Q&A with Maj Nic Gonthier – 31 October, 2022

Article / December 5, 2022 / Project number: 22-0121

From October 17 to 28, 2022, members of 2 Signal Squadron in Petawawa conducted Exercise HERMES REACH to test out a Decentralized Command Post (CP) concept while collaborating with industry partners to experiment and develop capabilities needed to survive and win within modern conflicts. We spoke with Major (Maj) Nicolas Gonthier, Commanding Officer, 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group Headquarters and Signal Squadron (2 CMBG HQ & Sig Sqn) to learn more about this idea, and how it fits into the Canadian Army (CA)’s broader digital transformation initiative.

Why are Decentralized Command Posts necessary, and how are they currently being deployed?

CPs are at the center of Command and Control in the field. They are composed of the various staff and specialists that help a commander plan, execute and sustain operations. However, over the last two decades, these CPs kept getting bigger, more spacious and took longer to deploy. Now, with the profusion of drones, high-resolution imagery, electronic warfare and other sensors, the battlespace is becoming ever more transparent making our CPs in their current state more of a target.

With the ongoing war unfolding in Eastern Europe, we don’t have the luxury of time to adapt. The challenge we gave to the team was to develop a new highly interconnected Brigade Decentralized CP that could deploy under 30 mins instead of days, and with less than half of our current organizational size. As there are no blueprints for this, we decided to use a bottom-up approach to experiment and generate prototypes to address the issue. And within only 45 days, the first prototype was delivered, and went well beyond our expectations!

Where did the idea come from?

This issue has been around for some time, and is something our allies have also been grappling with. Upon arrival of our brigade commander this summer, we had discussions about his intent to become more dispersed and survivable. Across the Sig Sqn, there was a unanimous desire to modernize and digitally transform. So the need for a change was already out there; we just decided that we could do something about it as the status quo had too many risks.

Who was involved in this process?

The first prototype was really developed internally to 2 CMBG HQ & Sig Sqn in partnership with a few industry volunteers. The pairing of our signalers with engineers was a catalyst to our momentum. It really enabled maximum creativity and the sharing of ideas for solutions. There were so many “ah ha!” moments where troops involved would state an issue, and one industry volunteer nearby would have a fix for it. Moreover, industry brought various capabilities for demonstration, and our members immediately found use for them as part of the concept. This collaboration was game changing, for everyone.

What comes next in this process?

Our approach to this is to conduct quick iteration of prototyping that always improves upon the last version, a bit like you approach product development as part of a tech startup. Our goal is really to identify what works, and what doesn’t. To do so, we are leveraging our annual exercise schedule to experiment, get user feedback and improve our overall capability package. It also includes writing the concept, methodology and doctrine.

Since we can’t do this alone, we are really looking at expanding our voluntary support from private industry to trial various capabilities in support of the concept. But also, we are reaching out to various key stakeholder across the organization for support. And so far, the outreach has been extremely positive and productive! Our intent is, with some additional trials, to have this concept fully deployable in an operational setting by summer 2023.

How did 2 CMBG HQ & Sig Sqn have to change its mindset to approach this challenge?

With the intent to go from days to 30 minute setup time, we were pretty sure that the end-state solution would most likely lie outside of what had been done in the past. This required a completely new approach to design and implementation. This is why there was so much emphasis on enabling creativity, ingenuity and bottom-up problem solving. We needed everyone across all ranks and trades to chip in.

From a leadership perspective, allowing maximum freedom for everyone to conduct their own experiment and innovate can be bit nerve-racking because at some point, there is more experimentation happening than we can track and supervise. The only way this was going to work was to have full confidence in the abilities of our team, and to support convergence towards the goal. In the end, the most innovative organizations didn’t get to where they are by micro-managing and controlling talent.

What were some of the self-imposed constraints for your team?

An imposed constraint was that the CP would have to be decentralized in “nodes” where the headquarters staff works in a collaborative manner within a virtual environment. Nodes were to be deployed independently, allowing maximum flexibility, speed, and survivability. But the rest of the concept, the capabilities, and the technologies were given to the whole unit to solve. It wasn’t going to be the Commanding Officer’s concept, but their concept. As I told my team, there is no doctrine for this. We are building this in real-time, and we will adapt based on the lessons-learned of our peer units and our NATO partners.

How would you encourage all trades to get on board with the CA’s digital transformation?

Digital transformation is not something that is specific to a technology, but how we leverage technology to specific problems. Identifying what problem needs to be solved is the first important step. So every trade has ‘skin in the game’ to determine what the CA’s digital transformation will look like. However, the danger is spending all our time contemplating the problem without taking tangible action. This is why rapid prototyping and experimentation with the users is essential to get quick results.

What were the biggest surprises?

I just want to add that the week prior to the exercise, we started doubting if our objectives were too ambitious and if we should scale back. But we didn’t and it really worked out. We actually developed more capabilities than originally planned. It just shows how we tend to impose on ourselves artificial barriers of what can or cannot be achieved.

And success is really contagious. As the exercise went on, we could see a sense of competition developing between teams, and they were developing ever more digitized and faster prototypes each day. The days were quite long, but it was all self-driven by them. Everyone contributed to the success, and the follow-on consequence was a stronger team cohesion across ranks and troops.

But the biggest surprise of all? Realizing how a small unit such as ourselves has the ability to drive institutional change, and inspire others to take action in accelerating the CA’s digital transformation.

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