As the Canadian Army transitions out of its combat role in Afghanistan, it is incorporating hard learned lessons, institutionalizing critical enabling capabilities and positioning itself for a construct it calls Force 2021, built on a concept of adaptive dispersed operations, or ADO.

The army, an integrated force of 20,000 Regular and 20,000 Reserve soldiers, with 5,000 Ranges and 5,000 civilians, now has 76 percent of its people in the field ¬– just three percent work in headquarters – and is revitalizing environment-specific training for a range of lethal and non-lethal operations in what it views as the complex battle space of tomorrow.

Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, Commander of the Canadian Army, will be retiring this summer. But during his tenure he has positioned the service for Force 2013, a critical step in its drive to Force 2021. He spoke with editor Chris Thatcher about ADO and what is required to achieve it.

Is ADO still valid or have experiences in Afghanistan changed the way you approach that concept?

No, I think adaptive dispersed operations is still very valid. As the commander of the army I deliver readiness to the CF and to Canada across the spectrum, from peacekeeping to combat, with the soldiers and the equipment to be able to do that. The future security environment is filled with uncertainty, complexity and volatility. As a result, the army is looking to be agile, versatile and scalable to be able to deal with that uncertainty.

Coming out of combat in Afghanistan, I’ve used the term “reloaded Force 2013.” We brought back the equipment and the people, and just as important, the ideas and lessons learned to be able to have Force 2013, which has all the CF enablers that we employed and matured in Afghanistan – we invested 1,500 positions in enablers like intelligence modernization, force protection, counter-IED, helicopters, UAVs, influence activities. We have designed and implemented a contemporary training environment, one that is way beyond counter-insurgency and very respectful of those challenges of tomorrow. And we have advanced the Future Land Combat Systems, our family of land combat vehicles.

What’s my legacy? I brought the army out of combat and I positioned it for success with Force 2013. And now we are aligning ourselves with Force 2016 to transition to Force 2021, which is that adaptive dispersed operations. This positioning has us just scratching the surface. I think you will see more of a move towards asymmetry, you’ll see an amendment to our manage readiness plan that has us go in three 12-month cycles, so a 36-month managed readiness plan. And Force 2016 will be the timeframe when we receive our new fleets of vehicles.

What does ADO ultimately give you as an army?

It’s grounded in manoeuvre warfare. It has been around for a while, but I think there is great strength to it because you manoeuvre to positions of strength. You manoeuvre so that you can destroy the threat, with both lethal and non-lethal means. You are in a position of advantage and you select the time in which you engage the threat. It’s based on the core functions of find, fix and strike. And it supports a comprehensive approach. One of the important lessons out of Afghanistan has been a whole-of-government approach where you bring all of the elements of national power to deal with a particular issue or theat. ADO also supports the comprehensive approach. It is networked-enabled, which is the glue that allows us to realize its full potential. Shared awareness of the battle space is how we harness the potential of information and understanding, allowing commanders to make decisions. I would also emphasize precision: our weapons, whether they be a text message, a flyer or a bullet, are delivered exactly at the time and place you need. Precision is a really important point of ADO and Force 2021.

You’ve begun the process of institutionalizing many of the enablers you mentioned. Are there others required for 2021 that you need to prepare for now?

Yes. The most important is the network – a Canadian Forces network, not just an army network. And I think we need to invest a bit more time and energy and make tough calls over what system will be the backbone for our joint approach to operations. I’m a bit biased, but right now we have the Land Command and Control System that we’ll use in May-June for JOINTEX for the division headquarters, which is really the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force HQ. That will be the backbone on which a networked, bright, confident, skilled soldier shares and receives an awareness of the battle space, makes decisions and unleashes lethal and non-lethal force.

Does that mean the integrated soldier system project (ISSP) – the piece that soldier ultimately plugs into the joint network – is more important than the new vehicles to you?

There are many parts of the network and the integrated soldier system is an important element. It’s how people share and are aware ¬– imagine the soldier of tomorrow with a screen not unlike game consoles where you have a rich understanding of blue, red and white situational awareness; where you’re able to take the lay of the ground to map your routes; where you can share a picture of what you are seeing through your gun sight with someone else. There is such great potential. The vehicles become the brains and the mechanism by which you allow that transfer of information.

Given the timeframe you are working toward, are delays in programs like the ISSP, the Close Combat Vehicle (CCV) just bumps in the road then?

