Since its inception in 2017, The Joint Operations Symposium (JOS) has sought to lead important conversations on the major challenges facing the CAF and Defence.  

Vanguard Editor-in-Chief Terri Pavelic recently sat down with VAdm Bob Auchterlonie, a key architect of the symposium, to delve into its origins, evolution, and its profound relevance in the contemporary landscape of global security. The conversation also covered the lessons we’ve learned – and are continuing to learn – from the war in Ukraine. 

Q: Thank you so much, Admiral, for taking the time to speak with me. I’d like to start by looking at where the symposium has been and where it’s going. How did it start, and what does the future look like?  

I’ve been involved with the symposium since the beginning. Back in 2017, when I was deputy commander, we started the Joint Operations Symposium as part of the broader JOINTEX series of operations. We were doing the large JOINTEX series of exercises, and JOS was a professional military education component of that. 

Over the years, it’s really grown and morphed. Today JOS is separated from JOINTEX. It’s really for strategic leaders, a forum for us to talk about the national and international challenges we’re seeing in the defence realm. 

Over the years, we’ve looked at our relationship with NATO, and then to the number of things that were happening throughout the pandemic. And then we started to look post pandemic at Canada’s position, our national defence and how we’re going to adapt to great power competition. Last year, we brought that forward into how we’re going to conduct continental defence. And this year we’re looking at the operational challenges facing the CAF.  

So, we try to keep it fresh and relevant and bring senior leaders and security leaders, practitioners and other experts together to address the major challenges facing the broader defence team.  

This year was unique. We not only had the armed forces and several of our allies and partners there, but for the first time we brought the defence industry in, and we’ll probably get to that more when we talk about lessons learned from Ukraine. So, as we develop the Symposium we ask ourselves “What are we talking about, and what do we need to be talking about?” And it’s worked out. We’re trying to keep current and bring in senior leaders to talk about things that are relevant today and that can be relevant for tomorrow. 

Q: You mentioned that this year’s Symposium was focusing on the Ukraine conflict, and you said that there were lessons learned from that. Can you share what those lessons are? 

We’re seeing poly-crises across the globe. We have hot wars in Europe. We have hot wars in the Middle East. I don’t need to go through that with you. You’re tracking all these. This year’s focus was broadly on the key lessons for allies and partners in the ongoing Ukraine conflict.  

There’s a lot of things we can learn from this conflict. We’re talking technology, sensors and autonomous platforms. We’re seeing AI being used in space and cyber, and you’re seeing all this evolve very rapidly on the battle space. It’s showing us that digital transformation is crucial. 

I know this is an oversimplification, but we should take three points out of this. 

One is from keynote speaker Michael Kofman, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. One of the comments he made was to be careful to jump too early to conclusions. We don’t want to draw the wrong lessons for the Western forces out of the Ukraine conflict because the two armies are different from ours.  

The second critical thing for me is the importance of bringing the defence-industrial complex into these discussions. It’s necessary because armament and stockpiles are vital to any conflict moving forward.  

I think the third is making sure the industrial industry is tied in with our planning. The next six months will be crucial for the support of Ukraine. We’re seeing Russia ramp up their production. Poland is rearming. Germany is now having those discussions. A lot of our other allies in Europe are also having these discussions to ramp up production to make sure they’re ready for any future conflict. So really, it’s three key lessons, and making sure we’re drawing the right lessons out of the conflict.  

I realize this may sound scattered and all over the map, but there’s a whole bunch of things that are really, really interesting. We looked at Ukraine as a backdrop at all the lessons coming out of that. And specifically, you see how high end and low end are being used and how mass is still necessary. We’ve seen military forces evolve over the decades to be smaller. But now we’re seeing on the battlefield there are hundreds of thousands of folks engaged. We’re seeing mass armies are now engaged, something we haven’t seen in a long time. So, we’ve gone to precision is key, but mass is also important. So, it’s really a bit of a dichotomy. This makes it tough for planners. 

Q:  What I found fascinating in your C4ISR and Beyond conference address last January, is that everyone thought this conflict was going to finish very quickly. But both sides have been hanging on and have been able to gain allies along the way to help them with their efforts.  

As you know, this is a blatant, brutal and illegal Russian aggression into Ukraine. That’s what the conflict is. That said, Russia and Ukraine are being supported by allies on both sides. We are certainly supporting Ukraine. We’ve committed to that by announcing our bilateral security arrangement, and most of the West has as well, broadly speaking. Russia looked like they would be unable to sustain. Now they are drawing from North Korea and Iran, drawing from partners that aren’t necessarily their partners. 

