“This is nothing like we have done before and we are learning as we go,” Colonel Brian McPherson admits. “We have never integrated with NATO like this. We are building the plane as it flies, so to speak, so every day is an adventure.”

McPherson is the exercise director for JOINTEX 15, a bi-annual exercise that blends live, virtual and constructive elements to exercise both the people and the connectivity required to deploy and command in large, complex and often multinational operations.

As the Branch head for joint training at Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC), he is leading a three-phase exercise that for the first time will combine a Canadian joint exercise with the largest NATO exercise since the Cold War.

Every deployment by the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) presents some distinct challenges, whether it is one officer to the 50-year-old United Nations operation in Cyprus or 600 personnel to an Air Task Force in Kuwait. While the CAF each year conducts a range of air, land, and maritime high-readiness exercises to understand, prepare for, and overcome those challenges, fewer opportunities exist to stress and test the systems within headquarters that allow those forces to be deployed, sustained and connected.

With 19 missions globally – from Air Task Forces in Kuwait and Lithuania, to ground troops on exercises and training missions in Poland and the Ukraine, to special operations forces trainers in Iraq, and a frigate serving with Standing NATO Maritime Forces – exercising command and control (C2) among and between headquarters at all levels has never been more important – or more complex.

For Lieutenant-General Jonathan Vance, commander of CJOC, JOINTEX is one of four premier exercises for joint operational training (RIMPAC, Op Nanook and Determined Dragon are the other three) that can stress the CAF’s strategic and operational ability to manage a theatre or mission while exercising critical decision-making capabilities.

This year, the event is also an opportunity to improve and evaluate the CAF’s ability to plug its C2 and information systems into a NATO coalition headquarters and contribute to a richer common operating picture.

“The institution creates superb tactical forces, but as a nation that contributes tactical forces with national objectives met through coalition ambition, the biggest challenges to operations is getting them there, keeping them there, and being able to deal with the various headquarters in the coalition to understand and measure what is going on, and be able to participate actively in the targeting cycle,” Vance says. “You need to practice all that.”

While the C4ISR requirements are specific to every mission, Vance says one of the critical measures of effectiveness is whether Canadian headquarters can connect and exchange information with alliance or coalition partners. “In combat operations like the air operations over Iraq and Syria, we are directly involved on a near daily basis in the targeting approval stage. And we are far more engage on a daily basis with all matters of sustainment and maintaining situational awareness of the campaign…[W]e have learned through the Afghanistan experience to bring allies onto a common secret network.”

He notes that on Op Impact, the Air Task Force was stood up and aircraft were flying within three weeks of the government’s approval of the mission. “That decision-making has to have a process to it and we have to practice. All of that is done through things like JOINTEX.”

The primary training audience for JOINTEX is 1st Canadian Division, the Canadian Army’s high-readiness headquarters in Kingston under the command of Major-General Dean Milner. It was reactivated in 2010 to provide the army and the CAF with, among other things, a deployable joint divisional headquarters capable of serving as a component command or integrating into and leading a multinational operation.

While each has subtle differences and affects the decision-making cycle in distinctive ways, Vance notes that no matter “what alliance or coalition of the willing you are in, you never relinquish full command, and therefore you never relinquish national responsibilities. So we need to be able to use these exercises to practice the ability for the CDS (Chief of the Defence Staff) and his subordinate commanders to retain the necessary functions of full command.”

At the most basic level, that means having the necessary radios, chat lines, bandwidth and other C4ISR capabilities to enable full command. More importantly, though, it’s about building and training relationships between and among headquarters.

Bridging the Atlantic
If JOINTEX 2013 was ambitious in its effort to exercise the C2 relationships among a coalition headquarters, a Canadian-led Combined Joint Inter-Agency Task Force and CJOC in Ottawa – all while integrating virtually and in real-time with three live exercises involving the army (Maple Resolve), navy (Trident Fury) and air force (Maple Flag) – then 2015 pushes that to a new level.

Rolled out in three phases, this year’s exercise will integrate with NATO’s flagship training event, Trident Juncture. For exercise planners, that means not only improving the CAF’s operational C2 systems to work with NATO command elements and partners, but also ensuring the connectivity and pipelines for the virtual and simulated aspects of the exercise.

In 2013, the C2 challenge was linking multiple sites across Canada. Now Colonel McPherson and his team must “bridge the trans-Atlantic link,” connecting with Joint Force Command Brunssum in the Netherlands and with the exercise control at NATO’s Joint Warfare Centre in Stavanger, Norway. “While it is a challenge, it is a great opportunity and it sends a real message to our NATO partners,” McPherson says.

Although CAF technicians have acquired plenty of experience establishing data networks with ABCA allies (America, Britain, Canada, Australia), meeting NATO interoperability has required a whole new system. “We had to actually build the NATO C2 piece here to allow the division to execute the mission,” McPherson explains. “All the elements across the CIS community have jumped in to take on this challenge. For the first time in decades, we enabled a Canadian headquarters with a C2 secret system to work collaboratively with a NATO headquarters. That is an impressive feat.”

