“Every platform is a sensor and every sensor is a node on a network.” It’s a refrain the Royal Canadian Air Force has been repeating over the past several years in briefings to industry and government policymakers, a reminder of the complexity and interconnectivity of all air force platforms – to each other and to land and maritime systems – in an ever growing global network.

It’s also a view that, like so many other things, puts a premium on data.

Last year, the RCAF formally stood up a new directorate to consolidate much of the thinking and development around an array of functions that facilitate the dissemination, defence and exploitation of data: cyber, space, C4ISR, electronic warfare and signals intelligence (EW/SIGINT), data fusion and analysis, and air traffic management.

The Directorate of Air Domain Development, otherwise known as DADD, has adopted an appropriately fatherly approach to overseeing and steering air force conversations about what are complex, often intangible but crucial areas of the air domain. Often referred to as enabling capabilities or force multipliers, they are in fact part of a new way of doing business.

To better explain DADD’s role, Colonel Ning Lew, its first director, appropriated the motto of 1 Canadian Air Division, “Flying In Formation,” and gave it a twist: Flying Information. “A lot of the things we are looking at in DADD – space, C4ISR, cyber, data fusion – are information. This is really what we are all about when you add some value to it – we fly information.”

Because DADD’s areas of responsibility cut across not only the RCAF, but also the Canadian Army, Royal Canadian Navy and Specials Operations Forces, and are often also points of focus for the warfare centres and Chief of Force Development (CFD), Lew takes a philosophical view of his role, recognizing that much of his task is to coordinate efforts around these functions within the RCAF and drive a unified approach, encouraging others to chose solutions that are mutually acceptable.

“Advocacy is very much part of the job,” he says. “We’re adding value to the work of others, not telling them what to do. I know many people don’t find any value-added to coordination or facilitation, but the value-added here is a coherent path forward for the air force, and hopefully efficiencies and interoperability can be gained.”

In a large organization with competing priorities, DADD provides a point of focus for activities that might otherwise be hidden behind the walls of numerous projects. “I used to be a project manager and I too had my own remit and schedule that I had to defend,” Lew explains. “But often, as a team player and for the corporate good, if my project and other projects could all agree on similar sorts of solutions, then we could all satisfy our individual clients and help the organization. Having a ‘DADD’ who is trying to strongly encourage that kind of cooperation certainly helps.”

Areas of focus
Lew might be the first director, but he credits Brigadier-General Stephan Kummel, then the director general of Air Force Development, with the vision to carve out a new area of expertise at time when spare colonels to lead it were few and far between.

“He was very farsighted in doing this. Obviously, each of those areas is, in of itself, an enormous domain. In the Canadian Forces, we have DGs for cyber and space and a directorate for joint C4ISR and much of the work is being done within Material Group. But in creating DADD, he wanted to give those things a dedicated home within the air force. We have these expensive sensors and other enabling technologies, but we can’t leverage them unless we have some way of getting the information to the commander in near-real time. And because these are often ideas rather than something you can touch, sometimes it is a difficult sell.”

With a modest staff, Lew has had to be selective in where he focuses the directorate’s efforts. C4ISR rose naturally to the top thanks to the work of Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Grandy, who conducted a survey of existing capabilities, projects and activities, including research and development initiatives, across the air force and the wider CF. The resulting document has become a de facto C4ISR strategy, though Lew admits he’s had to develop a more concise version of highlights to avoid intimidating others when it lands on their desk with a thud.

“I can’t take any credit for any of this,” he says. “LCol Grandy came from the Strategic Plans Directorate where he was writing this document. They were just putting the finishing touches on it when I arrived, but I immediately recognized its value as a way ahead and the fact that the much of its value was sort of hidden.” (Grandy has now turned his attention to some of the specifics of C4ISR as they relate to air force intelligence needs and projects such as RIFL2E [Radar and Imaging for the Land/Littoral Environment].)

On cyber security, DADD’s emphasis has been on improved awareness, a form of cyber hygiene to deliver commanders with information assurance. Much like airworthiness, Lew wants aircraft operators to understand the need for precautions. “The whole concept of cyber worthiness is to promote the idea that you can’t just bring electronics and plug them into your aircraft and upload maps or do email,” he says. “Just as with air worthiness where you wouldn’t take a screw from Canadian Tire and use it on your aircraft, you shouldn’t do that electronically from a cyber worthiness point of view.”

His cyber role might be far removed from the one typically depicted in Hollywood, but he says the air force requirement is primarily to protect its aircraft and data transmission infrastructure to ensure Canadian forces can truly operate in a contested environment. “Within the CF, we have cyber organizations within CFD and the IM Group and Shared Services Canada with responsibility for the IT infrastructure. So this directorate needs to focus on those areas where we can improve, from a technical standpoint and, more importantly, from an operational one, the air force information security posture. Part of our role is to encourage commanders to include cyber injects in exercises – even as simple as trying to do your job without email – because we need to be able to operate in a cyber-contested environment.”

Both C4ISR and cyber became areas of focus in large part because of the expertise of staff within DADD. The directorate has begun developing a SATCOM exploitation strategy to ensure the air force receives the most value from its myriad space programs and a datalink strategy as it strives to enhance situational awareness and a common operating picture with the army and navy. It has also been involved in a number of airfield projects, including TIC3 AIR (Tactical Integrated Command, Control & Comms–Air) and the upgrade of the Canadian Air Defence Sector, part of a NORAD defence system.

However, Lew admits he’s only now beginning to think through the challenges around data fusion and analysis – a massive air force requirement – and EW/SIGINT.

“I haven’t been able to dedicate as much time to the growth areas as I would have liked but I’ve tried to entrench these bigger picture concepts into the people who do the day-to-day work,” he said. “I tell them when they receive requests for funding from the Division or the Wings, please give more attention to the ones that would support information protection. When we’re thinking of our new systems for the NORAD air defence system, for example, think about how that could be made more robust from a cyber perspective. DADD is almost a philosophy.”

Part of his challenge is ensuring that philosophy permeates throughout the organization, so that as the RCAF upgrades existing aircraft or introduces new capabilities such as fighter jets, maritime helicopters or unmanned systems, it has already thought about and/or developed the infrastructure to easily integrate new systems and support data interoperability, especially as greater access to wideband SATCOM opens the flood gates.

“I often use the iceberg analogy: when people say they want to be able to process a certain kind of streaming video or ISR information, they only see the tip, but to do it you need the rest of the iceberg,” Lew says. “I’m trying to advocate for building up capabilities evenly. TIC3 is not very sexy, but you are going to need that to connect all of these things together, to bring that picture down from the air to the ground in near-real time. That’s the centre of gravity for this struggle – getting the information in near-real time.”

Lew is careful to emphasize that DADD does not come to the table with answers to all of these challenges. Rather, it encourages conversations about commonality across the communities that support different aircraft. “Dual use of assets is one of the suggestions from our strategy. A Hercules, for example, is a very large body. You could put all sorts of things on it and maintain its airworthiness; an Aurora with its larger crew might be able to perform a blend of functions onboard and via remote control from the ground. These are the kinds of discussions we hope to generate.”

Later this fall, Colonel Lew will step into a new posting with Director General of Aerospace Equipment Program Management responsible for radar and communication systems. While he might be giving up some of his fatherly role, the connections between the work of DADD and DGAEPM mean he will still be very much a part of those conversations. “I plan to strongly support and make sure the links are there to empowering the new DADD,” he said.