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Shared Insights for Future Naval Training System: An Interview with Capt(N) Matthew Coates, Commander, Naval Personnel and Training Group (NPTG), Royal Canadian Navy

With files from Terri Pavelic

A decade ago, the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) promulgated the Commander’s Guidance and Direction to the Royal Canadian Navy – Executive Plan (2013 – 2017).  The document gave voice to a vision that, amongst other things, would launch a series of changes to restructure the navy at the institutional level. 

For decades, with minor exceptions, the naval formations on the two coasts largely mirrored each other with officers and sailors in MARPAC and MARLANT separately and concurrently performing many of the same force generation functions. 

The policy decreed a functional realignment and accompanying specialization of roles assigned to the two formation commands.  Henceforth, responsibilities associated with afloat (at sea) training and fleet readiness would be vested in Commander MARLANT who would also serve as the CAF Maritime Component Commander (MCC) when ships deploy operationally: the Commander MARPAC would be the authority responsible for individual training and education (IT&E) and the personnel management elements of force generation. In accordance with the “One Navy” concept, the Naval Reserve training establishment at Quebec City was integrated into the arrangement and a headquarters was created to provide leadership and governance to this new pan-navy training organization named as Naval Personnel and Training Group (NPTG).

Capt(N) Matthew Coates was appointed as Commander NPTG during the summer of 2021.  He is the fourth officer to hold the appointment and he commands an organization comprised of approximately 1000 military and civilian personnel employed at training establishments located in Halifax, NS, Quebec City, QC and Esquimalt, BC which is also home to its headquarters.

A native of Halifax Nova Scotia, Capt(N) Coates is Royal Military College of Canada graduate (Electrical Engineering 1998) who also obtained a Masters in Management degree from Salve Regina University in 2010. 

Capt(N) Coates has fulfilled numerous sea-going appointments.  Notably, he was HMCS Charlottetown’s Executive Officer during Operation MOBILE, the Canadian Forces’ contribution to the international response to the 2011 popular uprising in Libya.  He later commanded the Tribal Class Destroyer HMCS Iroquois and subsequently assumed command of Sea Training Atlantic, the organization responsible for verifying the combat readiness of RCN warships.

Capt(N) Matthew Coates, Commander, Naval Personnel and Training Group (NPTG), Royal Canadian Navy

Q – What is the progress of Future Naval Training System (FNTS) at this time and what are the next steps ahead? What major challenges are you facing now or in the near future?

The concept of FNTS was first formalized with the promulgation the RCN FNTS Strategy document in 2015. The three crucial areas for modernization and recapitalization comprising the strategy are:

Since inception NPTG has made consistent improvements to our business model by providing better governance, direction and guidance to the training establishments that comprise our organization.  We have created a leadership centre of excellence embodied by HMCS Venture, a unit that will deliver active training and education programmes to instill positive cultural change throughout the RCN.

While meeting the challenges of today, we are also generating an RCN training capability that will compliment and support future fleet renewal initiatives.

Within NPTG we have created the Naval Training System Transformation (NTST) Program.  This dedicated team of experts, guided by the FNTS planning framework, has made significant progress defining the scope and refining details of future ambitions that will see the modernization and recapitalization of the naval training system.  They liaise, with several interconnected stakeholder agencies who share overlapping responsibilities for the planning, development and acquisition of future training capabilities. 

The NTST team will continue to advance elements of FNTS independently or in collaboration by whatever methods are appropriate, achievable and opportune.

Q – The recent RFI response on the FNTS was quite big and the response to the question of how does STORM dovetail with other elements of the FNTS remains of specific interest to industry. Understanding that in the RFI response, the RCN is indicating these are early days, however, can you provide a big-picture overview of where STORM fits into the FNTS?

The RFI responses from Industry were very helpful. They helped validate the feasibility of the FNTS vision and will continue to influence our planning processes going forward.

Defence industry and related business sectors fulfill two crucial roles.  They provide invaluable input into requirement definition, and they eventually deliver the project or service through participation in the Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) led procurement processes.

We use the term FNTS Digital Framework (DF) to describe a comprehensive information technology system (standardized business tools, applications and networks) that will support distributed and integrated NPTG business management, training development and delivery activities.

The System of Training and Operational Readiness (STORM) will be a sub-element of the FNTS DF with a direct training nexus. It is an approved project and subject to all the customary regulations governing Government of Canada tendering process.  To ensure fairness during an active procurement phase, we are constrained in what we can say and how we release information to the public.  Our colleagues at The Director Naval Q  Training & Infrastructure Requirements (DNTIR) have stated that additional information on Project STORM will be provided to industry this Spring (April 6th) during the NAVY OUTLOOK event.