Q:  Is this an anomaly or is this a new way of warfare? 

That’s a good question. Nobody had the stockpiles or the ammunition requirements necessary. You’re seeing that on the West side, now folks are struggling to bring production up. They’re lowering their stockpiles to support Ukraine. At the same time, where you may have thought Russia had these stockpiles, they’ve gone through them and they’re now looking for ammunition and short-range ballistic missiles from other countries. So that that’s certainly a key lesson, and it comes back to the second point about industry, how important it is to have that ability to surge industry and increase production. 

Q:  In terms of the symposium, are there any takeaways from the Ukraine war that resonate with you as it relates to Operation REASSURANCE? 

Yes, absolutely. It’s not only the Canadian Armed Forces, but the whole entire security apparatus that are looking at the lessons drawn from the Ukraine conflict in terms of scale, in terms of technology, in terms of defence-industrial base. And at the tactical level as well.   

Several capabilities have come to the fore in the past few years. Early in the conflict we. saw anti-tank systems, guided missile anti-tank systems that were vital. At the same time, you’re seeing the prevalence of attack drones and UAS – unmanned aerial systems. We’re learning to make sure we have UAS capability with our deployed forces. You also have a counter UAS capability, which is crucial because you want to be able to defend against the drone. So those are two things. 

The other one would be long-range precision strikes. We’ve seen the advent of missile systems in Ukraine that are supporting them and able to strike deep into the second echelon and the rear of the Russians. And you’re seeing those are critical enablers for their campaign. You also need to have a significant anti-armour capability. You need to have strike and you need to have a significant UAS capability at the same time. 

We’re re-learning things that we knew 30 years ago, including the advent of electronic warfare in the battlefield, and how it’s important to make sure you reduce your digital signature at the same time. So those are really four key lessons that all our allies and partners are also learning. The Ukrainians are learning at a very fast pace, and we need to learn from them. We are training Ukrainians, but we’re leveraging their lessons and insights. I think this is important, that the learning is not one-sided. You’re seeing both sides of that conflict learning rapidly. 

Q:  To switch gears, disinformation is on the rise and it poses a significant obstacle. Was this topic touched upon at this symposium? 

It wasn’t. We’ve been talking about it for the last few years. I think Canadians are becoming much more attuned to it. The government has certainly been vocal on it in terms of making sure that we have free and fair elections. With the advent of technology, disinformation becomes much more refined, and much harder to detect. Disinformation and misinformation are now very hard to detect with capabilities that exist today, and you’re seeing it play out daily. 

Q: I know that there’s been a lot of talk about space. Did you touch on that? 

Not specifically. When we talk pan-domain we’re talking on the land, in the air, on the sea, in cyber and in space, all within the broader information environment. We’re seeing all-domain conflict on the battlefield right now, and most things are probably classified. You’re seeing significant jamming on the battlefield, including space-based and ground-based capabilities. You’re seeing electronic warfare space playing out not only in space, but terrestrially as well. So, you’re seeing this conflict across all five domains within that broader information environment, and that’s something for us to understand. How do you command and control that within all five? How do you organize your force for that?  

We’re trying to learn as much as we can from our Ukrainian counterparts and our closest allies to make sure that we’re prepared as we as we send our forces forward to make sure that they’re ready to deter and, if necessary, defend NATO. 

Q: Do you have any final thoughts? 

As we look at the operational challenges facing the Canadian Armed Forces, we must make sure we’re learning the right lessons, incorporating our defence-industrial base, and making sure we’re tied in with our closest partners. 

And you’re seeing this in terms of our deployment to Latvia as part of the Forward Land Forces and our Canadian-led Multinational Brigade group, trying to incorporate those lessons, turn them as quick as we can. We’re learning with our Ukrainian partners so that our brigade and Latvia is prepared as it can be to defend – if necessary – against Russian aggression in the Baltics. So that’s ongoing. 

Last fall we moved [our] armour forward and, as we speak, we have ships going across the ocean with more armoured fighting vehicles and containers to prepare to be able to stand up the Canadian Multinational Brigade in the summer timeframe. That’s all going as scheduled, but that’s probably the next discussion we can have. How’s that going? Where that’s going to go? Again, it’s drawing from what we’re talking about in the Joint Operation Symposium over the last number of years as we absorb those lessons and try and move forward to make sure that the entire defence team is trying to learn as much as we can so that we can be prepared.