The Challenges and Opportunities of Taking the Canadian Army Digital

digital strategy cover


Vanguard’s Terri Pavelic sat down with BGen Demers to talk about the progress be­ing made, the role industry will play in bringing these solutions to fruition and what success looks like moving forward.

Q The Canadian Army is seeking a new relationship with technology and a move from analog to data-driven innova­tion. How is this mission going? Can you share any updates?

We understand the difficulty of the mission we’ve undertaken. We need every solider to be a digital soldier. We believe it can happen, but it has to be a team effort.

So, we started by creating an understand­able and approachable strategic document to put everyone on the same page, which is now complete. We’re extremely proud of it because the goals, benefits and pathways to success are clear to anyone who reads it, regardless of rank or technical savvy.

And I think the language in the conclud­ing paragraph of the strategic document is on point: the Army we have is not the Army we need.

The consensus is that our lack of a rela­tionship with digital technology is a major contributor to the state of our armed forc­es. And it’s a precarious position to be in for two reasons: a quickly destabilizing world necessitating the kind of interoperability with our allies we currently don’t have; and the speed of technological innovation that is putting us more behind every day.

The strategic document addresses all this and more. We all have confidence in it.

Q In the strategic document, one of the recommendations was to create a Chief Digital Officer role. Can you explain the responsibilities of this job as you see it?

Yes. It’s evolved a bit to be called the Di­rectorate of Digital and Army Combat Systems Integration, or DDACSI.

Essentially, that group is responsible for orchestrating the transformation described in the digital strategy, and then realizing the goals and outcomes. They’ll act as the hub of transformation, touching all areas of the army.

Concurrently, DDACSI will be responsi­ble for looking ahead to what we are going to need in the future from a digitization perspective, and they’ll be responsible for setting our entire armed forces up for suc­cess. It’s a massive undertaking.

But the key to the job, I think, is to lead a culture change. I think that’s even more important because it will affect how we see and prioritize authorities, responsibilities, and accountabilities.

In the military structure, we’re good at knowing where our lanes are and how to stay in them. Laying a foundation of flex­ibility into our approach to this mission is the first important step, and that’s what we’ve done. We’re trying to ensure that we’re set up for success and that our sol­diers are set up for success, and that our successors can build upon what we do.

But it will be a work in progress to evolve the specific authorities, responsibilities, and accountabilities because I know our indus­try partners will have questions at the out­set as we set up our processes. For the Land Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) family of projects as an example, who do they talk to? Do they talk to Directorate of Land Require­ments (DLR)? Do they talk to DDACSI? These decisions are on our roadmap; and at some point, all of this will probably be handed over to DDACSI. We’re not changing anything specifically right now, but leadership is mapping out capabilities DDACSI needs to do its job and be the hub. As that evolves into reality, and as we build enough capacity to take on ma­jor initiatives, projects are going to start flowing through that organization.

And let me say that, to define the DDACSI’s roles and expectations, we leaned into our relationships with industry and sought guidance from actual experts who had either done it or assisted people who had done digital transformation.

Q Industry is very eager to support the new initiative. How do you see industry participating in this transformation?

This question has been discussed a lot because almost none of the core compe­tencies required to tackle this project are in uniform. We need industry to help us, but as you can imagine, going outside the ranks for guidance is not something we’ve done much of in the past. But we have to lean into doing things differently if we’re going to succeed.

Right away, I would say we would lean heavily on industry to help build up and manage the DDACSI.

We’re very excited about this because we’re out there finding new industry part­ners with fresh ideas. The goal is to identify the partners that make the most sense for us throughout the process, then hopefully scale up and apply to the bigger procure­ment — see initially that we want to evolve this: find proof of concept and ways to experiment that will assist us in setting up new ways of doing business and acquiring the more tech­nologically advanced pieces of equipment we need for operations in the land domain so that we’re staying ahead of the power curve versus always trying to catch up.

Then, in terms of tackling the task itself, we see ourselves working with industry to see what’s even possible. Right now, we have a few programs on the go with in­dustry partners who are showing us what they’re capable of.

And I think we’re also showing them what we’re capable of, that we’re willing to do things differently, for example in how we plan to run the Land C4ISR family of projects (Strong, Secure, Engaged, item 42), a program estimated at 6 billions dol­lars. A lot of that is for industry to help us get it done. It’s a huge opportunity for everybody.

Q Now I’m curious with the war in Ukraine going on, have there been any lessons learned/observed in terms of how quickly they’ve been able to adapt in their capability fielding that perhaps is of interest to the Canadian Army?

On the technology aspect of it, absolutely. But I wouldn’t call them lessons learned right now because to learn, we’d need to go through the process and actually look what we saw, evaluate it, and then feed it back through so it becomes integrated as part of doctrine or equipment. That’s when it’s a lesson learned. I’d say now that it’s more active observation.

We have troops and officers watching closely and applying what they see to the way we do business. But like the Nagorno­ Karabakh war in Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, I think the current Ukraine situation clearly shows that a military with a modi­cum of digitalization has a huge advantage over a military that is not leveraging digita­lization as much. The digitization mission we’re beginning now, and the commitment we’re making to industry to invite them to join us as partners in our mission, will move us in the direction we want to go.

Q In the era of pan domain operations where position, navigation and time assuredness connects the movement of data and weapons through the domain, how do you foresee improving the CAF’s Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) systems employed in the land domain?

I think the key point is ramping up our ca­pacity on the cyber mission assurance side in parallel to building up our capacity on the digitalization side. And we’re careful to call it “cyber mission assurance” because it’s more than just cybersecurity. It’s look­ing at the entire parameters of the mission, all the threat vectors that could come in and to make sure that things aren’t being tampered with, and we can trust the data that we’re using to make decisions.

If I back up a little bit from this, I think the most important sentence in the entire digital transformation strategy talks about how winning in the battle space is actually winning in the decision space. And when you look at the history of warfare, it’s full of examples of smaller, less powerful forces that had a decision advantage that were able to achieve surprise or react more quickly. This helped them prevail over larger forces. And I think Ukraine is a per­fect example. Ukraine right now benefits from a decision advantage because of the help of industry, because of the help of the West, because of the speed at which they could onboard new decision support tools. This is what’s making the big difference. Yes, there’s the will of the people and that they’re defending their homeland, but the decision advantage is the huge one. And so, it’s clear that technology must play an everincreasing role in producing the deci­sion advantage necessary to win.

We have to learn how to use technol­ogy to go beyond human ability to make quick decisions. This isn’t to say that hu­mans will cease making the decisions, but that the decisions will be better informed thanks to an investment in the technol­ogy and the training.

Q What will success look like in 2023 and 2024?

I’d say we already attained initial success with the publication of the digitalization strategy and by agreeing to set up the DDACSI as the driver of change and by as­signing projects into the DDACSI sphere In a year from now, success will be people are leaning towards the available digital decision-informing tools, seeing the value they bring and experiencing it firsthand. But this will be incremental. And we don’t need to wait for it to be perfect. We just need to build it up little by little and let the momentum carry this forward.

This process has been intentionally set up to achieve quick success or fast failure. The “aha” moment will be during Army Coun­cil where someone with authority was en­abled by data and digitalization efforts, to achieve proper decisions — when they see the benefits. Once that happens, we’ll start to move faster and faster and faster.

The bottom line is that we need to put more effort into digitalization because the speed of our decision making has to improve, as do the data points we use to make those decisions. And if we have the technology to gather, manage and pack­age the data we use to inform our actions, we can focus more on the actions them­selves. That’s what matters.

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