Q – Given that the RCN schoolhouses have been historically located in Halifax, Esquimalt and Quebec City with each specializing in certain “Centres of Excellence” for occupation specific training/education as prerequisite for career advancement does the RCN envision the ability to train/educate in any geographic area and remove the requirement for extended geographical separation for career coursing?

In large part, the motivation for creating NPTG was to reduce duplication of training efforts between the two formation commands.  However, specialization of training in the current paradigm gives rise to the second-order consequence wherein personnel must travel and endure separation to attend courses out of geographic area.  The identified future solution to address this challenge is through adoption of technologies that will enable distributed learning.

To the degree we are successful in actualizing the necessary investments into FNTS, we will be able to create economies in training development and delivery including greatly reducing (or in some cases eliminating) the need for personnel to relocate to attend courses.  Developing technology enabled learning capabilities will also create possibilities to more fully advance the “One Navy” concept by offering previously inaccessible training opportunities to Naval Reserve Force personnel at any of the 24 Division locations across Canada.

It is equally certain that some aspects of individual and collective training will continue to rely on dedicated physical infrastructure.  For example, the CSC project is not just about acquiring ships, but entails investments in new and modified jetties, warehouses, testing and training facilities.

One such infrastructure project is the Combatant Training Integration Centre – Atlantic (CTIC-A).   The secure facility will house a collaborative training and operational support community of interest focused on the integration of CSC operations, technology, data, training, research, and development.

It is not possible to overstate the interdependency between the design and delivery of training and ensuring the existence of suitable infrastructure to support training functions.

Q – Does the RCN envision a situation where training courses are virtual and therefore geography agnostic where students independently progress at their own rate, including whilst serving at sea?

One of our goals is to expand our ability to provide training at the place and time of need.  This would allow for training and associated materials/references to be available in the student’s geographical location to the greatest extent possible.

It is difficult for people outside the military to fully imagine and appreciate the numerous steps needed to prepare a sailor adequately to serve onboard a Canadian warship at sea.  The profession of arms demands a unique set of knowledge and skills.  At times NPTG training establishments resemble universities, focused on imparting theoretical knowledge.  At other times they could be mistaken for trade schools, promoting the hands-on acquisition of practical skills.  Once an individual’s occupational qualification is achieved, we start combining sailors with complimentary abilities and develop their ability to operate in teams of increasing size and complexity.

The delivery of this hybrid form of training will continue to be multi-modal, and when necessary, individualized. The three main delivery mechanisms will likely remain to be face-to face, virtual, and blended delivery. 

NPTG plans to introduce this capability as described by the FNTS concept, enabled by a fit-for-purpose Digital Framework and support Distributed Learning Environment (DLE) technologies in the schools, on ships, and in remote locations, accessible via mobile devices or other means.

Increasing our use of virtual technologies will permit us to teach in ways not possible before.  We will enhance the quality of training in most areas, make it accessible where it wasn’t before and reduce costs in other applications.  There are many benefits associated with virtual technologies, but it is unlikely to ever displace all other instructional methods entirely.

Q – Understanding that training and education are intrinsically linked to personnel policies which are a CAF responsibility, can you explain how closely naval training policy has worked with naval personnel policy?  Specifically, with occupations changing to reflect modern warfare, as well as amalgamation of separate occupations, how do you see naval training continuing to evolve and what are some of the difficult issues to overcome? 

A simple way of understanding maritime capability is as the product of people, training and equipment.  Any change in the nature of our sailors or the ships they sail in necessitates change to the training which aims to impart the knowledge and skills required to operate safely, effectively and confidently at sea.

Providing effective training to a diverse workforce across the range of specialized occupations of today’s navy, which has been “steady state” since the completion of HCM/FELEX is, in and of itself, a challenge.  Traditionally the level of effort and resources required to deliver on our training mandate surges whenever change is introduced either in the form of modifications to personnel policies, occupational criteria, upgrades to fleet architecture or in the most extreme instances, introduction of a new class of vessel.

Regardless of the catalyst we know that change will always place recurring demands on the training system as it is a necessary consequence of innovation, renewal and progress.

At NPTG we recognize the imperative to become better at change management.  We are in continual discussions with the people who manage personnel policies and are pursuing innovative approaches to training design as well as technological solutions to make ourselves more agile and responsive to changes in occupational specifications.

