Gen. Jonathan “Jon” Vance, Canadian Army, the chief of defense staff for Canada’s Armed Forces, discusses future capabilities, and modernization with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian on the sidelines of the 10th annual Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada. Our coverage was sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
General Jon Vance
Chief of Defense Staff, Canada
Halifax International Security Forum
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada, one of the world’s leading security, economic, political and civil society gatherings in the world. Our coverage here is sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS, and we’re honored to have with us as our first guest General John Vance, the Chief of Defence Staff, Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff. Sir, it’s an honor seeing you.
General Jon Vance: Vago, it’s good to see you as well. Thanks for having me.
Mr. Muradian: It’s an absolute pleasure. Congratulations on the 10thanniversary of this extraordinary event. And we’ve already had a whole series of fascinating conversations. You’re going to have an interesting panel discussion coming up. But where I want to start is a conversation we’ve had over the years which is the future of warfare. We’re celebrating the 100thanniversary of World War I, and we saw that many people who thought they had a bead in 1949 on what the future of warfare was going to be were dead wrong. And a lot of people paid the ultimate price because of that.
We’re now in this great power mode. There’s hybrid competition, there’s extremism, all of the social trends, and then you have technological trends on top of that. Are we — militaries have a tendency of doing what they do because they do it. How do we need to think differently about what future conflict looks like? Because if you look at all of our armed forces, we’re almost too small to do counter-insurgency, much less then get into the great power space. How do we need to think differently about what warfare looks like so we more adequately prepare for it, instead of just doing stuff we do because we do it?
General Vance: That’s a great big question and there’s a lot there. I’ll try and unpack some of this with you.
I think you sort of hit the nail on the head there, that militaries used to think about what they did before and just try and do that better. I think we are at a point in time in our history as we adapt, as societies and as the militaries adapt with them, to study and understand the nature of conflict and our role in it.
That means, I think, that we have tried to forecast better, to understand better what are the changes and how we need to fit with it, as opposed to simply staying in the past or trying to do what we have done in the past better.
A few key things. We recognize that in the conflicts of today, what we’re dealing with today and likely will be dealing with in the future, that this is not strictly a military problem. These are, the conflicts and the competitions we’re facing today are deeply rooted in dissatisfaction, grievances, deep in populations.
None of that can be solved by military alone. There’s a military dimension. We have a part to play. We are a condition-setter, and we can support the policies of our lawful authorities to try and help set conditions, but ultimately, we are in the business of helping reestablish social, political and economic fabric that has fallen apart or is in danger of falling apart. That means that we are increasingly focused on capacity building, helping prevent the failure of states or the failure of institutions.
At the same time, nothing really has left the table in terms of what conflict can consist of. So yes, there is a conventional dimension to this where we must be able to bring together the mass and the capability with a technological and operational advantage that allows us to fight credibly to achieve those objectives that would be set before us, whether they be defensive or offensive.
Meanwhile, we’ve got to keep our eye on what is it that, how would we characterize a victory or a win? It’s not as clear today. What does a victory look like?
In the world wars or the wars of the past, state on state conflict was pretty clean and clear. You won a political settlement that was put in place and then you governed that political settlement.
Those conflicts are not the ones we’re dealing with right now. And arguably they won’t be for some time. If they do arise again, it will probably be a mix of state-on-state and state-sponsored activity plus the fallout that doesn’t make it as clean a break from end of a military-on-military to a political arrangement to therefore governing that political arrangement thereafter.
So the fact that we know that, and the fact that we’re actively talking about it, and the fact that people like you have recognized that and are engaged in the conversation means that we’re now in a sort of a larger environment of thought about what’s the nature of conflict. I think the base nature of conflict hasn’t changed, but the characteristics of it have.
So if you take conflict in the future that will have new dimensions to it in cyber, space, the cognitive domain. There’s no point thinking you’ve won if nobody else does. You certainly have to have an eye to that. Then there may be a conventional element that allows you to use the conventional as the leverage to ensure that you’re successful in other domains.
