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From Nascent Technology to Canadian Defence Policy: Revisiting the Merits of a Connected Battlespace

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Image credit: Corporal Lynette Ai Dang, eFP BG Latvia Public Affairs and Imagery Section, Canadian Armed Forces Photo

POLICY PERSPECTIVE

A joint publication with:

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by Kevin Budning, Alex Wilner, and Guillaume Côté
December 2023

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Table of Contents


Introduction

Does Canada need a connected battlespace? In June 2020, we posed this question to a group of defence experts who joined our Collins Aerospace–Carleton University research team for a virtual conference. The purpose of our gathering was to speak with members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), the Canadian government, industry, and academia about the impacts, challenges, and opportunities emerging technology will have on Canadian defence policy.

As a new and enhanced version of network-centric warfare, a connected battlespace (CB) can best be understood as an augmentation of C4ISR. By leveraging emerging digital technologies to capture, process, and distribute large quantities of data within an integrated network of sensors and systems, a CB can foster real-time decision-support and jointness between the different military domains and assets. Together, the combination of cloud-based data harmonization, along with real-time data analysis and sharing, is – unlike anything before – driving military powers around the world to prioritize force development through joint exercises and interoperability. 

The response by the conference participants was overwhelming. The experts reported that as Canada adapts to an ever-changing world, attaining a CB must be at the centre of its future strategic planning. As we discussed in a subsequent International Journal article published in 2021, the most pressing concern our participants expressed was that Canada was woefully underprepared for a new generation of threats and operations shaped by data-driven objectives and informed by a return to great power competition. Put in simpler terms, we found that Canada was falling further behind its friends and adversaries alike, posing a distinctive threat to our national security and sovereignty.

Fast forward nearly four years and the world has changed in the most unusual of ways. The COVID-19 pandemic has lasted far longer than anyone anticipated, bringing with it a host of unintended crises involving semiconductors, constricted supply chains, inflation, and political extremism. Joe Biden was elected president of the United States; Russia invaded Ukraine, prompting NATO’s northern expansion; and Taiwan’s sovereignty was further imperilled by Chinese expansionism.

Domestically, the CAF has been facing an “existential” personnel crisis; Canada’s future fighter jet procurement saga finally ended with the selection of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightening II;  Chinese surveillance balloons entered Canadian and American airspace, testing NORAD cooperation and readiness in live theatre; and both an updated defence policy and funding for NORAD modernization were promised.

These significant changes, coupled with recent investments and technological developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and data management, warrant revisiting the case for Canada’s connected battlespace. This article provides a refresher on the CB, detailing its importance to national defence, examines the technological and geopolitical changes that have occurred over the past several years, critically questions what these changes mean for Canada’s defence policy, and offers some open-ended questions for future consideration.

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What is the Connected Battlespace?

According to a 2022 report issued by the United States Department of Defense (DoD), the future of military operations “will be conducted in degraded and contested electromagnetic spectrum environments.” The “new” domains of warfare – space and cyber – present a novel complexity to the more conventional domains of land, air, and sea. When combined, modern-day military superiority will almost entirely be defined by technological prowess.

Historically, different military units and countries deployed tactical networks that operated independently of one another. The connected battlespace (implemented in the U.S. under the Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) concept) aims to modernize this process by leveraging emerging technologies to establish continuous, instantaneous network connectivity among diverse military assets across all domains of warfare. The CB will enhance rapid and integrated decision-making at both the tactical and strategic levels.

These emerging technologies, powered largely through AI, space-based assets, and cloud computing, are engineered with one overarching goal: to adequately ingest higher quantities of data, make sense of this data, and move information at speeds that will drastically improve interoperability, command and control (C2), and connectivity within and across forces. The impacts are expected to be far-reaching in the areas of multi-domain operations, training, and simulation fuelled by the synthetic environment. But perhaps the CB’s biggest advantage is that it will drastically shorten the observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop, allowing Canada and its partners to detect, deter, and pre-empt threats faster with more accuracy, consistency, and control than ever before.

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Change, at Speed

In our 2021 International Journal article, we took stock of the investments and actions Canada and its closest allies were making to develop a CB. At the time the US Air Forces’ (USAF) contribution to JADC2, the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), was still in its early stages and the Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure was contracted to create a single cloud storage platform that would be used to host and send data to US military interests and assets around the world.