They are bumps. ISSP is a bump. Some of our vehicles such as MSVS (Medium Support Vehicle System) are bumps. But we are aligning now to be transformed in 2021 as part of ADO, which is respectful of how complex that environment will be. Think about the force that will deploy: in the past we have taken a unit and said, you are heading off to this brigade. I envision a battle space in which we might simultaneously need a light element, perhaps one delivered by helicopter or parachute, and a well protected force dealing with a particular threat, perhaps with the LAV-up (up-armoured Light Armoured Vehicle) or CCV. We have the means to force generate that, put a command and control element on top of it, be able to sustain it; it’s a very flexible approach that could be dealing with stability in one area and combat in another, while all part of joint force.

This suggests the need for adaptive leaders. You’ve reinvested a lot in training, in areas like desert, jungle, Arctic and mountain warfare, which gives them the tactical skills. Are you also investing in making them better adaptive, strategic thinkers?

That’s a key point. The army and the CF own the responsibility to train and challenge leaders so that they become thinking, adaptive leaders that are prepared to innovate, use their imagination and take risk. Those are still challenges inside our military. But I’m confident that we can overcome those. There is more emphasis being placed on collective training. I can teach a young commander things in a class room, but he needs to experience it. So we need to be able to provide him the challenge to experiment, to try, to innovate, to fail – and to succeed. Some of those things are not part of our culture. Failing is not part of our culture. But the best lessons come from trying something that didn’t work. I’m confident that we are moving down that road. As we move from “position” for 2013 to “align” in 2016 and “transform” in 2021, we’ll have leaders that are able to make tough calls based on good experience and on a level of innovation and trust.

Are you able to developed that kind of thinking through exercises like JOINTEX, not just for your leaders but also your young soldiers who will have a strategic role in dispersed operations?

They will get that opportunity. I think JOINTEX is very important for the army and the CF. There is a whole generation of soldiers that are really good at counterinsurgency. They need to be broadened to understand the other elements of fighting a near-peer enemy while they remain alert to the challenges of counterinsurgency, of organized crime, of the benefit of working with the UN and nongovernmental organizations. We won’t go anywhere unless we are part of a coalition, so they need an awareness of the capabilities a multinational group brings to the battle space. It’s venues like JOINTEX that allow the soldier to play and experiment with those other parts of our force.

You have recently amalgamated the various pieces of the Canadian Army Land Warfare Centre into one organization. The centre has been the architect of some of the thinking around ADO and Force 2021. What are you asking of the warfare centre as you move forward?

I’ve challenged them to look to tomorrow, to be alert to advances in technologies, in approaches to warfare, to be linked in with our allies, to be linked in with the other warfare centres. You’re right, they are the folks that own this, that think about how we are going to link the positioning to the aligning to the transforming. I think what I’ve learned most over the past decade or so is the importance of the nonlethal side of operations. And that is of particular importance in how you shape the battle space, how you shape populations, how you shape the thinking of the enemy and the willingness of a coalition. And that is another aspect that I challenged the warfare centre to be able to advise on.

Given the importance of the Reserves in Afghanistan, are you cataloguing their civilian skills in a way that would allow you to “plug and play” them in that nonlethal side of operations?

The short answer is yes, particularly in what we call the Influence Activities Task Force. Professional civilian skills, coupled with their military experiences, provide such a rich opportunity for us. I think there are some capabilities that can be resident inside the Reserve force. The Arctic Response Company Groups and Territorial Battalion Groups are part of the Reserve force and give a strong operational focus to the Reserves to maintain operations at the battalion group level as well as in the winter in the Arctic at the company group level.

You have significantly increased the number of Arctic exercises in the past few years. How does Arctic training align with what you are trying to establish with Force 2021?

Right now, it’s about a renewed confidence to operate in the Arctic. We have a generation that feels really confident in arid cadpat and are a-ok in woodland cadpat, but less so when we put on the whites. So the emphasis is on building understanding of our equipment and how we operate in the North. We are also making progress in our relationships with northern communities through the Rangers. The next step is the military’s role within Canada’s future strategy for the Arctic: what infrastructure needs are necessary? How strong are the linkages with the communities in the North? We are about to open the Arctic training centre in Resolute Bay, a cooperative venture with Natural Resources Canada, essentially a company-plus base from which you can preposition equipment and operate. It is also key to managing costs, which is another issue. It costs five times more to train in the Arctic as it does in southern Canada.

Are you going to have difficulty doing all of this varied training while dealing with budget cuts – about 22 percent at this point? There is a fair bit of ambition here.

The ambition is aligned with the expectation over the budget. We have to do our share. The army is delivering the exact amount of readiness that the government and the CF have asked for in the Canada First Defence Strategy. We balance our level of ambition to train in the south and to exercise in the North with our partners. Also, adaptive dispersed operations is over years, so it is that budget over years that we pay attention to.