An interview with BGen Chris C. Ayotte, Chief of Staff Army, Strategy, Canadian Army

Continuing from the Q&A session featured in the June/July 2021 issue, BGen Chris C. Ayotte, Army Chief of Staff for Strategy and Senior Force Development Army Leader, spoke with the Vanguard team regarding updates on the Canadian Army Modernization Strategy (CAMS). CAMS outlines the numerous evolving challenges in defence and emphasizes the multi-horizontal initiatives that must take place to modernize the Canadian Army in the context of these challenges. The strategy is built on Canada’s defence policy: Strong, Secure, Engaged.

An instrumental figure to the conceptualization of CAMS, BGen Ayotte is set to retire in July 2022. In the following interview, he delves into topics such as the Army’s digitalization efforts made thus far, required levels of readiness and various training supports implemented to embrace a digital future.

Digital Transformation

Q – Provide a progress update on the Canadian Army digitalization road map. 

A – There’s no doubt I would like to be further ahead in our digital journey, but the last 18 months have challenged our efforts with a variety of other priorities. Regardless of these challenges, we wanted to start our digital transformation well which drove us to invest a considerable amount of time in trying to understand how ready the Army was for this transformation. We discovered that our first step needed to focus on raising the level of understanding as to why digital is critical to Army modernization. Our soon to be released Canadian Army Digital Strategy is an important component of our effort to raise the understanding of the force as to why digital is the vital ground of our modernization efforts. The recent presentation of the strategy to Army leadership at Army Council was met with overwhelming support which establishes a common understanding and approach for the entire Army. With Army Council’s full endorsement, and once this strategy is published, we’ll focus on building the road map to drive tangible, funded actions to move us towards the Digital Army.

Q – We understand that the Command Support Integration initiative will develop an overarching strategy to achieve long-term Canadian Army C4ISR vision, nested within the CAF C4 and Joint Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance frameworks, and this initiative will ensure close support interoperability is factored at the onset of the Canadian Army capital programme. Please describe the army’s progress on Command Support Integration.

A – The Army has been working closely with the overall CAF efforts to ensure strategy alignment.  The relatively new CAF Chief of Combat Systems Integration (CCSI) organization has a mandate to develop the CAF Digital Campaign Plan and ensure, through oversight and coordination, that future capabilities delivered by various projects are digitally interoperable at the joint level. The team building the Army Digital Strategy, as well as the Project Directors of our Land Integrated Command and Control System (previously C4ISR) family of projects, have been working closely with the CCSI team to ensure that our initiatives in the digital space, including these major capital projects, consider joint interoperability up front as detailed requirements are being developed.

Q – The CAMS and participants in C4ISR and Beyond working groups have spoken of government-industry partnerships, and allied militaries have benefited from such relationships. What assistance could industry provide to the Canadian Army to encourage and enable digital innovation?

A – This is an aspect where the Army has lots of opportunity to improve and industry can help us develop a culture of innovation. We need to approach innovation from two perspectives. First, we must look for small opportunities that can be funded and executed within Army authorities and resources to not only solve digital problems, but also to start building a digital culture. This leads to the second aspect of this approach which is to use these small victories to inform larger efforts such as our Integrated Command and Control System modernization under SSE 42. Since innovation is essential to success in the private sector, we need to build a mechanism to partner with companies that can help us solve problems that will fuel our digital transformation.

Q – Please provide an update on the Canadian Army Digitalisation Roadmap and fostering of a Canadian Army Digital Culture. Will the growing threat of near peer competition and need to adopt ADO in a timely manner increase the prioritization and resources allocated to digitalisation transformation? What opportunities do you see for industry to support this transformation through the provision of services to enable transformation strategy and plan development, share lessons learned, increase capacity, or other ways?

A – There’s no doubt that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought the state of our current capabilities, and the timelines for delivery of our future capabilities, into sharper focus. I don’t know how the Department or Forces will adjust priorities based on this heightened threat in Europe, but I will continue to champion digital transformation as the single most important element of Army modernization and our success in this endeavour will be key to our ability to continue as a reliable and credible military to our allies and adversaries. Every future capability, and some of our current ones, will be a part of the military internet of things and our ability to get the most out of these capabilities, to ensure overmatch in a fight, will only happen through an integrated and interoperable Digital Army. This deep integration includes our soldiers which will endure as the most critical capability in the Army. Not only do we want to enable our soldiers to have access to the right data at the right time for better decisions and increased lethality, but we also want to attract and retain the best Canadian talent by providing an advanced force that meets the technological expectations of future generations. 

Capital Investment

Q – Knowing that CADSI’s Army Outlook provided participants with updates on over thirty army projects, please provide an update on the Army capital investment program. What reprioritizations have been, or do you foresee being needed? What lessons are being learned from the deployment of an M777 battery to TF Latvia? In view of this M777 deployment and the donation of M777s to the Ukraine, how is the Indirect Forces Modernization project progressing?