Some of Canada’s other Five Eyes (FVEY) partners were also making rapid advances. The UK’s Morpheus programme was in full swing, created with three main goals in mind: improving situational awareness from soldiers to HQ; increasing bandwidth as part of a more resilient network; and enabling interoperability. Australia, too, had its version of the CB with its Science, Technology, and Research (STaR) Shots program, aimed at modernizing the military by creating partnerships between academics, industry professionals, and servicepeople.

Canada’s efforts to reach a CB, however, lagged far behind. The lack of investment in NORAD modernization at the time, coupled with a staggeringly slow procurement process compared to our allies, led conference participants to warn that Canada risked signalling to its partners (and adversaries) that it failed to take its defence commitments seriously. Furthermore, our participants also expressed concern that a prolonged delay in modernizing the CAF would make it significantly harder to seamlessly integrate Canadian systems into allied ones. And worse, the emerging asymmetry between Canada and the FVEY would likely continue to grow, forcing Canada to yield even more of its sovereignty to the United States over issues of national security and defence.

In many ways, these anxieties turned out to be prophetic. The return of great power competition has accelerated the need for continental defence systems, especially to fend off hypersonic missiles. Canada has responded to the changing threat landscape by releasing its Indo-Pacific strategy; investing in European (and Ukrainian) defence; committing to an update of the country’s long overdue defence policy, Strong, Secure, and Engaged (SSE); finalizing the purchase of 88 F-35 fighter jets; and creating a new position, the Chief of Combat Systems Integration (CCSI), charged with bringing military coherence to the supply chain and creating a Pan Domain Command and Control (PDC2) system, a conceptual precursor to CB.

But the most substantial change came for Budget 2022 when Anita Anand, then-Minister of Defence, announced a commitment of $38.6 billion over twenty years on an accrual basis, or $87 billion over 20 years on a cash basis. Much of the funding was earmarked for NORAD modernization projects, such as updating Canada’s Arctic defence systems and creating a new joint Canada-U.S. sensor called “Crossbow.” Additionally, Minister Anand announced that Canada would follow through on some of its backdated commitments outlined in SSE, by updating the North Warning System and launching a space-based surveillance project.

In the years since we published our first CB article, Canada’s allies have been busy, too.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) signalled their concerns about regional threats and geopolitical instability. Australia’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR), released in 2023, bluntly calls China’s military build-up and expansion “the largest and most ambitious of any country since the end of the Second World War.” To counteract the challenge, the DSR commits Australia to major investments in undersea warfare capabilities, long-range missile strike capabilities, and integrated air-and-missile defence systems. The Australian government identified six priorities for immediate action, which include: acquiring nuclear-powered submarines through Pillar I of the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) agreement, a trilateral security pact announced in 2021; developing the ability to precisely strike targets at longer-range from Australia’s shores; improving operational readiness on the ADF’s northern bases; deepening defence partnerships and employee retention; and lifting the ADF’s capacity to translate disruptive technology into capabilities through close partnerships with key industry stakeholders. On the latter, the Australians established the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA), which is designed to harness the potential of government, academia, and industry to streamline defence innovation and drive capability development and acquisition pathways. By the end of 2023, the Australian Government also plans to release its Defence Industry Development Strategy, which will help deliver the six priorities outlined in the DSR.

In the United Kingdom, the Multi-Domain Integration program was initiated and an update was given to the country’s key strategic defence policy documents, the Integrated Review and the Defence Command Paper. In the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) annual report (2022/23) one of the five priority outcomes listed includes modernizing and integrating “defence capabilities by taking a whole force approach [through] the use of technology and innovation.” Other critical documents, such as the MoD’s Future Soldier Report (2021) and the Defence Equipment Plan 2021-2031 (2022) lay out the British Armed Forces’ (BAF) modernization plan for the coming years. This includes digitally combining networks, investing heavily in space-based and cyber technologies, and acquiring long-range precision fire and uncrewed aerial systems. The BAF will further improve its Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance capabilities and modernize the Typhoon jet radar program, among many other initiatives. Finally, much as the Australians did, the UK government created the British Army BattleLab, which will serve as a unique opportunity for prime contractors, small and medium-sized enterprises, and academics and researchers to engage directly with the MoD.

