Innovation of Defence Excellence Needs Start-ups

Brigadier General Kevin G. Whale, Director General and Component Commander – Space, Department of National Defence. Credit: SpaceQ.

If it is said that innovation of defence excellence is the Canadian Department of National Defence’s research and development goal, then it could be noted that Canadian space industry “start-ups” may possibly provide an answer to the space capability requirements that have been listed in the Department’s recent defence policy document.

Published earlier this year following an anticipated release, the “Strong, Secure, and Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy” (SSE) outlined a long-term capability investment in space-based technologies that presented a clear strategic commitment to increasing Canada’s national space security assets. To expand capabilities in space, the document declared that “Canada [would] modernize its space capabilities and [would] take steps to protect these critical assets against sophisticated threats, while continuing to promote the peaceful uses of outer space”. Moreover, this would be done by “conduct[ing] cutting-edge research and development on new space technologies in close collaboration with allies, industry and academia to enhance the resilience of space capabilities and [to] support the Canadian Armed Forces’ space capability requirements and missions”.

This leads to the procurement wish list for space-based technologies listed in the SSE as including “space capabilities meant to improve situational awareness and targeting, including: replacement of the current RADARSAT system to improve situational awareness of routine traffic in and through Canadian territory; sensors capable of identifying and tracking debris in space that threatens Canadian and allied space-based systems (surveillance of space); and, space-based systems that will enhance and improve tactical narrow- and wide-band communications globally, including throughout Canada’s Arctic region”.

The apparent optimism of the SSE in acquiring new space capabilities has been offset largely by the difficulties associated with prioritizing the defence procurement process in Canada. At the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) “Creating a Big Bang: Implementing the Procurement Ambition in Strong Secure Engaged” conference last month, assembled academics, military personnel, policy-makers, public sector employees and other stakeholders met to discuss possible adjustments that would deliver the capability requirements of the SSE on schedule and under budget.

Overall, the general consensus of the meeting was that the SSE signalled “business as usual” for defence procurement in Canada – military capabilities would be debated and dissected, but only when a true capability gap exists or an emergency crisis occurs would procurement of the material transpire. Put another way, new space capabilities, while highlighted in the policy, could prove impossible to acquire in the long-term if short-term decision-making inaction persisted.

Yet the question remains: How should Canada proceed to acquire new and innovative military space capabilities leading in the 2018-2019 Fiscal Year (FY), on schedule and in fulfilment of the priorities listed in the SSE?

Speaking to the 2017 Canadian Space Society Annual Summit (CSS 2017), Brigadier General Kevin G. Whale, Director General and Component Commander – Space for the Department of National Defence, drew attention to the future requirements outlined in the SSE. Outer space continues to develop as an increasingly contested and congested environment, where the national security objectives of several prominent space powers coalesce into a domain defined by its changeability. By being able to “anticipate, adapt, and act”, the listed space capabilities in the SSE can be more efficiently attained. However, all “must do more” in order to provide the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) with the new and innovative systems that they need in a timely manner.

One common theme that has emerged over the CSS 2017 proceedings substantiates that Canadian space industry “start-ups” – a new, fast-growing entrepreneurial venture that aims to target specific marketplace needs through innovative products or services – can provide an invaluable resource for developing national strategic space assets.

During the CSS’ “Star-Ups Session” panel held this week at the University of Ottawa, GHGSat Inc. President and CEO Stéphane Germain attested to the value of market-driven growth influencing Canada’s “start-up” space industry and the products that they can provide to the Federal Government. When asked to elaborate, Mr. Germain, who serves on the Space Advisory Board, noted that innovation in Canada through market-driven solutions could adapt technological solutions at a pace that matched the changing boundaries and developments in the space environment. In this respect, it could be argued that the capacity of space industry “start-ups” to take and overcome business risks could provide the encouragement needed by the Federal Government to support more new and innovative military space capabilities.

Historically, this isn’t new. Technological innovation through industry has driven key Canadian developments in satellite technology used by the CAF. Famously, the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology, which was militarily ground-breaking at the time for its capacity to “see” through cloud cover, was developed for the RADARSAT-1 project only following rigorous consultation by the Federal Government with the private sector. Similarly, the unique space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities of Canada’s first military satellite, Sapphire, were developed following an open, transparent, and fair competition between several space industry firms. More so than most space-faring countries, Canada’s space industry have been highly influential and successful in leading technological developments that have provided the CAF with exceptional space capabilities.

To consider the SSE document as “business as usual” is to ignore the potential for Canada’s space industry to adapt to challenges, take risks, and produce new and innovative products to match national space security objectives. As outer space has and continues to change, so too must adaptive solutions in technology be produced to endure the security challenges of the future. One avenue that Department of National Defence may subsequently move forward with is through increased funding competitions and opportunities for Canadian space industry “start-ups”; who are willing to pursue innovative, market-driven technologies at a risk to themselves.

One such program, the Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security (IDEaS) program, is on the horizon. If IDEaS is successful, then the implementation and development of the innovative space-based technology wish-listed articulated in the SSE may become a prompt reality.

Contributed by: Kiernan McClelland is a graduate from the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies.

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