No less so given McPherson’s people problem. With large contingents currently deployed in both Kuwait and the Ukraine – and the next rotation always in preparation – as well as soldiers, sailors and air personnel deployed under Operation Reassurance, force generating the personnel to support the CPX and live exercises is no mean feat. Equally difficult is accessing the technical expertise to build the C2 information systems (C2IS) capabilities. “That takes a lot of expertise and that expertise is being shared because those experts are also supporting operations in Iraq right now,” McPherson acknowledges.

Despite being stretched thin, the CAF has been able to develop most of its C2IS in-house. NATO Communications and Information Agency, the organization’s version of Shared Services Canada, has played a supporting role, but McPherson says experience from JOINTEX 13 and regular engagement with NATO, especially by the Navy, has provided a critical foundation.

“We are pretty self sufficient within DND. We have the institutional knowledge on how to build these systems. That integration with NATO in terms of C2 is there, and we have leveraged that as we have built the initial systems for the crisis response planning exercise and we’re leveraging that as we build for the CPX.”

The objective, McPherson adds, is to ensure that C2 integrating capability is resident within 1st Canadian Div. “We have built this to be able to provide the capability to the division so that if we ever need to operate with NATO for any reason…this will be one of the tools in the tool box. It’s a pretty exciting opportunity that will provide a return on investment to the CAF that has not been there before.”

A new training opportunity
The overarching scenario for JOINTEX is set around a peer-to-peer conflict involving full spectrum operations between a NATO coalition and another power following an incident in the fictitious African country of Titan. Chief among other assets, Canada responds to NATO’s call for assistance by offering a multinational inter-agency task force headquarters.

For the crisis response planning phase of JOINTEX, which was conducted between January and March, Canadian Forces Intelligence Command and 1st Canadian Div headquarters worked collaboratively with NATO’s Joint Force Command Brunssum to assist in developing the coalition’s response.

Phase two, a command post exercise (CPX), will begin in early October to practice the deployment of a multinational joint task force. Coinciding with Trident Juncture in southern Europe, it will see approximately 1,200 personnel from across the CAF deploy to Meaford, Ontario, where they will operate for 14 days on European time. Meant to simulate deployment to Titan, the CPX will involve the 1st Canadian Div headquarters as well as personnel such as NATO planners and liaison officers from the various component commands. (It will also include evaluators, lessons learned cells, defence scientists and a training team composed of NATO, CAF and U.S. trainers to support the division).

At the same time, McPherson will send about 50 personnel to the Joint Warfare Centre in Stavanger to integrate with NATO’s exercise control and beef up the Canadian Forces Warfare Centre in Ottawa to provide the linkage between Stavanger and Meaford.

Seven days after the CPX begins, approximately 1,500 CAF personnel will deploy to the Iberian Peninsula for the live exercise phase of Trident Juncture. The deployment will include a land task force, a maritime task group, an air task force, and a special operations task unit.

For the CAF, it will mean a multinational brigade into Santa Margarida, Portugal, led by 5 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group commanding an Italian infantry battalion, a Portuguese battalion, a German bridging company and U.S. and Polish civil-military cooperation officers and military police forces. The Maritime Task Group, under NATO command, will operate off the east and west coasts of Portugal and include Danish ships under its command. The Air Task Force will support the Canadian multinational task force, including dropping paratroopers into the Santa Margarida training area, flying resupply flights, and refuelling NATO aircraft in Italy. In total, about 25,000 allied troops are expected to participate from training centres in Portugal, Spain and Italy.

“The training opportunity is huge,” McPherson says. “We will deploy a large force into Portugal, we will execute at the tactical level with our NATO allies – land, air and sea; and then we will conduct joint operations for the last seven days within these respective organizations as part of a larger NATO force under a NATO headquarters. During the live exercise, we will practice our national level theatre sustainment as well, which is one of the objectives that the CDS and Commander CJOC have given to us.”

He notes that MGen Milner and the air, land and maritime component commanders will all have access to the C4ISR capabilities and other requisite elements they would expect in theatre, including feeds from live and simulated ISR platforms and reach-back to Canadian national command and intelligence support. “It is an opportunity that has not been offered to a Canadian training audience to operate in a joint environment with the proper C2 arrangements.”

For LGen Vance and CJOC, aligning the objectives of JOINTEX with a large NATO exercise has proven to be an invaluable way to manage limited resources. While it might be a large commitment of personnel and equipment, the exercise provides a rare opportunity to prepare the divisional headquarters for a variety of roles while building and testing its command and control capability for the long-term.

“Although our bread and butter is the provision of expert tactical forces, we need to be able to function at a higher [operational and strategic] level for things like targeting and theatre support,” Vance says. JOINTEX exercises all of that.