A – As I mentioned during my address at Army Outlook, all of the Army’s SSE projects remain important to us and will continue to be pushed through the process as quickly as we are able. I continue to be impressed by the professional excellence delivered by the team in Director of Land Requirements as the primary engine for the Army’s capital equipment program. With respect to priorities, we will need to wait and see what is possible with reprioritizations within the wider departmental program since there are lots of projects competing for a limited number of resources. As stated previously, I believe the modernization of the Army’s current fleet of sensors, applications, and communication systems needs to be our top priority, and we must be able to deliver, through our numerous capital equipment projects, a fully Integrated Command and Control System that works at the tactical team level up to the joint HQ.

Q – Speak to the importance of the network to a digital army, ADO, and interoperability with other CAF capabilities, allies, and partners.

A – Similar to my previous comments, the network underpins the operational relevance and lethal advantage of a modernized digital army by serving as the backbone and connective tissue of the army’s capability ecosystem. The digital network allows aggregation of disparate systems, so the overall capability is greater than the sum of its parts. Moreover, the digital network is increasingly the main determinant of joint and coalition interoperability; essentially, our gateway to entry into coalitions will be predicated on the maturity and robustness of our digital network. The ability to pass data across the CAF services and our allies in near real time will define our ability to see ourselves, make sense of the operational environment, and improve decision-making. Although I’ve been speaking about Army equities, we really need to view these projects as joint capabilities because the ultimate goal is to push and pull data to and from any sensor in the joint or combined network to make a faster, more informed decision on what action to take next. The Army’s share of this task is to develop a digital army that can seamlessly and cohesively integrate into the joint and combined network so we not only can take advantage of the overmatch provided by this level of integration, but also be actively contributing sensors and shooters to the wider coalition fight. Most of your readers will know there’s lots behind this level of ambition and I’m certainly not trying to wish away the complexity. This is why efforts to improve our innovation and experimentation, raise the floor on pan-Army digital understanding and literacy, and have the implementation of our future digital roadmap endure as the top priority are paramount to realizing our modernization ambitions.

Q – What has and could the Canadian Army learn from allies’ capability fielding?

A – We are very fortunate to work with an amazing group of allies through organizations such as NATO and ABCANZ. As the Canadian Army’s National Director for ABCANZ, I focus some of my time of advancing the objectives of this program which have many linkages to our force development and modernization efforts. Through these partnerships, we work with our allies to share best practices, establish standards, and look for opportunities to exercise together to find out what works and what still needs attention to get as close to fully integrated as possible. The objective is to get better every day in some way so we can be as prepared as possible for the next fight. The Canadian Army may be trailing our allies on digital transformation, but this does present an opportunity to learn from them and follow a more certain path in addressing many of the practical challenges associated with realizing a digital army. 

Closing Thoughts as Outgoing COS(Strat)

As I prepare to leave my role as COS Army Strategy, I have reflected on what I have observed over the last two years and my hopes for the future of the Army. 

I’m thankful for the opportunity to work with an amazing team charged with the massive task of building the Digital Army espoused in the modernization strategy. This is important work that rarely gets the attention it requires as we tend to be consumed by the tyranny of the now. It’s not an easy thing for commanders to carve out time to think about the future, especially when there are so few career opportunities to work in force development and understand this part of our profession.

Of all the force development issues, and it will be no surprise as I wrap up this interview, I believe digital transformation will be the defining effort of the Army over the next several decades. Any success in digital transformation requires successive commanders to make digital transformation not simply a priority, but the priority. As the saying goes, “if it interests the commander, it fascinates everyone else.” It is my hope that our soon to be released Digital Strategy will help empower commanders with a framework to drive the digital journey. 

Since commanders’ days are consumed with the crisis of the day, meeting after meeting, and an endless stream of administration to keep the trains running, they need to find change agents to implement their digital transformation agenda. This is where the Army could greatly benefit from allocating a small number of people and resources to a full-time digital effort. This team (or teams) could do the heavy lifting and guide the Army into the digital future. This could also serve as a start point to better understand how the Army can improve on innovation and experimentation that will fuel a much more efficient modernization effort. 

Since digital is not intuitive to most, this type of approach requires trust and an acceptance that the path will not be straight nor smooth. Innovation requires the expenditure of resources where the only result maybe an understanding how not to do something. This will be uncomfortable for some leaders, but we need to have a pool of resources for innovation and experimentation that will lead to long term efficiency in modernization. 

The Army has proven countless times over the years that a small team of Canadian soldiers with clear intent and some resources can deliver disproportionate results, especially when dealing with ambiguous situations. If we apply this proven approach to this new problem set, I’m confident the Army will grow into a formidable digital fighting force. We simply need to step into the digital unknown with a singular focus of building the best Army possible for our soldiers and our fellow Canadians.