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Interoperability and Integration in C4ISR – Resetting the Canadian Armed Forces and Defence Enterprise

The 10th annual C4ISR and Beyond conference on 30 January 2024 will be focusing on interoperability and integration with a view to “getting through the tensions to see interoperability and integration lived” – at scale – across CAF and with interagency and international partners – and at speed – keeping up with allies and getting ahead of our adversaries. The conference will allow us to unpack and understand the tensions and barriers in the way of seeing these achieved.  It will expose ways of working through those tensions as experienced by others.  And it will focus on the essential elements and conditions that need to be set in order for the CAF and its partners to establish a digital beachhead and capacity to break out and see results delivered – to the pan domain force in the pan domain fight.  The urgency to be truly interoperable and integrated is clear.  The need to be proficient in seeing this realized at echelon – strategic to tactical is not debatable these days. 

LGen (Ret’d) Michael Rouleau – and an interview with:

Ross Ermel became Assistant Deputy Minister Digital Transformation and Raj Thuppal became Assistant Deputy Minister Chief Information Officer at the Department of National Defence in April 2023. Major-General Peter Dawe became Chief of Combat Systems Integration in July 2023. This important trio has a vision of how to move the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and Department of National Defence (DND) forward in setting conditions for success – and in delivering on C4ISR integration and interoperability across CAF and the Defence Team.

These leaders will be at the next C4ISR and Beyond conference – and participating in the conference’s culminating panel, moderated by LGen (Ret’d) Michael Rouleau, former VCDS and now Senior Advisor at Accenture. The interview and roundtable discussion transcribed here provides excellent insights into what kind of panel conversation we will see in January.

Michael Rouleau: To start the discussion: Our world is in flux with several ongoing armed conflicts showing us that the character of warfare is changing, and that adversaries are showing fast adaptation. More distributed technology is finding itself in the hands of soldiers at lower levels. Technologies like edge computing and autonomous robotic systems are being combined with old paradigms. I’d like to open with this. Ross, I’ll turn to you first. 

Ross Ermel: Thanks Mike. This is a great opportunity to talk about digital transformation in National Defence and in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). It’s about looking at how we seek to make operational advantage a reality. Technology can enable this, but it’s not technology at its core, it’s about seeking new ways to evolve the business of defence. Quite honestly, a lot of things that we need to do in Defence in terms of our digital transformation are well-honed and well-proven. We’re not talking about leading-edge processes and tools here. The problem is one of coherence and bringing it from the enterprise to the tactical edge. It’s based on leadership and culture, but also on our interoperability. The three of us are seized on making sure that with key allies, NATO, but also importantly our Five Eyes counterparts that we’re taking that business very seriously in terms of really putting the “I” in interoperability.

Raj Thuppal: I would say ditto. There’s a lot of synergies between what the three of us do together to provide that for the department, and CAF and it’s important we remain aligned in that objective. What we do here from an ICT perspective is very different from what we do in other departments. The core enterprise IT is part of it, but the specialty of this department and CAF includes the C2 systems, the intelligence systems, and all the communication systems that the CIO group is responsible for. I’m very fortunate to be part of this team and at this important time as well. 

Although technology is a means to achieve an outcome, to what Ross was saying, the foundational elements are how we manage it, how we evolve, and how we support our troops in the field. So, I think the role we play is to improve the service delivery to our customers – who are primarily the CAF members. 

MGen Dawe: I’ll give a bit of an overview of CCSI for the benefit of your readers. The team is small, 27 people divided up into three directorates: Joint Integration, Military Digital Operations and Operational Sustainment. My predecessor did a terrific job of standing up the team and crafting some important documents, including the CAF Digital Campaign Plan and the Operational Statement Modernization Strategy that will guide us over the coming years. 

But it was clear to both of us during that handover that we were at a bit of an inflection point. I went around and engaged with my colleagues across the CAF and the department, and what I heard was a resounding demand for direction, coherence, and advocacy on the joint and digitalization fronts. Once I got aboard, our team revisited our mission analysis to make sure that we still had it right.

