September 30, 2021

Training digital warfighters

Strategies for institutionalizing digital training into the operational culture of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Training digital warfighters
Rick Fawcett, OMM, CD
Vice-President, Strategy and Business Development

Starting with the loose definition of a ‘Digital Warfighter’ being any soldier, sailor, or aviator whose combat responsibilities include establishing and maintaining digital systems, using digital tools and systems, and those tools impacted by digitization—basically everyone in the Canadian Armed Forces needs to be a Digital Warfighter.

Today, in addition to general military training, leadership development, trade-specific training, and specialty training, at both the individual and collective levels, all CAF members, and those supporting them, require the skills to operate digital systems necessary to fulfil their operational tasks. This training ranges from general information technology training, empowering individuals and teams with the basic analytical principles and approaches required to exploit the tactical advantages of digital systems, to providing the detailed knowledge necessary to plan, deploy, and recover digital systems.

Training has always been a cornerstone of the CAF operational culture. As the CAF continue their digital transformation journey, it must take a broad approach, considering all the PRICIE [i] elements; training of its Digital Warfighters will continue to be one of the most important elements. Digital training must be institutionalized and ingrained into the CAF operational culture, so it is second nature, just like weapons training is today. The challenge is that the need for digital training is continuous, including initial training, refresher training, skills updating, and collective training, and this training must be refreshed every time there is a procedural or technical change to the digital systems, which will also be continuous. Finally, every member will require aspects of this training as every member will use the digital systems.

With support provided by those intimately aware of digital training in the Canadian Army today—the past Commandant of the Canadian Forces School of Communications, LCol Walter Gamblin, and Colonel Tod Strickland, Commandant Canadian Army Command and Staff College—this article will first look at the challenges, successes, and way ahead for training digital Warfighters from those who lead that training today. The second part of the article, provided by Colonel (Retired) Walter Wood, WithYouWithMe Customer Success Executive for Defence, will look at an alternative approach to training for the support of digital systems, a process developed by WithYouWithMe, which has proven extremely successful in training military veterans for a second career in supporting digital systems and is now being offered in Canada to veterans.

The training of digital warfighters in Canada’s army today

Notwithstanding two decades of digital transition, it can be argued that the CAF has yet to fully transform into a digitized force. Efforts to modernize at the pace of industry have been frustrated by a capability acquisition process that strives to identify outcomes with certainty, which has proven impossible when considering the speed at which information technology changes.  Further, with a focus on the next operation in lieu of a future of operations, the CAF has been limited by an organizational culture that has consistently sought to apply technology to the way operations were being conducted instead of evolving operations to what the technology could enable. The net result over time is an organization that has yet to establish the institutional foundation and agility necessary to be aware, experiment, and adapt to the information environment. The CAF is also striving for a coherent digital development programme that goes beyond theory, where prioritization of a common set of military digitalized competencies across the CAF is common practice, as it is these competencies that are needed to form the core of an effective training system.

The Canadian Forces School of Communications and Electronics (CFSCE) exemplifies the dichotomy that has existed between prioritizing and investing in CAF digitization. As a training establishment with Centre of Excellence responsibility for developing and managing 10 distinct communications and electronics occupations across all services in the CAF, CFSCE is supposed to be at the cutting edge of military information technology and should be leading the institutional digitization transition; however, the school is housed in buildings that are beyond end-of-life, fitted with a bare minimum of in-service equipment, and insufficiently resourced to design, develop, and adapt specialist training for information technology systems that are continually evolving.

The challenge is not just with those who manage systems but also those who use them. The training of staff officers to work in a dispersed environment typical of a digitized headquarters, where they must harness technology to meet mission demands, while concurrently defending from a digitized enemy with the capacity to spoof, jam, or target our digital signals should not be underestimated. The consequences of failure are hugely significant. Canada’s adversaries have significant capabilities to exert influence on CAF action. Much work is required to ensure staff are familiar with the challenges and possess the knowledge, processes, and tools to overcome operating in a hostile environment. Thankfully we can learn from ourselves, our experiences, and our allies. In Col Strickland’s view, “We should not underestimate the importance of ongoing staff training. Much as we train drivers and gunners continuously, we need to do the same thing with our staff. Friday afternoon plans training sessions, exercises in a comms constrained environment, simply getting move drills down for a HQ—all these can help improve the situation.”

Despite these challenges, Canadian sailors, soldiers, and aviators have always exhibited the imagination, innovation, and initiative needed to overcome adversity; something within our DNA that continues to be imparted during recruiting, training and employment. Enabled by incredible partnerships with the public service, industry, and our allies, it is our people that continue to make things happen with the technology where it matters the most: training and operations. Admittedly, our schools have not been invested in and have yet to deliberately produce what could be categorized as a “digital warfighter” per se, but they do graduate warfighters who possess the attributes to excel within a digitized environment. As LCol Gamblin points out, “despite a body of work comprised of management missteps in establishing an enduring digital institutional effect across the whole of the organization, the Defence Team leadership has navigated the digital transition without critical failures on operations to date because of who our people are and what they bring to the fight.”

Moving forward, The CAF is approaching an opportunity to close the gap in Defence digitization and transform the CAF into a digitalized force. If it can remain aligned to the ambitions of Strong, Secure, and Engaged (SSE), inclusive of a multi-year Defence capital investment programme enabled by modernized policies and processes that appreciate the emergent characteristics of technological change, it just might be able to “ride the wave” of talent our people possess to something much greater. Success of the CAF in this next evolution of their digital transformation is reliant on its ability to lead future investments with an institutional base from which to experiment, educate, and adapt to the ever-changing information environment. Although many CAF processes and structures can remain extant, some will need to change or be modified to realize the potential of digitization, to include institutionalizing the training necessary to create digital warfighters. This transformation is necessary to evolve the entire Defence Team structure to blend military, public servants, allies, and industry as the ordinary vice extraordinary model.    