We are committed to ensuring the training systems we create are easily and affordably modified and feature multi-purpose, adaptable and reconfigurable trainers which will make NPTG a more agile, efficient and effective change management organization.

We also foresee transitioning from our current training model based on occupation specifications to one based on the performance of defined tasks.

Curriculum comprised of modular, task-based training packages will lessens the impact of training adjustments by permitting greater flexibility and multiuse of learning objects.  Additionally, when modifications are required to learning objects, the scope of work will be reduced to what is essential thereby reducing costs and resource requirements.

Q – Understanding of the intent to have industry take on some facets of naval training that has historically been conducted by uniformed personnel and noting the impact a commercially delivered set-piece training system could have on sea/shore ratio and operational experience currently provided from the fleet – how much change to traditional naval training delivery is foreseen?

Analysis is ongoing that will define the future composition of RCN staffing throughout the phases of transition to the Future Fleet.  The three main elements that form the current NTS are military personnel, DND civilian employees and contracted support.

The exact numbers and type of staffing has yet to be determined and will be contingent on many factors including the future composition (numbers, qualifications and experience) of both the RCN establishment and the Federal Public Service as well as demands to crew the ships of the Future Fleet which fill vary until reaching steady state.

Some roles are more suitably performed by uniformed personnel including command and control functions as well as instruction in areas relating to leadership, naval culture, ethos, and code of conduct.

Governance and related management functions as well as specialty training functions may be suitably executed by a combination of military and civilian staff.

We heard through the replies to our RFI that industry is ready to respond to a spectrum of demands from turn-key solutions inclusive of training facilities and training support personnel, to provision of personnel, technologies, and/or software to support an RCN lead training system.

Flexibility and scalability will be key to respond to fluctuations in training development and delivery demands especially during the period of transition to the Future Fleet.

We foresee industry supporting areas such as:  Life Cycle management, Operations management, training development, training delivery, training technology operations and maintenance, digital framework operations and maintenance, training facilities maintenance, and security management.

The RCN finds itself in a critical juncture with recapitalization of the entire fleet over the coming two to three decades. During this period the NTS must maintain training for the current fleet, while ensuring it will be ready to respond to the progressive introduction of new and upgraded ships, systems, and equipment of the future fleet. Once introduction of CSC begins, we anticipate a transition period of at least a decade before steady-state is achieved. 

Q – As systems continue to evolve and professional standards demand various certification processes how do you see the FNTS incorporating certification into the overall training system beyond what it is today?

Members of the profession of arms in Canada possess a specialized body of military knowledge and skills acquired through education, training and experience that is necessary for accomplishing their assigned mission.  The occupational qualifications of RCN sailors will continue to evolve to reflect changes in the nature of the tasks performed by sailors at sea. 

Internal accreditations will continue to exist within the RCN across the spectrum of training as a way of validating qualifications.  We are likely to encounter new requirements with the introduction of a Future Fleet featuring the Aegis Combat System.

Professional certification generally refers to some form of formal attestation to the qualifications attained by an individual (or organization) reflective of their occupational competencies and experience. 

The Canadian Forces Military Equivalencies Program provides direction on managing Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR).  PLAR benefits the navy by allowing training authorities to accredit individuals for equivalent civilian training.  In other words, if a Canadian citizen holds a professional certification upon enrollment in the RCN, it may qualify them to forego some or all of certain trades training. PLAR is intended to make the RCN a more attractive employment option while decreasing demands on its training system.

Q – Naval Reserve Division training has long been a geographical challenge with units dispersed across Canada. How do you see FNTS addressing historic challenges for reservists with different levels of availability to train?

The goal of more fully integrating the Naval Reserves into the “One Navy” concept will be greatly assisted with the realization of the FNTS vision.  The RCN requires a FNTS that is enabled by modern methodologies and technologies to be accessible, flexible, saleable, and sustainable to meet the learning needs of Regular and Reserve Force officers and sailors, and support personnel.

We foresee a significant benefit to Reserve Force personnel from a training system with expanded Distributed Learning (DL) resources in order to achieve and maintain operational currency.

Training sites, such as Naval Fleet School (Quebec) and Naval Reserve Divisions (NRDs) will likely require both secure and non-secure training spaces. Reconfigurable, multi-functional networked spaces are at the heart of the FNTS infrastructure vision. These spaces are essential to meet innovative training approaches that fuse modern instructional methodologies with the latest technology enabled solutions that accelerate learning, improve retention, encourage critical thinking, and enable easy and timely access to training at the Point of Need regardless of whether the member is Regular or Reserve Force.

