As Rear-Admiral John Newton settles into the captain’s chair on the bridge of HMCS Halifax, he looks right at home. He commanded her sister ship, Fredericton, from 2003 to 2006, so that comfort is hardly surprising. But more than the ship, it is the location that brings a smile. In June, Newton was appointed Commander Joint Task Force Atlantic (JTFA) and admits the return to Halifax (he commanded Canadian Forces Base Halifax in 2008) is both an honour and a thrill.

The job means a dual role as both commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic, responsible for all Royal Canadian Navy activities in the region, and commander JTFA, responsible for all Canadian Armed Forces operations in the Atlantic provinces during contingency and emergency situations. The challenge, he admits, requires a fine balance, not being more one commander than the other. JTFA is not something that can be turned on as needed. In an interview with editor Chris Thatcher, he began by speaking about that balance and his long-term objective.

I am going to live the JTFA command role, separate and distinct from my naval role. I’ve got to have a plan going forward for JTFA. I’ve got to be able to get into a rhythm of planning and action. You just don’t turn to it in a time of crisis and think that it will come alive domestically if you haven’t lived it and thought of it as a separate command.

As part of that, I have a deputy commander, BGen Nick Eldaoud, the commander of 5 Division, who can mobilize a lot of resources, and the specific thrust for the two of us as a team is to create a land-sea effect in the Canadian Armed Forces. Because of the co-location of 5 Division headquarters and Maritime Forces Atlantic headquarters and forces, all the militias in the Atlantic region, and the regional proximity of Gagetown, Halifax is the one place in Canada where we can strike off and enhance the land-sea effect of our joint capabilities. Just as I enjoy a great integrated effect with the air force because of long-range patrol aviation and maritime helicopters that serve the maritime domain, and the wings and the search and rescue squadrons in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, the army and the navy seek to create that same synergy and power.

The specific objective domestically in increasing that land-sea effect is to create a greater capability through Newfoundland and Labrador and into the Subarctic, given that the eastern sea lines of approach are the main routes of access to the Canadian North. So for cruise liners, oil tankers, resource exploitation vessels, any kind of illicit activity, foreign countries and their interest in the North, the gateway to the Canadian archipelago is through the Labrador Sea, Davis Strait and Baffin Bay. To create the land-sea integration necessary to operate and intervene in this huge Canadian estate requires that the Canadian Rangers, elements of 5 Division and its support group in Gagetown, including the resources available in Newfoundland and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, learn to inter-operate with naval planners and naval forces arrayed on the east coast. Hurricane Igor was a case in point where these forces deployed to the island. It is too late during the hurricane itself or in the middle of whatever humanitarian emergencies that follow to create that military effect on the fly, so we want to learn from these lessons and evolve our readiness. And we have an interface with Commander Joint Task Force North based in Yellowknife. As we create a greater capability in the Atlantic area of operations, we can say to him, this is the land-sea effect for the eastern end of the country, how would you like to employ and interface with it?

A large part of Joint Task Force Atlantic is the interagency relationships. Given that operations in the Arctic and the Caribbean are largely constabulary, are you learning lessons from one you can apply to the other?

Of all the countries in the world, Canada’s military probably has one of the longest histories of working with other departments and jurisdictions in domestic circumstances. We have been a supporting agency to the RCMP, Border Services, Coast Guard, Fisheries and Oceans. We have developed mandated levels of activity in support of, for example, fishery patrols, RCMP sovereignty patrols, counter-drug operations. We have nursed and developed those relationships so that when 9/11 occurred and there was this sudden intense focus on homeland security, all of those activities and relationships were very effective in the security of the country. The navy had been part of Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South) before it became Operation Caribbe, a national mission of Joint Operations Command (CJOC). In the United States, it was a coast guard-navy relationship, but it was a very tender relationship. To us, it was a very natural relationship. I think we find our ability to work with all the partners in JIATF South easy because of what we have been doing with our federal partners in Canada.

When Canada Command expanded its area of responsibility to include the entire western hemisphere, one of the objectives was to improve partnerships in the Americas. How are you leveraging that?