The vision statement now is for a CAF that is relevant to our National Security Partners, abreast of our Allies through day zero  interoperability with  decision advantage over our adversaries. The keyword in all of this being interoperability. Our mission statement is to enable the transformation of the CAF, informed by our Allies and  threats, advocating for joint capabilities and coordinating the development of Pan Domain Command and Control (PDC2) and Operational Sustainment, thus ensuring that the CAF remains credible by virtue of interoperability.

Michael Rouleau: The synergy between you is palpable and, it’s the first year in position for all three of you. What are your main short and longer run objectives?

Ross Ermel: One thing that was key as I started in this role was to make sure that there was no space between Raj, Pete, and I, because the battleground is not between us. It’s out there in terms of getting capability in the hands of those who need it. I think we have achieved just that. 

Looking at my first year, I wanted to do a needs analysis of where we are in Defence and I’ve done that, supported by Raj and the CCSI. When I took over the post I saw a congested and contested digital space. There was a lot of pent-up demand and of course our adversaries and allies are moving apace in digital transformation. So, I wanted to have a digital transformation operating model designed within the first year to address this. I’m on track to do that. 

Looking into next year, we need to reset what we’re doing in terms of data. It is the fuel that will either power our capability, ambitions, and realizations in the future – or not. We must up our game when it comes to data quality, stewardship, and governance across the board. We’re updating our data strategy , partnering with CCSI on that. My vision is to start getting our data sorted out in terms of vertical pipes, narrow forcing functions that can start to make sure that we can get high-quality data to enable superior decision making. 

Finally, I’m looking at digital initiatives and workplace modernization. I think all of us share an aim to make sure that we take interoperability with our Five Eyes allies and NATO partners extremely seriously to make sure that we can achieve interoperability enabled by digital transformation.

Raj Thuppal: We need three outcomes. One is making sure that we provide users with the capabilities they need and making sure that the services they get are solid. 

Second, we must enable them to achieve their objectives, both from a command control and intelligence perspective, and on the data side across the enterprise and the CAF. It’s also about working with the L1s to make clear what do we do as an enterprise and what are the L1s going to do from an ICD perspective.

Third is being a leading-edge organization and protecting Defence from cyber threats. How do we position ourselves to be that leading-edge organization? We are moving from a process-based organization to a product-based organization, having clear accountabilities within my own teams for different streams of products and making sure that we have projects, operations, engineering for those products sets aligned under one leadership. That’s one big change and phase one is going to roll out starting January 1st. 

MGen Dawe. I would start by staying on a 12-month horizon and keeping with the theme of delivering tangible results. My sense is that it is difficult to overstate the significance of that (November 2024 multi-national exercise) event that is being referred to as CJADC2 PROJECT OLYMPUS . It’s the convergence of Ex Bold Quest, Mission Partner Environment Interoperability Initiative (MII), and the Global Information Dominance experiment (GIDE). 

This is being viewed by our Five Eyes partners as a critical gateway to achieving secret cloud interoperability. If you ask me what a win looks like over the next 12 months, it is a limited instance of connectivity in a Five Eyes secret cloud. That’s probably number one, because if we don’t achieve that, the technological interoperability gap could become very difficult to overcome.

Looking out 36 months, it would be to build on this. Working with my colleagues in CIO and DTO as well as the Force Generators and Force Employers , the aim will be to quickly  scale this in a manner that is most relevant to operational imperatives while concurrently working together to tackle broader digitalization and operational sustainment modernization efforts.

Michael Rouleau: I’d like to switch to the question of readiness. Military commanders are responsible for generating readiness outcomes on behalf of the chief of the defence staff, and yet so much of what drives readiness really lives in the institutional space. It’s engineering data. It’s infrastructure data. It’s financial data and all the rest of it. How does readiness inform your work?