Q – The previous questions have been focused on individual occupation training and education; how do you see the FNTS influencing traditional naval collective training? Beyond the capabilities of the simulators in use today, how do you see technology impacting traditional “at sea training”?

Since the early days of sail, technological innovation has been the primary catalyst driving the evolution of maritime forces.  Throughout history the global balance of power has shifted based on advances by one nation or another in naval propulsion systems, armour, armaments or sensor systems. For the past thirty years, advances in digitization and miniaturization technologies have been the principal drivers of innovation.  We observe the pace of innovation accelerating and understand to that maintaining a well-trained, well-equipped navy means leveraging innovation in all aspects of the RCNs force development activities.

With the exception of FNTS sections aimed at rationalizing and improving governance structures related to the naval training function, the FNTS is predominantly a framework founded on technology-enabled training capabilities that transcend all aspects of training management, development and delivery – including collective training.

FNTS incorporates a number of enhancements that will greatly improve our effectiveness and efficiency at all levels of training.

One such improvement is a comprehensive Quality Management System that is inclusive of IT&E and the full spectrum of collective training (CT 1-5) Potential benefits include an enhanced ability to monitor, evaluate and provide feedback on training activities thus supporting timely identification of issues and their resolution.

Another major feature will be the introduction of Multipurpose Reconfigurable Trainers (MRTs) that be the cornerstone of future training technology. MRTs will be developed such that utility and application are maximized across the full breadth of naval systems training. MRTs will likely be modular, flexible, with an open architecture, and minimal to no OEM Intellectual Property (IP) or other commercial constraints wherever practical. MRT configurations will execute a variety of simulator applications on an array of COTs hardware and software components.

Shore Based Team Trainers (SBTT) focus on developing the skills of teams and groups of teams. An example of an SBTT is the Synthetic Environment Advanced Warfare Operations Leadership Facility (SEAWOLF). This is a virtual team trainer, which is multi-purpose: it is used for IT&E and CT and can function as a standalone learning space or be connected through the Distributed Mission Operation Center (DMOC) to other RCN Training Technologies and/or ships and/or Allies training technologies, or platforms for expanded collective training exercises.

Q – Is the FNTS accommodating Initial Cadre Training (ICT) with new fleet construction to avoid the gaps seen previously between training availability after ICT has been conducted for initial crews and ship class-specific training becoming part of the syllabus?

There is a very clear feedback loop that exists between the naval training system and the fleet.  Every sailor and naval officer that sets foot on a warship has undergone, as a minimum, initial trades training and environmental training.  They have likely also undergone some form of team training and will encounter additional collective training after joining a unit earmarked for high readiness certification.  Naval personnel develop professionally throughout their careers both by returning periodically to the training system for additional career coursing and by augmenting that training by attaining operational experience at sea.  That combination of knowledge, skill and experience makes them highly sought after. Naval training establishments are constantly internally recruiting the RCN’s best and brightest as instructors.

We know from experience that fleet modernizations such as the Tribal Class Update and Modernization Project or Halifax Class Modernization/ Frigate Life Extension programmes negatively impacted the level of available experience and expertise in particular fields related to the introduction of new equipment, technologies and procedures. The effect was uneven across occupations and generally most pronounced amongst combat system engineering and combat operator trades.

The Canadian Surface Combatant will be built around the Aegis Combat System. It is no overstatement to predict acquiring the capabilities of Aegis will be a transformational change for the RCN and we understand the importance of getting things right.

Managers within NPTG liaise regularly and have been working in steady collaboration with Project Management Office (PMO) CSC staff to ensure they deliver a personnel and training programme in alignment and underpinned by the FNTS paradigm   Although efforts to define the scope of future training are ongoing, the shared goal is to generate a domestic individual and collective training capability to the highest degree possible, as soon as possible.

Provision of ICT will play a crucial role during the transition period.  Managers within PMO CSC have ensured current contracts for the Future Fleet include ICT: however, it will be managed in a fundamentally different way than in the past..

The intent is also to start building the crucial element of operational experience early by embedding Canadian naval personnel with any of the other navies operating Aegis systems.  Potential options include the United States Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, Spanish Navy, Royal Norwegian Navy, Republic of Korea Navy, and the Royal Australian Navy.

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