materiel Group in delivering capability to the Canadian Army that is fielding right now. These include Headquarters Shelter Systems (HQSS), Urban Operations Training Systems (UOTS), and updated communications systems through what is called Capability Pack TOPAZ, to name a few.

Looking further out, again with the cooperation of the Project Management teams of the Materiel Group, we continue to advance Canadian Army Strong, Secure, Engaged projects.  Without getting into detailed lists, a number of key capabilities come to mind. A full renewal of our logistic vehicles fleet is well-underway (Logistic Vehicle Modernization, Light Utility Vehicle, and Enhanced Recovery Capability) complemented by the more tactical fleet equivalent through the Armoured Combat Support Vehicle. Key strategic capabilities including Ground Based Air Defence and Joint Fires Modernization are also advancing well. With both projects having completed Options Analysis work and poised for Department approval to enter the Definition Phase.

A full replacement of the Canadian Army’s command and control network along with a number of projects that will deliver equipment for individual soldiers are in progress as well. We are also looking at modernizing the camouflage uniforms worn by the Canadian Army, looking to upgrade the camouflage pattern along with sizing and cut to better fit our members and incorporate their feedback and suggestions.

Many capital projects are in the “industry engagement phase” and have gone through at least one round of Requests for Information (RFI). Can you provide some general comments as to how this process is working from DLR’s perspective? Do you anticipate major changes in scope or costs to projects as a result of these engagements?    

I think my approach has always been to reach out and be open to Industry early and often as we work on refining our requirements, and this is key to the government’s Defence Procurement Strategy. I think it helps us organize ourselves and develop our requirements and makes sure we are aiming for something achievable, while at the same time ensuring we don’t catch Industry off guard or put them in a difficult position. So, this two-way communication is essential.

While the formal consultation process falls to Public Service and Procurement Canada to manage, I know that we have had at least one project go through a cycle of Industry engagement since COVID-19, and one or two more getting ready to do the same. Just as we have adapted our working environment to a remote model, I think we were effectively able to do the same with Industry’s cooperation and were able to meet the needs of the project at this stage.

One area in which the Army has significant flexibility is the allocation of minor capital funding. Can you provide insight as to how minor capital funds are allocated within the Army programme and how these investments mesh with the major capital spending for projects which are on a different timeline and scale?  

For a relatively small investment, the Canadian Army is able to translate our minor capital spending into some pretty significant capabilities. Like any allocation, they are budgeted for and allocated to those elements of the Canadian Army that need to buy capital equipment. There is an approval process and oversight. It is just delegated to the Canadian Army and Materiel Group based on financial limits.

One thing that may not be appreciated, which accounts for the lion’s share of the budget, is the need to maintain the massive institutional fleet that keeps our bases and garrisons running. I like to say that we look after everything from A to Z…. Ambulances to Zambonis. This covers a massive range of civilian pattern vehicles like fire trucks, forklifts, staff cars, cargo trucks, and just about anything else you can think of to keep the institution running, but which doesn’t necessarily need a militarized version for its garrison focused function.

The flexibility exists in that we can often deliver a new capability when required, through a shorter approvals process. One great example is the Digitally Aided Close Air Support system.  While the Canadian Army’s Joint Fires Modernization project will deliver connectivity between observer and military platform that delivers munitions or effects, this project is not scheduled to deliver before the 2025 timeframe. The challenge is that to speak with modern fighter planes and be interoperable with our allies, that digital capability is required now – a capability we now have with Digitally Aided Close Air Support that was introduced via a minor project. We will be doing something similar with a related simulator capability to ensure that we can continue to train and ensure that some of the aging simulator systems are replaced when needed.

We have also been able to leverage minor projects for some trial purposes such as vehicles for the Canadian Army’s Light Forces, along with ceremonial clothing and equipment for units performing high profile tasks. While there is a wide range of potential applications of this funding, as with any project, there is a balance that exists between funding, the institutional needs of the Canadian Army, and the capacity of the Department and Industry to deliver that makes it important to prioritize and only address essential needs.

How are new and evolving requirements of the Army of Tomorrow (AoT) being fitted into the Army’s existing capital program and ultimately the Defence Capabilities Blueprint?  

While our focus right now is on delivering on Strong, Secure, Engaged, we always are looking even further into the future. This primarily is the focus of other elements of the Canadian Army and Canadian Armed Forces, who work on determining what the future may look like, and what capability areas we need to focus on.

I think in DLR we have two immediate inputs. First is to do our best to ensure that the projects we are working on now will fit in the Army of Tomorrow. While much of our project deliverables are fixed, in that we know what projects we are working on, we must try to ensure that a new truck, for example, is equipped with the right accessories for lack of a better word, to be able to operate in that future environment. So, we are always trying to make sure the projects we are working on will fit and be relevant to that future army.

The second part is looking ahead to the next wave of projects that will be needed, and this is a balance between replacing equipment as it wears out, while also introducing new capabilities required by the future. Therefore, our input is related to future potential equipment projects, and providing the information necessary to allow for the appropriate analysis and decisions to take place, to see if and when it can be incorporated in the Department’s priorities and funding envelope. We are always keeping an eye on the development of new technology and capabilities, to ensure that we are well-informed and ready to initiate new projects when the time comes.

Finally, your position as DLR comes with a lot of responsibilities to ensure that the Canadian Army has what it needs to meet Canada’s defence objectives. Given the significance of your responsibilities, what keeps you up at night

I think there are two things that come to mind. The first is the obvious one, and that is the impact that COVID-19 will have on the Canadian Army, or the Canadian Armed Forces and society as a whole. Once we get through the current phase of managing this initial response, it will be interesting to see what the future political-strategic environment asks of the Canadian Army, and what the future “new normal” means for us, both as an Army and in general.

The second is something that has been a bit more of an enduring concern to this line of work, and that is the amount of responsibility and impact of decisions that rest with the project teams. Any project is a balance of the desired capability scope, compared with resources, funding, and timelines available. And so, like any complex initiative, you can’t always get everything desired, and difficult choices need to be made. The long-term impact of these choices is that the Canadian Army will need to live with them for as long as that equipment is in service, so we are looking at 20 plus years into the future in some cases. It is tough to balance that need to make a decision required to advance a project now, while trying to understand the implications of those decisions that will shape the Canadian Army for a generation.

It is a really critical and essential role that the project teams play in these decisions, and it is hard to convey how much of an impact the individual Canadian Army Project Directors and their Material Group counterparts have in shaping and creating the Army of the Tomorrow and beyond.