Ross Ermel: Readiness, to your question, is at the core of my considerations as to how we need to move digital transformation, how we think about data at the enterprise-to-edge level, how we think about tools such as AI, and how we bring this together. 

The Government of Canada’s largest enterprise resource planning initiative, DEFENCEx , will give us the ability for the first time to really take a user-first, business transformation approach to reduce customization, to adopt best practices that key allies use, to give us a single source of truth, and to be the core of our defence business and operational readiness. 

At the departmental level, where the majority of institutional enablers reside, those enablers are all necessary to generate military readiness, and that’s at the core of what this department does. 

Raj Thuppal: I can talk about two different viewpoints. One is, as the CIO, I need certain readiness within the infrastructure and the application space, understanding what issues we are facing from an IT, ICT landscape. So, understanding the metrics, understanding the data, understanding where we are spending money, where the outages are, to be prepared in case of failures and stuff like that. We are far from there. We don’t have an integrated view of different systems, different cyber capabilities and how we can look at the enterprise, the whole infrastructure and application space as a capability.

The other piece is to what Ross was saying, how do we make sure that we design the platforms to be able to provide that readiness information to decision makers? Right now, we spend years collecting that data to be able to provide some intelligence for certain functions. How do we prevent that from happening in the future? How do we build the platforms and systems with data readiness as a primary objective and then work our way backwards rather than the opposite?

MGen Dawe: Before coming into this job, I would’ve looked at readiness through an entirely different lens, but in keeping with my previous comments about the centrality of C2 interoperability, I would argue that it’s even more pressing in this context. When we talk about C2 interoperability, it absolutely demands readiness. In fact, we refer routinely to day zero- or first-day readiness and all that implies. When you think about it, without data tagging and cataloging, identity credential and access management or ICAM, data-centric security and zero trust, plus secret cloud environment, you can’t join the club. What keeps me focused, energized, and motivated is getting to that.

Michael Rouleau: I’d like to transition to the next question, which is about business ownership or the involvement of the L1s in this space. Is the user community engaged enough in the important work you three are doing? If not, what are you doing to improve that?

MGen Dawe: The short answer is yes. I am heartened by what I’m hearing from the service chiefs in terms of all things digital. They get it, and they’ve got very compelling use cases in each of their services. The Canadian Army is deploying a Multi-National Brigade HQ to Latvia, which will need to be interoperable with an Allied Higher HQ. The Navy is sailing ships with our Allies in the Indo-Pacific Theater routinely.  And certainly, the Air Force has a lot on its plate with the onboarding of tremendous new capabilities and  with NORAD modernization. So, the CAF senior leaders certainly don’t need much convincing as it relates to the importance of the work that needs to be done in the face of these real and pressing challenges. I would further add that these challenges provide us with a great opportunity for some seismic adjustments to how we command control in the contemporary operating environment.

Raj Thuppal: Fortunately, I have both Pete and Ross, because they are the ones who are going to proxy most of the L1s, at least for the big capabilities that we need to deliver. I’ll give an example. For NORAD modernization, the RCAF commander is fully on, so I work very closely with him on all the communication systems-related projects. It’s great to see that level of commitment and I’m sure that we see the same for different sectors. 

Ross and I work with the DM, ADMs, the CFO, and many others. So, there’s quite a bit of enthusiasm within the department. I think our challenge is to keep that enthusiasm by delivering quickly. If we take too long, then we lose momentum.

Ross Ermel: I concur with what Pete and Raj said. The bottom line is that the L1s are very invested in where we need to go. In fact, they see a clear and present need for us to move towards digital, to be nimbler, and to move up the digital learning curve.

As I came on board, I saw my role was to bring coherence and to represent the user, but that doesn’t mean that we’re doing it once serially by initiative. It’s to make sure that I set the conditions working with Pete and Raj so that L1s see their potential future in terms of capabilities, readiness, and business processes. So, do we have L1 engagement? Absolutely.