There is a concerted and coordinated effort at the Strategic Joint Staff and CJOC, and within the army, navy and air force, to work with key partners in the Americas. JIATF South is fundamentally at the core of that initiative, and the international and interagency collaboration is recognized by the government as a mission just as Op Attention or Artemis are missions. One thing you learn working with interagency partners is liaison requirements, the exercise requirements, the visits, the personal relationships with your fellow coast guard and naval commanders, the requirement for staff talks, and understanding the pressures that each nation faces and the capabilities each brings to the table. When the earthquake in Haiti struck and Canada sent a small task group with a tonne of supplies, specialists and medical, one of the things we lacked was the bridge between the ships and the shore. Working with all these interagency partners who were flowing toward Haiti, and because of the personal relationships that Canadian naval leaders had established through our interagency work, we were able to simply pick up the phone and call fellow senior officers and talk about the bridge requirement and the priority of this matter to enabling Canadian relief efforts. It was done at that level, and what could have been a complex staff discussion was, in fact, an easy command prioritization of equipment equally important to the U.S. effort being shared with our Canadian ships.

The whole Americas strategy – working in Jamaica, Guatemala, Colombia, Chile – is a nationally-led initiative and we have picked out a series of key nodes. The navy has worked closely with Chile, a Spanish-speaking navy with a culture built on the Royal Navy model and with a lot of English-speaking officers. They have been training our junior officers, six at a time for six months, on small warships in archipelagic waters of Patagonia. The boats are like our Kingston Class, and they also have former but still modern British and Dutch warships, and they are sailing constantly doing search and rescue, community support, ice navigation, intense sovereignty and surveillance and specialized seamanship tending the buoys and lights of the far south. This collaboration has allowed us to move our recent recruiting success through the specialist training pipeline at a time when our own fleet is in shipyards and alongside involved in the intense Halifax-class modernization project. With the Armada de Chile, it’s been a quid pro quo. They give us something and we are providing them training on the NATO systems of their modern major warships.

Are you going to reach a point, though, where you are limited in what you can deploy in the way of task groups and so forth because of either the work-ups or age of your ships?

My commander in Ottawa has mapped his way through the task group commitment to the government of Canada. Our obligation is to maintain a national task group. From a very parochial perspective, the ships of Maritime Forces Atlantic can reach anywhere on the planet and they often meet their Pacific consorts in operational circumstances in very distant waters – we routinely do handovers between east coast ships and west coast ships in the Mediterranean or in the Arabian Sea. All this is to say, we will come together and form the task group around an international contingency if required using the resources available on both coasts and specifically designated ships maintained at high readiness to form the tactical and operation capabilities of a self-sufficient naval force.

A task group is one element of Canadian capability, the task group staff is the other. To this end, we maintain a ready staff to take command around the world if the opportunity serves Canadian interests and has been well thought through with our international and coalition partners. We maintain the readiness to fly that staff and take a leadership role, and you can do that from ashore or from an allied or coalition ship. Staffs are like warships: they are hard to come by and there is a lot of readiness in the skilled staff, and there are always countries and contingencies looking for command staff to share the leadership and planning burden.

You have talked publicly about an operational submarine fleet. Given the work that is still underway on the Victoria-class, how do you define that?

Our goal is to have a readiness and operational cycle of two plus one plus one: two boats operational, one as a swing boat, either going in or coming out of an extended work-up period, and a fourth in the dock and being worked on. It is a pretty hectic cycle, probably as good as anybody can maintain in a small fleet, whether aircraft, submarines or surface ships. Our goal is to achieve that cycle and normalize it within this year and into the next. On the west coast, Victoria has done all the torpedo firings, all the rangings, and has all the capability and crew in place. Windsor, on this coast, is 90 percent there. She has just finished working offshore with alliance submarines to great effect and is going into a scheduled docking, a little to the right to align with the syncrolift dock upgrade project. As far as alliance partners or anybody who works in the maritime domain is concerned, Canada has submarines. We have re-established into our naval arsenal submarine capability and credibility.

Are they going to have to take on unconventional roles to fill interim gaps in the larger fleet?

When the fleets are fully operational, subs depend on secrecy. They are built to be underwater for a good reason, to maintain operational secrecy. To suddenly be on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and not visible to anybody; to be on a counter-drug mission and not visible to the illicit trade on the surface; to be in an international theatre off a coast like Somalia requires secrecy. Right now they are in the limelight because we are focused on getting the operational cycle up and running. You will see us now increasingly move back toward operational secrecy so the boats are less in the public eye and more in the operational game.

We’re sitting on the bridge of HMCS Halifax. Talk about some of the capability a modernized frigate now gives you and what it might mean going forward?

