Canada accelerates projects aimed at enhancing military connectivity
Published 7 May 2021
Faced with an increasingly uncertain future, Canada and its defence industry partners are embracing emerging technologies and working through the Five Eyes alliance to maintain a strategic and operational edge.
Canada must contend with an array of challenges in the coming years, against the backdrop of rapidly advancing peer or near-peer competitors on the global stage.
Some of these challenges are common across the Five Eyes alliance (which also includes the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand), such as improving satellite communications and building cyberspace capabilities.
However, Ottawa must also address challenges of its own, perhaps most notably through its position as a key player in the High North and the Arctic.
Photo: Canadian armed forces
Connectivity will be central to progress in the coming years. According to Major General Andrew Jayne, chief of staff of the information management group in Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND), military networks will be crucial in the information environment of the future.
‘We need to be able to collect information, share it amongst our trusted partners, and evaluate the information that we're collecting, [making] decisions at pace and speed, to be able to keep pace in this complex information environment,’ he tells Studio.
Military networks lie at the heart of the DND’s ability to achieve these aims, Gen Jayne adds, as well as for its allies, whether Five Eyes, NATO or beyond.
‘We're going to need the military networks to support those activities, to keep pace, to achieve information superiority, and more importantly, decision superiority over our adversaries.’
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While Canada and its allies operate in a dynamic strategic and technological environment, the same is true for industry.
Companies must work in close partnership with armed forces to build the resilient, adaptable military networks of the future.
Canada’s DND works closely with a range of companies, many of which focus on the technologies that will underpin military connectivity in the coming decades.
Photo: Canadian armed forces
Rapidly accelerating threats
Prominent among these is Viasat, a specialist developer of satellite technologies for militaries.
Joe Johnson, a Viasat business area director who has a key focus on the company’s work in Canada, identifies a number of rapidly accelerating threats in today’s world, notably emerging from peer or near-peer adversaries.
For example, he highlights the capabilities possessed by major global rivals to attack networks, denying their use or otherwise disrupting or compromising them.
Johnson breaks this overall threat down into different elements. For example, he points to covert threats like electronic attack or denial of service, such as jamming networks, whether these be land or satellite based.
Photo: Canadian armed forces
There are also cyberspace attacks, he says, through which an adversary could attempt to steal data from Canada or one of its allies, as well as denying service or even taking control of assets such as unmanned aerial systems (UAS).
There are also more overt attacks to consider, Johnson says, such as physical attacks on infrastructure, whether that be cutting power or causing physical damage, even launching kinetic attacks on spaceborne assets.
‘Those are major threats,’ he tells Studio. ‘So how do we work through them?’
Johnson highlights the evolution of Viasat’s work with Canada over many years, including on the CP-140 Aurora, the nation’s long-range patrol aircraft, for which the company has developed a range of products.
It has provided Link 16-focused technologies to the DND for many years, he says, through the MIDS JTRS radio programme, for instance.
Viasat works with an internet service provider to offer satellite-based broadband services in rural Canada, but this same infrastructure can also support maritime, airborne and land-based assets throughout the North American nation.
Additionally, Johnson points to the coverage provided by the company’s satellites, notably ViaSat-1, ViaSat-2 and the upcoming ViaSat-3, the latter planned to comprise a constellation of three Ka-band communications satellites that are designed to provide 1 terabit per second of capacity across the continent, including much of Canada.
‘That would give us the ability to provide really high-capacity data to all types of platforms, whether they're fixed or mobile, land, air or sea throughout the Canadian region,’ he notes.
Heart of the network
Satellite communications are at the heart of modern military networks.
Canada’s Telesat is another specialist in the area, notably through its Lightspeed low earth orbit – or LEO – satellite network, which will provide defence and other operators with assured network connectivity.
LEO constellations can help countries like Canada protect their communications networks, says Michelle Beck, Telesat’s vice president of North American sales, because they are built on hundreds of advanced, interconnected satellites in a highly distributed architecture, making them inherently resilient.
Lightspeed uses the Ka-band to provide ‘secure, resilient communications up north’, she adds.
It will provide these communications in advance of the Enhanced Satellite Communications Project – Polar (ESCP-P), which is currently in the RFI phase. This will furnish Canada with a constellation that will provide 24/7 coverage of the North Pole.
Mike Greenley is CEO of MDA, a Canada-based space specialist that contributes to the Lightspeed network.
He sees an increasingly collaborative relationship between militaries in countries like Canada and companies in the sector, something that could bear fruit in the coming years.
‘Typically militaries have just acquired their systems and solutions, and then they operate them,’ Greenley explains.
‘In the case of space, even as a defence-based domain … there's a unique opportunity for industry to have capacity that it can sell to militaries as a service.’
Greenley sees this as part of an emerging conversation in communications, Earth observation, and space-based vehicles.
Satellites and their related technologies are an essential component of the space domain, a relatively new aspect of military thinking. Another new domain – cyber – is also rapidly developing as a priority for Canada and its Five Eyes allies.
The emerging cyber threat is highly complex and global in nature. It is also firmly linked to broader challenges, according to Al Dillon, CEO of Ottawa-based Sapper Labs, a company that specialises in different areas of cybersecurity and ICT.
The world is witnessing a high level of ‘almost guerrilla warfare tactics’ in the cyber domain at present, Dillon says, stemming from a range of nations and other actors.
These are and will remain closely linked to broader issues, such as a host of regional wars, the growing global population, competition for food and water sources, and more, he notes. Cyber cannot be viewed in isolation from this picture, Dillon says.
‘The digital domain is going to directly follow where those pain points are in society.’
Photo: Canadian armed forces
The Canadian Department of National Defence has established a new group to tie together the different elements of the joint requirements needed to succeed in this environment, and the operational concepts that must be enabled.
Gen Jayne says it places its wider alliances at the centre of its procurement and technology goals, he said, with a range of common standards through NATO (“STANAGS”) and beyond.
‘Common data standards, common communication protocols, standards amongst the Five Eyes and NATO nations are going to be increasingly important,’ Gen Jayne says, noting that these must be ‘overlain with the security protocols that ensure that we can trust the information and that our allies can trust that we're protecting that information that they share with us’.
Canada is pursuing a wide range of projects across the services, at a time of rapidly accelerating technological change.
Doing so effectively is a challenge, says David Perry, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, not least on the financial side.
For example, Perry says that ‘our Air Force for a couple of years has had a notion that every platform is going to be a sensor. The extent to which that is true means that every one of those platforms that might have otherwise been relatively inexpensive is going to become increasingly less so’.
To prepare for an uncertain future, Canada and its Five Eyes partners must consider not just the types of equipment and systems they procure, but how they do so.
The technology trajectory of industry threatens to increasingly outpace the acquisition cycles of the Canadian government and its Five Eyes partners, something that must be addressed in the coming years.
‘We definitely need a paradigm shift in the acquisition process,’ Viasat’s Johnson argues.
‘Your typical military acquisition process was designed around acquiring platforms and ships and tanks and things of that nature. It really wasn't designed around a C4 or an IT infrastructure, where the capability changes so fast.’