The United States remains the frontrunner in military modernization. In October 2022, the DoD released an updated National Defense Strategy (NDS), which clearly delineates its main priority: to deter China and other hostile adversaries, including Russia, North Korea, and Iran. The NDS emphasizes working closely with American allies and building a resilient joint force defence ecosystem to counteract hostile emerging threats. For the upcoming budget requests, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin argued that investing in all theatres across all domains, including cyberspace and outer space, is essential. Some notable budget requests include $34 billion to sustain and modernize nuclear forces, $13 billion to support modernizing land forces, and $130 billion for research and development.

Simultaneously, the U.S. has been relentless in its implementation of JADC2: the Air Force continues to lead the effort through ABMS; the Navy is working towards interoperability via Project Overmatch; and the Army is doing so with Project Convergence. In March 2022, the Pentagon established an office designed to align and accelerate JADC2. The team will work to create “jointness” between the three different branches of the military and integrate these systems through cyber and space-based emerging technologies. The U.S. is likewise a critical partner in AUKUS Pillar II. The trilateral agreement is designed to improve interoperability and joint military capabilities in areas like electronic warfare and command and control by leveraging emerging technologies, such as AI and quantum computing.

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Making Sense of Change for Canadian Defence

In the years since we convened our CB confab there is no denying the fact that modernizing the CAF remains critical for detecting, deterring, and defending against hostile threats. The faster the CAF can reach a CB, the quicker Canada can adequately contribute to NORAD, NATO, the FVEY, and our AUKUS allies; integrate its systems with legacy platforms; share data between forces and across services; and retain its autonomy and sovereignty over critical national defence matters.

Turning the CB concept into a reality, however, requires tangible steps that must be taken sooner than later. For one, the update to Canada’s defence policy, which was initiated over 18 months ago in the wake of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, is long past due. Without a strategic document that reflects the true challenges of the day, the CAF finds itself rudderless within a sea.

Second, Canada’s defence spending commitments have been erratic, significantly impacting its reputation on the world stage. In July 2023, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed to spend at least two per cent of Canada’s annual GDP on defence, keeping Ottawa in line with NATO’s pre-determined and agreed-upon targets. However, less than three months later the government changed tack, seemingly reversing its decision, informing the Department of National Defence that it must cut close to $1 billion from DND’s annual budget. Spending less, rather than more, during a period of heightened geopolitical instability and open conflict hinders DND’s ability to modernize the CAF and develop the CB, sending the exact wrong signal to both our allies and adversaries: Canada’s sovereignty has a price.

Third, the Government of Canada is failing to appreciate that jointness extends far beyond technology itself. To reach a CB, the CAF must participate in joint-operations, joint-development, joint-training, and joint-exercises. When the CAF participates in a military exercise or armed conflict, it is always in concert with its allies. The less Canada has to offer, the more challenging it becomes to be regarded as a dependable partner capable of shouldering its fair share.

Canada’s non-inclusion in the AUKUS agreement and from the Global Combat Air Programme – including the development of unmanned combat aerial vehicles through the Loyal Wingman program – serves as a stark reminder that apathy on defence can have deleterious effects on the perceptions of our allies and the relations we build with them. Not only does Canada have little to offer these partnerships, but our slow procurement and development cycles are undermining Canada’s position within our most important security alliance, NORAD, serving as a growing source of anxiety for the United States. 

In a similar vein, any new defence policy should emphasize the importance of collaboration between the government, industry, and academia. While Canada’s MINDS and IDEaS programs have made meaningful contributions engaging a wide range of defence-related stakeholders, they have yet to move the needle when it comes to Canada’s defence capabilities, innovation, or production. The Government of Canada should also be looking to mirror some of its allies’ most successful initiatives, like the UK’s BattleLab, Australia’s ASCA program, and the United States’ Defense Innovation Unit. At the same time, DND should be working with industry to further develop niche technologies in areas where Canada has proven expertise, such as in underwater sensing, earth observation, high frequency communications, radars, and cold-weather operations; each an asset Canada can press towards developing a CB.

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Canada's CB and the Search for Answers

Achieving a connected battlespace is an ambitious, yet necessary, goal for Canada to modernize its military capabilities and improve its force readiness. While the menu of required capabilities needed to achieve a CB is expansive, three operational imperatives have particular importance: Pan Domain Command and Control, interoperability, and data management.