We have upgraded a whole host of things onboard this ship. First, survivability and control of the engines. Aboard ship, we talk about the priority of effort to float, move and fight: you’ve got to be able to float to be able to move to be able to fight. In the float domain, the damage control system has been modernized. It is a manpower intensive effort when you are fighting a warship to tend to battle damage and other emergencies and machinery casualties that arise. We have just delivered into this ship a damage control system integrated into the platform, into the engineering and control system, that is going to be the harbinger of future fleet development because, with it, we can relearn the whole damage control enterprise on board our warships. So before we get into the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy and fully design the ships of the future fleet, we are going to have learned the lessons of a system that allows us to say: do we need three section base teams? Do we need all these people plotting and communicating and tied into the warfare operators and the people that drive the engines? Maybe we need different crew structures, a whole new dynamic onboard the ship for managing work? Perhaps we can fundamentally change the crewing and design elements of a warship to free up volume and space for sensors and weapons, increased fuel load and seakeeping. So, first we are going to fight this platform much more effectively and, second, we are going to learn our way into the future classes and prove or change what is essentially a World War II crewing and organizational paradigm.

Moving to the fighting side of the ship, the improved sensors, more effective weapons, the integration, the communications, the ability to communicate internally and externally while you are directing your weapons and sensors – at first we thought it was evolutionary, but really it is a quantum leap. Our ability to interact with long range patrol aviation, the maritime helicopter and its replacement, the modern warships of NATO and alliance fleets, is going to be more precise, that much quicker and less human intensive. The interface tools alone are greatly improved. If you remember the clutter of screens that the poor operators had to pull information from and the number of communications circuits, it could overwhelm even the best operators in an intense situation. This ship provides a whole series of tools and sensors to interact with our allies, and to be a command and control platform from a lean frigate-sized hull.

Are you also using the modernized ships to innovate on the training side, specifically through more virtual and synthetic environment training?

The strategic partnership with industry has allowed us to accelerate a very complex modernization with the number of ships moving in and out of refit. Three years ago, there was a dark cloud of complexity, but already the Halifax is teaching the rest of the fleet and our strategic partners how we can accelerate delivery. The entire navy is learning apace in our school systems. You mentioned the synthetic environment: we will have the systems and the high level architecture onboard to be able to communicate to simulators and virtual environments ashore. The ship is now as integral to the Canadian synthetic environment as the big simulator systems ashore. Moreover, our training system has already modeled every ship of the fleet: you can walk around the ship from your laptop at home. With that we can push training to the individual. They can control their training and they are burrowing into their courseware at their own rate from home or in the schoolhouse with far more interactive and exciting tools. It is increasingly less about the lecturer standing in front of the class and much more the operator exploring his or her way through the complexity of their training. Indeed, the navy is moving quickly towards an integrated synthetic and virtual effect for improved training and greater impact on learning at the individual and collective training levels.

The navy has been a pioneer in the use of UAVs from the deck of the frigates. Where are you looking for your next technology breakthroughs?

We want to see the UAV and underwater vehicles become key elements of a greater C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) effect in Canada’s defence and security capability. Right now we are feeding off the lessons of Afghanistan and operating UAVs with great success on the Op Artemis mission, for instance. HMCS Toronto currently has employed UAVs persistently in full coordination with shipboard sensors, the embarked helicopter, and information received from ashore. We need a long-term program to deliver a capability that isn’t just the actual bird, but also the whole shore-side capability of data fusion, analysis, information sharing between the services and specialist operators, all the while improving our working with domestic agencies who help us survey the sea lanes of approach to Canada. We have just created the first range for UAVs off the coast of Nova Scotia so we can train and operate without a lot of the regulatory issues. I think we are on the front end of AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles). As an example, Kraken Sonar of St. John’s is working with Defence Research and Development Canada and the navy on developing a higher speed, precision mapping autonomous vehicle for underwater route survey, mines, bottom debris and wrecks.

We are also investigating with laser replicators in our fleet maintenance facility. This developmental system allows our technicians to download a three dimensional model and build a component much like a 3D plastic printer but instead out of a host of metal alloys. We have been able to build and employ components for our ships, so we’re now exploring which components have high failure rates and can be replicated using this system. We are keying on components from ships of the increasingly old fleets like Tribal Class destroyers and replenishment ships, parts like impellors for water pumps in the tanker, boiler control systems and the likes. We potentially have the technology at hand to address one of the key resource challenges when operating older but still very useful naval capabilities.