Michael Rouleau: I’d like to just drill down on the issue of ongoing initiatives versus the coherence that you’re talking about. There are pockets of progress that are being made across the organization, and those are to be celebrated, but with some of those initiatives come challenges. I’d like to explore that. 

Ross Ermel: And Mike, that’s the core of the digital transformation operating model. We’ve partnered with an industry strategic partner on a series of workshops across L1s to start getting input as to what attributes need to be part of an overall model. To answer the questions: What are those digital initiatives that we can move on and how do we start to think about prioritizing those pathfinders or first movers to move forward? How do we move from ideation to development to delivery? Who does that?

But I want to be clear on this. If we’re looking at modernizing, we need to do that in a singular way, not four or five different ways. We need to make sure that it’s supportable. Bottom line is there’s lots of work to be done in terms of the how, which is the difficult piece, but that work is ongoing. 

Raj Thuppal: It’s also the customization. We tend to customize a lot of what we do to the specific business processes that we have, and we need to move away from that and then use what is readily available. And increasingly, most of these tools are available in the cloud. So, your development time is not that much. It’s configuring the systems to meet our needs, and then sometimes it’s “good enough is good enough” and we can stop there rather than reinventing what is available elsewhere. 

I think that’s going to be one of our challenges. How do we adapt rather than customize everything that we need?

Michael Rouleau: I love that. Probably 80% of the supply chain can be industry best practices-centric because national companies do it far better than militaries ever could. But the last 20%, which is the contested logistics part of the supply chain, that’s quite different and requires a certain amount of fidelity. So, love that point.

MGen Dawe: One of the central tenets of the work that we do here at CCSI is coherence. We haven’t always done a very good job of that. There’s great innovation and initiative and we don’t want to stifle that, but we just maybe want to provide a little bit of structure. And we strive for efficiencies because at the end of the day, we know that we are working in an environment of constrained resources. 

Michael Rouleau: I’d like to talk a little bit about industry partnerships because it’s important to those reading this interview. What advice do you have for industry actors who want to help but find it difficult to break through some of your processes? 

Ross Ermel: I’ll start off by saying we need to have industry partnership in areas where we don’t have the expertise. If I look at the many functions that professional services in the digital space can provide us, such as systems and solutions integration, those are things we don’t have the human capital for and probably never will.

I enjoy having dialogue with industry in the digital space having an ongoing dialogue of what’s going on in industry, what’s going on globally, where firms can position to help make me and make us a better customer. What’s also important is that the three of us understand what core competencies we want to have in our workforce and build sustainable, supportable organizations going forward. 

Raj Thuppal: When I came on, one of the priorities for us as a branch was to build the partnerships with the industry because we don’t want to reinvent anything. We are not an R&D organization. I’m happy to copy and credit someone saying, “We took this from there.”

I think there is more we can do. Like I said before, we need to pivot to adapting technologies to our needs rather than doing the opposite. We need to stop building, we need to be buying, we need to be doing less customization, more configuration. We need to do nimble, small stuff that can take us to where we need to be. That’s where we are heading, and hopefully that’ll get us to where we need with respect to digitization. 

MGen Dawe: It’s also time we embrace the fact that industry is leading the way in this space. There’s no doubting the significance of the role that industry plays here. Having said that, I would just foot stomp the importance of interoperability. There must be an acknowledgement and acceptance on their part that we have to prioritize interoperability with our closest Allies. I share that with our industry partners as something to consider.

I also think the Joint Operations Fusion Lab (JOFL) being stood up within the Joint Forces Warfare Center could serve as an innovation hub and perhaps help in terms of that interaction with our industry partners. 

Michael Rouleau: Well, gentlemen, I mean I feel like this interview could go on for hours. I thank you very much for your engagement in this space and I look forward very much to talking to you all at the C4SR and Beyond conference. It’s been a pleasure.

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