An alternative approach to digital training

From Soldier to Software Developer in 100 hours. Meet WithYouWithMe, the veteran-founded talent organization that’s up-skilling 50 veterans a week in tech skills for the new digital battlefield. Founded because Tom Moore, one of its co-founders and CEO, couldn’t even secure a physical security role after serving his country as an infantryman. WithYouWithMe is on a mission to change the way organizations hire IT specialists, focusing on a veteran’s potential, not their past job experience.

There is a well-recognized global tech skills shortage in data analysis, coding, cybersecurity, and digital project management. Yet, there hasn’t been an effective solution, model, or platform that has been able to solve this problem. Traditional recruitment and hiring methods are struggling to keep up with the demand for tech talent. Colleges and universities aren’t producing talent fast enough or cost-effectively, and the skills they are teaching are outdated by the time students graduate.

Past performance is often seen as the best predictor of future performance. However, if you are never given a chance to perform, you are never able to show your potential to an employer. This is the problem veterans have been facing when they leave the military. To address this, WithYouWithMe has created a superior approach to training and supplying digital talent globally by matching the aptitudes and personality traits of individuals to IT career fields modelled by the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) Foundation and providing a just-in-time training approach to close the gap. The initial focus has been to upskill security-cleared veterans with the tech training needed for the jobs of today and tomorrow, ready to deploy with bespoke skills to the specific client’s needs.

This ability to deliver security-cleared talent quickly, with the on-demand IT skills training needed on a job-by-job basis, has resonated in government and the defence sector globally. Over the past five years, WithYouWithMe has demonstrated the success of this model in Australia through its projects with government and private industry, as well as more recently through the Cyber Workforce Enablement Program contract in Canada. For this latter development, WithYouWithMe is collaborating with EY Canada, the Canadian Armed Forces, and Shared Services Canada to address the digital talent gap by upskilling CAF veterans for projects within the Government of Canada, thus showcasing a replicable and scalable solution to address the global tech talent shortage.

“Public and private sectors need to think outside of the box to leverage members of our broader community to build a sustainable workforce in cybersecurity. Looking beyond a candidate's experience to their transferable skills and potential can help fill the talent gap,” says Jamie O'Hare, Associate Partner, EY Canada Cybersecurity Practice. “That's exactly what we’re doing with WithYouWithMe. Military personnel are trained in land, air, and sea and by simply adding new digital terrain, we can leverage the expertise and skills that they already possess.”

In order for organizations to keep up with the rapidly changing digital environment they operate in, the digital skills that were relevant even just three years ago are outdated and redundant today, a problem that traditional education providers have been unable to solve. By creating a learning environment that is completely online, has self-paced and instructor-lead learning, and that focuses on the skills needed for today and tomorrow that organizations want such as data analysis, cybersecurity, software coding, and digital solutions development, WithYouWithMe has been able to source and build digital talent for government and business to solve future of work challenges and digital transformation.

Since launching in December 2016, more than 1,250 veterans, spouses, and neurodiverse individuals have been directly employed in new careers. With over 60 per cent of our graduates having no technical background, WithYouWithMe is helping soldiers get into tech and bridge the digital skills shortage.

As Tom Moore relates, “We started WithYouWithMe because of the difficulty a lot of former serving military members have in finding meaningful careers post-service, including myself. I witnessed this issue first-hand where I struggled to even secure a physical security role after serving for seven years in the Australian Defence Force. At first, we had the idea that we needed to change the way veterans presented themselves to recruiters, but we quickly realized it was the system that needed changing. No one else was doing it, so we decided to change it ourselves”.

The solution is packaged within WithYouWithMe’s signature “Potential” software-as-a-service platform. Aptitude testing, IT training, career opportunities, and talent pipelines are all available through one unique system, providing a two-way market for both the job-seeker as well as the employer. From the perspective of the individual, all the testing, training, certifications, and job matching services are readily available from one digital campus, making the personal development experience easy and efficient to access, navigate, and consume. Employers are able to search for specific skills as well as request special training based on specific team needs, capabilities, and future work allowing organizations to plan their future workforce while building their current one.

Based on the success of the digital talent management model, approach, and platform offered by WithYouWithMe, it appears that there is a solution available that could also be effectively applied inside the occupational training and career management systems of the CAF. Since the military already employs aptitude testing in its recruitment process and devotes an unparalleled amount of time and resources to training and career development, it would seem an easy proposition to adopt similar, if not the same, mechanisms pioneered by WithYouWithMe to develop and retain digital talent within the Forces.

Final thoughts

To remain a relevant military force, capable of mission success both at home and abroad, the CAF must continue its digital transformation journey. The success of this journey will depend on a number of factors and arguably the most important will be the digital training for all members of the CAF. The challenges to training should not be underestimated. The CAF is in a technological arms race, where the pace of change is huge, while relevant digital skills suffer rapid skill fade. One can liken the digital training requirement to basic marksmanship—you need your weapon, ammunition, ranges to train on, relevant practices, coaches, and time. Training Digital Warfighters requires similar things—technology, exercise frameworks, and an immersive environment, experts in digitization and time. To meet the growing demand for Digital Warfighters alternative approaches to training should also be considered. Training will be the centre of gravity to the CAF’s essential digital journey.

This article was previously published in the August/September 2021 issue of Vanguard magazine


[1] PRICIE(+G) is a framework to identify factors to be considered in the introduction of new capabilities. Its top-level elements are: personnel; research; infrastructure; concepts; information; equipment (and generate).

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