I’ll give you another example. That which we consider to be enablers today may very well in the future become the enabled. Cyberspace may very well be the place where much of conflict and confrontation occurs, whereas the conventional may simply be the correct posturing to leverage that. We see that in hybrid warfare today. You use the conventional as a threat or a latent threat but you operate in those areas below the threshold of war.
The point of your question, and I think what I’m trying to, how I’m trying to answer this is we are thinking about this. And therefore, we are effecting the changes in our forces not only in the things we have but the most important part of our forces are our people. Think about this. We’ve got to be able to think critically, creatively, and understand that this is not simply military for military reasons. We are a part of a wider effort that is managed by governments and alliances and coalitions to achieve outcomes that we’ve been directed to achieve.
Mr. Muradian: What are the changes you think that systemically have to happen with the international community? Because all too often the militaries are left with solving a problem that is not necessarily their skill and toolset to solve. You don’t control the investment dollars, you don’t control the diplomatic resources. So it’s almost as though we’ve got a big insurmountable problem. Boy, that’s broken. We know these guys can deploy quickly and get in there and do something.
How does the international community and institutions need to work better with militaries to try to get, to stay ahead of that puck? I’m in Canada, so I’m using a hockey analogy here. You know, to be able to do this as opposed to always being like hey look, Jon, fix this problem. It’s a really, really complicated problem. Boy, it bends our heads. And you’ve got to then dive in there to try to straighten out something which is really hard at your end to do it when it gets to the shooting part of it.
General Vance: I would maybe just disagree a little bit, push back a bit on the premise. I don’t get handed problems to solve completely, and I don’t think any of the fellow Chiefs of Defense that I work with are feeling the pressure or the direction from their government to go solve a problem. So perhaps the premise of the question —
Mr. Muradian: Deal with the problem.
General Vance: So what we are asked to do is in the domain that is rightfully military, which is pretty contained and in some cases quite narrow. Play our part to the best of our ability. Contribute to the intellectual effort to understand the wider aspects of the problem. Not only in terms of understanding it, but the elements that may contribute to the solution, and ensure that we are applying military power and resources in the best way, the most effective way, the most efficient way, to preserve loss of life all the way through to reducing harm and all the rest of it. Understanding full well that some of the conflicts that we are involved with today are intractable, deeply rooted, and the military dimension of it is to perhaps mitigate the conflict or to seek ways to achieve conflict termination. And more often than not, throughout, try to reduce harm and ensure that that conflict doesn’t spread or doesn’t become something so virulent and damaging that there is no pathway to a solution.
Ultimately, our political masters, all of them, know that these are largely problems that have a mix of solutions, or it takes a mix of capabilities and instruments of power to solve them.
So where the international community is determined to solve something, the military plays its rightful role, as does the political, the social, the economic.
Mr. Muradian: Let me take you to, because I know time’s going to be short. I don’t want Jason coming at us too quickly. But let me ask you a talent management question and then a few sort of shifting to great power competition.
You come from a very distinguished military family. Your father was Vice Chief of Defence in Canada. The Vance’s serve. But how do you get the skill sets from a broader society where military service is not necessarily as much of an option. There are challenges for recruiting across the board. How do you make sure that from a talent management standpoint, as you mentioned, having those skilled people, that the Canadian Armed Forces are getting the best people at the right time when you need them to kind of solve some of the big challenges that you face for the future?
General Vance: That’s a great question. It’s the thing that occupies most of my time, is the human domain of the Canadian Armed Forces. That means that we must be ready to fight the wars and be involved in the conflicts that will come and not look backwards.
Therefore, we have espoused a new approach where we seek to value humans in a different way. People, our people, in a different way. That means that we set conditions for them not only to think of us as an attractive place to work. It’s a matter of appealing to people not to try and downplay the dangerous role they might do in the armed forces because it could be dangerous. It might not be, but it could be. But it’s got to be a good place to come to work. It’s got to be a workplace free of sexual misconduct and harassment, one where you’re adequately remunerated for your service, where there’s some flexibility. We have to appeal to the population that would work for us, not the population we might wish for.
