The Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) journey to digital systems started decades ago as the world transitioned from the Industrial Age to the Information Age and the CAF started fielding computers and digital systems. This journey has been challenging but that is to be expected, digitising a military force is difficult and complex, in fact digitising anything is difficult and complex. The CAF’s journey has been, and continues to be, challenging as the CAF’s operational structure, by its very nature, is complex and dynamic. Add to this a half-life of technology measured in months and not years, the bureaucracy of government procurement, the multitude of different yet connected systems and the cost related to the size of the CAF. Canada’s ability to field an effective C4ISR system for Joint Pan Domain operations will be a major outcome of the CAF’s current Digital Transformation initiatives.

An organisation embarks on digital transformation, which in simple terms is the adoption of digital technologies, with the aim of increasing efficiency and improving its operational capabilities or output. The process is not just about technology, but the selection and optimisation of technologies balanced against policies, processes, organisational structures, and culture. At the core, digital transformation is about collecting, transmitting, manipulating, and storing data to improve performance, whether it be financial performance of a commercial company or the operational effectiveness of a military force.

The Strong, Secure, Engaged vision is an agile, combat ready CAF that can defend Canadians at home, contribute to the security of North America and is able to protect Canadian interests and values worldwide.  An effective C4ISR system is essential to the fulfilment of this vision, a system that can be rapidly deployed throughout Canada and around the world, interoperable with domestic and international partners with an emphasis on NORAD, NATO and the UN, and support the CAF’s data needs in both the force generation and force employment  phases.

What is a C4ISR System?

A C4ISR system is a collection of sensors, communications systems, information systems, and computers supporting trained people organised in a specific structure, historically hierarchical, using standardised procedures passing data from a source (sensor) to a decision maker, a ‘shooter’. This system will be connected to others like national and coalition systems, together supporting Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2). This system comprises many individual components, purchased at different times with different obsolescence rates leading to a requirement for continual updating and evolutionary growth.    

The most challenging components today are the networks and information systems. Networks are the backbone that connect the sensors to decision makers and is often the limiting consideration in deployed C4ISR systems. Although user expectations are often set by their experiences using smart phones on commercial networks, the CAF cannot rely on using commercial networks for deployed operations. However, future military communications must leverage the capabilities provided through satellite-based communications, especial low earth orbiting networks, cloud-based services and MESH network technologies protected by modern cryptographic solutions. Dedicated radio networks will continue to support forces at the tactical edge, but they will leverage commercial networks as much as possible. The cyber threat to all communication networks, commercial and military, and the data passed on them further risks the availability, integrity, and confidentiality of these networks.  

Recent CAF experiences have highlighted limitations with the current fielded C4ISR systems, particularly the information system or battle management systems; this needs to be addressed as a priority. Moving from a reactive approach of observe, orient, decide, act to a proactive approach of anticipate, adapt, act requires an effective C4ISR system that interconnects all elements of a joint all domain force; the CAF continues to struggle to develop and deploy such a system.

Looking at the Experiences of Coalition Partners

To overcome this challenge of fielding an effective C4ISR System is not easy; if it was the CAF would not be struggling today to do this. Many of Canada’s allies and coalition partners have faced the same struggle, having committed greater resources than Canada to solving this challenge. Learning from our partners, especially those we work most closely with, is a good starting place to move forward. Our 5- Eyes partners have reportedly made progress and studying their digital transformation journeys should speed up Canada’s. In doing this, they need to be aware that the US and UK are much bigger and have different levels of ambition. Australia may more closely align to the CAF’s needs.

The CAF may be able to select some of the technologies/ systems already analysed and chosen by partners, procurement rules permitting. Again, they need to be aware that the starting point is different. There are many requirements unique to Canada, driven by policy approaches, command structure, force size and composition, geography and level of ambition to name a few; these must be properly considered as the CAF seeks input from partners.

The Canadian command structure is different from many of our allies and this will impact the solution for the information systems components of the CAF C4ISR System. While national command is exercised through the Canadian Joint Operational Command (CJOC), mission/ theatre command is exercised through a coalition headquarters in expeditionary operations and through a Regional Joint Task Force (RJTF) in domestic operations. Each scenario brings with it unique C2 and interoperability needs, however, the troops and lower-level HQs conducting the operation remains the same.

Additionally, since the data set is common, the solution must meet both force generation and force employment requirements including all aspects of support to the deployed force. The need to share data with all in-service national enterprise systems including support personnel management, material, maintenance, transportation, financial and training must be properly considered.

The CAF can also look to coalition partners to understand the nontechnical aspects of digital transformation. How to change culture to one that supports digital warfighters, how to train these warfighters and the identification and removal of orthodoxies and barriers that impede digital transformation and the fielding and evolution of a C4ISR System. Understanding how partners have evolved structures and procedures and equally importantly, how do they balance rapidly evolving technology with fielding and operational imperatives could yield valuable insights. These nontechnical aspects of the journey are essential to set the conditions for success, assuring and advancing the CAF’s relevance, resilience, effectiveness, and dominance in Pan-Domain operations.

The Journey has Begun, What has been Learned?

In addition to looking at partners, the CAF must also look internally. The past decades have seen major investments in digital technologies and there have been many successes, a fact that is often overlooked. Canada has effectively force generated and exercised command and control of deployed forces in both domestic and expeditionary missions using the C4ISR Systems in use today. Canada has fielded a myriad of sensors in all domains and has successfully interoperated with coalition partners, key requirements of the C4ISR System. As mentioned above, Canada has already fielded and is using many systems that form part of the C4ISR System; the opportunities offered, and constraints imposed by these fielded systems must be analysed and only the CAF can do that.