The first two go hand-in-hand. Canada cannot fully harness PDC2 without first reaching a high degree of interoperability. At the same time, the CAF cannot adequately defend the homeland, participate in joint exercises, or facilitate seamless communication and data sharing, in real time, without maximum situational awareness. While recent investments in NORAD modernization, the creation of the 3 Canadian Space Division in 2022, the formation of the CCSI, the release of the CAF Digital Campaign Plan (2022), and vocal political rhetoric around the desire for change are important and necessary steps, they are also preliminary ones. DND has not adequately explained how it wishes to turn such an ambitious goal, the creation of a CB, into reality. Moreover, how should Canadians interpret the Government’s defence budget cuts so quickly after its pledge at the Vilnius NATO Summit just a few months prior? What specific R&D projects are being funded that offer Canada a competitive advantage in developing CB? How will DND compete with its allies in developing and procuring the latest emerging technologies for the best possible price? And finally, what stage – if it is not already too late – will Canada’s delayed integration of these systems stymie its ability to exert sovereignty over future national defence decisions? Reaching a true CB is more than just acquiring physical assets; it is about getting the various assets to work together by digitizing the entire enterprise.

The core ingredient, then, is data management. According to former CCSI RAdm Jeff Zwick, “failure to undergo a Digital Transformation will entail existential risk to the CAF, and substantial programmatic and reputational risk to the Department [of Defence].” It is undeniable that the CAF needs enhanced data sharing to reduce its response time, help inform better decision-making when deploying kinetic and non-kinetic assets, and when integrating existing systems with legacy ones. In building such a defensive architecture, Canadian policy-makers should consider the merits of a “fail-fast” mentality, a concept recently embraced in Australia’s DSR.

In its current form, the CAF’s Digital Campaign Plan is still too vague for what is at stake: Which specific programs should DND leverage? What is the time horizon for achieving a fully interoperable force? How will the CAF make sense of ever-increasing quantities of data? And how will it share, sort, and store this information in a time-sensitive and secure manner?

These are not easy questions to answer. As a starting point, DND should continue to leverage the offices of key department enablers, such as the Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) Materiel, ADM Information Management (now called DND Chief Information Office), ADM Data, Innovation and Analytics (now called Digital Transformation Office), and ADM Defence Research and Development Canada. These new positions, held by newly appointed and capable CAF servicepeople, present a timely opportunity to energize CAF’s modernization process.

Despite Canada taking noteworthy steps over the past three years, the journey towards achieving a fully interoperable CB is still uncertain and far from complete. While Canada has made some progress, in comparison to our American, Australian, and British allies, we still lag in terms of force development and readiness. Canadian decision-makers should heed this call to action, recognizing that the competitive advantage between nations that have successfully modernized and those that have not will likely prove crucial in the conflicts to come.

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About the Authors

Kevin Budning is a PhD candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. His research focuses on violent extremism, political decision-making, and Canadian defence policy. He is also a Junior Affiliate with the Canadian network for research on terrorism, security, and society.  

Dr. Alex Wilner is an Associate Professor of International Affairs, at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) at Carleton University. His books include Deterrence by Denial: Theory and Practice (eds., Cambria Press, 2021), Deterring Rational Fanatics (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), and Deterring Terrorism: Theory and Practice (eds., Stanford University Press, 2012).

Dr. Guillaume Côté is an experienced defence practitioner/ He holds a B.A (Laval and Lausanne), a M.Sc (INRS), a PhD (INRS) and a French Doctorate (Toulouse).

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Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

The Institute was created to bridge the gap between what Canadians need to know about Canadian international activities and what they do know. Historically Canadians have tended to look abroad out of a search for markets because Canada depends heavily on foreign trade. In the modern post-Cold War world, however, global security and stability have become the bedrocks of global commerce and the free movement of people, goods and ideas across international boundaries. Canada has striven to open the world since the 1930s and was a driving factor behind the adoption of the main structures which underpin globalization such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and emerging free trade networks connecting dozens of international economies. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute recognizes Canada’s contribution to a globalized world and aims to inform Canadians about Canada’s role in that process and the connection between globalization and security.

In all its activities the Institute is a charitable, non-partisan, non-advocacy organization that provides a platform for a variety of viewpoints. It is supported financially by the contributions of individuals, foundations, and corporations. Conclusions or opinions expressed in Institute publications and programs are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Institute staff, fellows, directors, advisors or any individuals or organizations that provide financial support to, or collaborate with, the Institute.

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