The CAF Needs a Digital Insurgency

Jun 12, 2022

Hidden in the background of its many competing priorities is the exponential capability gap in the digital domain, an area where the rest of the world is adapting faster every year but the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is struggling to keep up – a Digital Insurgency is needed

The conflicts of today and tomorrow are won by those who can master the digital space. 

For those following recent conflicts, they only need to look at the digital sophistication of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Economically very tiny, these two countries were nonetheless able to deploy combat drones, sophisticated surveillance, coordinated misinformation on social media, and targeted ballistic missiles in during this conflict.

Interstate conflicts, criminals and terrorists fight and win in the digital space. 

Canadian military leadership is often hamstrung on the purchase of new hardware. Defence acquisition programs are complicated, over budget and under delivering. The battlespace continues to evolve during the procurement process, and equipment and infrastructure is often obsolete before coming into service. Procurement is political, complex, and political. Yes, I said political twice. If you read Christian Brose’s book The Kill Chain, you will see that traditional procurement focuses on hardware – when it needs to enable software. Improving the kill chain in iterations at the edge is critical.  

We can’t hire 500 software engineers that have 5-10 years of experience to build this. Digital workers are expensive, they don’t want to work on military projects, they don’t understand our problems, and – more importantly – every government department, industry giant, and tech startup is competing for the same talent.

The Canadian government is spending billions of dollars migrating legacy systems to the cloud. The CAF needs to develop and retain in-house talent to ensure the longevity and security of our digital future.  

The CAF is stretched; the Canadian Army, Air Force and Navy have a recruiting and retention issue. 

The CAF is struggling with a personnel shortage, and it takes a bold recruit to leave their software engineering degree or their six-figure salary in a technology company to start basic training. The other side of this equation is the retention issue — once trained and experienced, tech-focused soldiers can find a job outside the military almost immediately.  

The digital insurgency we need is not dependent on a few key positions; it is important to mobilize the entire population. Most software companies have made their platforms user friendly with low- or no-code solutions. The insurgency can leverage these tools to scale their solutions and build momentum.  

It is a mistake to expect senior Defence leadership to build the talent for us. Their focus is to ensure our forces are ready for the next fight. The Army, for example, will need to train a massive influx of recruits in coming years while trying to understand the larger tectonic shifts that are under their feet.  

How do we wage a digital insurgency? The first step is to conduct a pre-insurgency stage – organize the movement, focus on the grievance, find emerging leaders, create a group identity, recruit members to your cause.

The grievance is simple – we live in 2022, but our office is in 1998: Why am I using Excel spreadsheets to capture data? Why are we sending information by email to each individual person? Why are staff officers chasing information for weeks for a PowerPoint that is already out of date by the time the data is entered? Why do most soldiers not have access to any information?

We then need to message that grievance to drum up support. Once leaders emerge who are willing to support and champion the cause, help them recruit more insurgents and fund the insurgency.

The CAF needs access to Office 365 and other tools that will automate most of the military’s administration. Applications can be built on PowerApps that also work on a personal phone.  

Recruiting and training can happen simultaneously to build these digital solutions and protect them from cyberattacks. 

Don’t wait on the hardware or the recruiting of specialized talent.

Start training your soldiers on how to fight in the insurgency: Build solutions on Office 365; Conduct data competitions; Automate paperwork and administration; Have teams learn how to hack networks.

Start small, show success – and then invest more. 

Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) Caleb Walker spent 20 years in the Canadian Army, including three tours of Afghanistan where he was awarded the Chief of Defence Staff Commendation. His last role was the Command of the Army’s Chief Action Group. He wrote the Managed Readiness System Review in 2019. He is now the Vice-President of Defence and Government with the veteran-led digital skills tech company WithYouWithMe.