Last year the CAF took a significant step by identifying the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff as the champion for digital transformation. Leadership and engagement at the highest levels are essential for the design of a common system; once designed and agreed to, implementation can be decentralised if it is in accordance with the central plan.

‘Doing digital’ will require new skills, new structures, new training, new partners and changing behaviour and culture to promote a digital mindset. The CAF knows what is working now and what is not. They know what their training systems are capable of and how their policies impact system development and fielding. Also, only the CAF can determine what functions they must provide in supporting the C4ISR System and what functions they are willing to rely on a partner to provide. No single organisation, military, public sector or commercial, has all the knowledge and experience to execute digital transformation on their own, partnering is necessary for success.

Industry as a Partner

Canadian industry has been successful in delivering the equipment and services required by the CAF and they have the capability and desire to continue doing this. However, the digitised future may require more from industry and Canadian industry is ready to partner with the CAF for not only the delivery of technology but to help operate, maintain, evolve, and train the technology. Partnering is not buying products from industry but working with industry, and possibly academia, to identify needs, design and deploy solutions and support, to potentially include a role in operating deployed/fielded systems. As a colleague once described it, the differentiation between suppliers and partners is simple – ‘compete for commodities, partner for trust.’ One area that a growing number of companies are offering their experience and approaches is in assisting the senior levels with the overall digital transformation process; an opportunity for the CAF to leverage learning from industry’s experiences in digitisation. Each of these potential partners have a proven framework with supporting processes but the CAF needs to select one and stick with that partner, picking multiple partners at this level could fragment the CAF’s digital journey.

There are multiple potential suppliers for every component of the CAF C4ISR System, despite what many from industry will say. Based on the input of both internal and external stakeholders, requirements can be identified, and these requirements can form the basis of a competition. Once a technology is provided by a supplier, a partnership must be formed to support the integration and fielding of that technology; that partnership could be with the technology provider or another industry partner. Accepting industry as a partner in operations can help shield soldiers, sailors, and air personnel from much of the complexity of digital systems, especially those components that are continually changing.  

Another form of partnering now available to the CAF is to contract services instead of buying technology. This is particularly true for the information management components of the system as Software as a Service (SaaS) is becoming the norm in industry for the provision of applications. Cloud services are also provided in this manner. The CAF can also contract other services such as baseline data support. Partnering with a contracted service provider shares the responsibility and risks associated with fielding, maintaining, and evolving that service. It also facilitates the expansion or reduction of that service.

There are a couple of issues here; first is trust between the user (CAF) and industry, without this there is no partnership but just a contract. How do competing industries work together to deliver capability (the UK created a Joint Program Officer, there are models that have been tried in Canada, however a thorough review is needed to fully understand its rate of success). The PSPC view of competition equals value for money flies in the face of trust and partnerships, made worse by continually recompeting support contracts. Can the CAF accept relying on industry to directly support/ operate operational C4ISR Systems SaaS? How do you contract for evolutionary and continual growth of C4ISR Systems?

Moving Forward

The CAF has already identified an ambitious program to modernise its C4ISR System, which is outlined in Strong, Secure, Engaged policy statement. Several discreet projects have been identified and are currently moving through stages of the Defence Program. As these programs mature, there is a need to ensure the inter dependences are properly identified and properly addressed in procurement requirements. Analysing inter dependences will also identify priorities and individual projects may need to be re-sequenced to address priorities and dependences. Also, the information exchange requirements must be identified. This work is likely largely completed and just needs to be consolidated in one location and ensure the information is presented in a standard format. The CAF could engage an industry and or academic partner to assist with this step.

Concurrently, the CAF should develop a high-level system architecture; this is required to ensure that systems to be fielded through new capital projects are properly interfaced with the in-service systems that will continue to be used to enter, process and store data. This step will help ensure interface requirements, both technical and procedural, are identified. It may also help reduce the possibility of fielding yet another overlapping and disconnected component to the C4ISR System. At this point it should be obvious which components of the CAF’s C4ISR system are redundant, require replacement or are missing. The redundant components can be deprecated, and competitions can be held to acquire or replace the components as required. Again, this phase would likely benefit from an industry and/or academic partner.

To address the immediate need for a capable operational information or battle management system, the CAF could start trialing potential ‘out of the box’ systems to help refine operational requirements and identify those procedural, organisational and training needs which may need to be modified. Changing an ‘out of the box’ solution is an option but is not the preferred approach; keeping to the original design reduces lifetime costs, eases technology and capability enhancements and facilitates leveraging the experience of a coalition partner using the same system (one must seriously question why Canada would select a system not used with a coalition partner). It is usually easier to adjust procedures to match technology and not try to change technology to meet current procedures. Running operational experiments is an effective way to test the interaction between technology, procedures, and structures. In addition to experimentation, the use of modelling and simulation is an effective tool to evaluate information systems. This will inform both interim and long-term procurement decisions.

Final Thought

The fielding of an effective CAF C4ISR System that meets the needs of force generation and force employment in both domestic and expeditionary operations is essential for the CAF to exercise effective Joint All-Domain Command and Control in the future security environment. This article has attempted to provide a brief introduction to the challenges and opportunities facing the CAF’s digital transformation leading to the fielding of a C4ISR System. The C4ISR and Beyond Conference on 28-29 January 2022 will bring CAF, Defence, Allies, Government and Industry leaders and collaborators together to examine this subject in greater detail.


For more discussion about C4SIR be sure to listen to our interview with Rick Fawcett and Terri Pavelic, Digital Transformation Enhances Effective C4ISR.