In fact, I’ve been through an exercise of shedding bias, deeply rooted bias that infuses all of our DNA since I took this job, and I can tell you that the thing that must underpin how we think about this is understand that warfare’s changing. There may be a part of us that might have to go over a trench, the lip of a trench and go attack. But there’s going to be a large part of us also involved in those new domains, those emerging domains, those things which are enabling now that could become the enabled in the future. Where we must be credible and capable of achieving the objectives of our governments, whether that be in cyberspace, space or elsewhere. And we must develop those techniques.
That means that we cannot stay rooted to the type of people and type of approaches that we had to develop those people, that we had in the past, where we were largely driven by doctrine and tactics, techniques and procedures, largely in the physical, strictly physical domain. It’s changing. We recognize it is changing. Therefore we must attract and recruit and train and develop and steward the institution along those lines that the human capital is the most important thing.
So if we become unattractive because of how we are perceived or in fact how we are because we’re somehow alienating parts of the population because of how we come across, we have to fix that. We can’t just fix it by putting spin on it, we actually have to fix it because it’s a matter of sheer survival for the Canadian Armed Forces and any other Western armed forces, if one does not access and encourage the widest, broadest, deepest segments of society to come and join us. Because they not only bring the talent, but we know that the wicked problems of the future, the wicked military problems of the future will require a diversity of critical and creative thinking, and the capacity to arrive at solutions that will serve our governments well. If we fail to do that, we will fail.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you about stress and then capabilities development.
As you look at, from a Canadian standpoint but also a North American standpoint, because Canada’s Armed Forces are integral to the defense and security of the United States and vice versa. A Canadian is the Vice Commander of NORAD, and the military cooperation is more intimate really than any other two nations in the world. The world’s largest, longest unguarded border for example.
What do you see as the threat picture? And what do you think are the specific capability sets? Canada never really left great power competition because you border Russia. You’ve been a key part of the North American Defense Alliance, whether through radar and other installations, whether fighter patrols that Canadian aircraft run every day to protect the mutual airspace of the nations and counter-deployments. I can’t tell you how many Canadians I run into in the Pentagon, for example.
Talk to us a little bit about sort of the threat picture that you see in terms of the capabilities you need to develop. Because your term was extended. Congratulations on that. But a key part of that is your ability to look into the future to develop those capabilities for the future. So talk to us on both ends of that spectrum.
General Vance: I’ll contain my comments I guess around the continental defense and NORAD. But don’t forget, the defense of Canada and the United States, the continent of North America, the true defense starts well off-shore as we seek a stable world, seek to encourage stability and ultimately respect for the rule of law and international norms. That kind of world is not a threat to North America.
When that world then develops the capacity to attack North America in any number of threat vectors, whether they be kinetic or cyber or biological hazards, you name it, all of those threat vectors must be accounted for as we consider the defense of Canada.
As it relates to the United States, there are really, the principle binational command of NORAD, and as we said in our defense policy, the governments articulate in the defense policy, we’re going to modernize NORAD. So NORAD is going to continue to do into the future what it has been doing up until now which is detect, characterize and respond to threats, air-breathing and non-air breathing that come through the airspace and those that would approach us in a maritime domain.
So that means we’ve got to look at the system that we have, the system of systems that we have, and ensure that it is capable, both technologically and from a timeliness perspective, so it must mature at the right time, both in terms of technology and its physical capacity to do so, deal with those threats. Whether they be air-breathing, non-air breathing threats that come into the airspace uninvited, or anything else.
So that study is underway right now. The deep look by NORAD and our Joint Staffs, General Dunford and I collaborated on this, we’ve got direction from our ministers to start to bring some options together. That’s the beginning.
That will then turn into a program of activities that will have stuff, technology, and things that we need to buy and put in place, all the way through to concepts. How is it that you defend our homeland? Is everything reactive? And into the future. The mandate to me, to be able to conduct NORAD operations and contribute to NATO operations simultaneously.
It’s very clear in the defense policy that I must be able to manage concurrent operations on a broad scale. So that’s new. And that meant more aircraft. The government has committed to more aircraft. The qualitative aspects will be handled through, whatever company is selected will be by definition able to meet our requirement. And that satisfies me.