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FEATURE INTERVIEW – VAdm Bob Auchterlonie Commander – CJOC

FEATURE INTERVIEW – VAdm Bob Auchterlonie Commander – CJOC

VAdm Auchterlonie addresses the Polish Armed Forces at the Medical Training Element during Op UNIFIER while on a visit to Poland on April 18, 2023 Credit: Master Sailor Valerie LeClair


Commander of Canadian Joint Operations Command

CDR’s Senior Staff Writer, Joetey Attariwala, recently spoke with Vice-Admiral Bob Auchterlonie, a Royal Canadian Navy flag officer who is serving as the Commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC).

CJOC commands Canada’s deployed military personnel globally and directs Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) missions from planning to closing, to meet national and international strategic goals. CJOC ensures rapid responses in Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) operations by planning for contingencies and establishing structures and processes that can be activated or expanded at short notice for command-and-control, intelligence and support. CJOC is engaged around the world and is the force employer within the CAF.

Here is that in-depth conversation.

CDR: Vice-Admiral Auchterlonie, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. You are three years into your Command of CJOC, so I’d like to ask your assessment of the global security situation today?

VAdm Auchterlonie: It’s great to reconnect with you, Joetey. I think we’re in that sort of moment right now, where you’re seeing a significant shift in the global security environment and the global international order, and the two are obviously related.

We just had the 22nd anniversary of 9/11 so in the last 22 years we’ve really been operating in the Middle East. Now you’re seeing in the last few years, and it wasn’t the pandemic necessarily, but it happened in that period of time — you’re seeing competition and conflict mostly below the threshold between major powers. You’re seeing the folks that align with international rules based order — the U.S., Canada, our Five Eyes partners and most of our allies in the Western world. And you’re seeing those contrary to this, specifically China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, who are aligning themselves against this and are now contesting and competing in all domains and across all elements of national power. I think the third part of that is you’re seeing a whole bunch of other nations sitting on the fence and seeing which way the wind is blowing and who to align themselves with.

You’re seeing significant influence from China and Russia in the Caribbean, and this is playing out in Africa too where China has been there for decades and extracting their resources. Russia is now there, really for sanction evasion where they are going in to support countries like Mali and Niger with the recent coups and taking over the security defence role with companies like Wagner, really to elude the sanctions of the West for their actions in Ukraine.

Wherever you look in the world there’s now tension in the security and defence realm. There is a catastrophic war going on in Europe right now with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There is tension across the whole Sahel region [in Africa] where there’s been a number of coups, and a number of influencers in the region. You’ve seen a deterioration in security in the Middle East in terms of personnel security and food security — there’s been deteriorations in Lebanon, and in other nations where we have a significant Canadian diaspora that we’re watching very closely. You’re seeing that sort of tension happening in the Indo-Asia Pacific as well. I think you probably saw the recent coverage of HMCS Ottawa’s transit of the Taiwan Strait. Five years ago, this would have been normal but today it’s more contested. We’re operating under international law through an international strait, and it’s now being contested by the PLA Navy. So, you’re seeing that competition and sort of low-level conflict happening all around the world.

CDR: Is the Canadian Armed Forces combat capability keeping pace with threat vectors that you have identified?

VAdm Auchterlonie: That’s a huge question and part of that is CJOC and part of that is the broader Canadian Armed Forces. The Defence Policy Update is part of this, and I think you’re aware the Defence Policy Update has been with the government. It includes adaptation based on what’s happening around the world. I won’t be specific, but we’ve obviously been watching the war in Ukraine very closely over the last two years. Many lessons learned are there — there is a focus on precision strike, there’s a focus on mass, there’s a focus on maneuverability — all these things that we have stopped doing for the last 30 years we are now putting back in place, so you’re talking about conflict at echelon, and what I mean by that is beyond the battlegroup and beyond the brigade, but at the division level with the land force, and the same thing in the air and on the maritime domain, and then you add in space and cyber as well.

We’re taking note of the capabilities required, so all this is happening in a contested EW [Electronic Warfare] environment, in a contested cyber environment, in a contested information environment, with long range precision strike, and with armed UAS’ and UAVs. So all these things are happening in the modern battlespace — we have to be aware of it, we have to adapt and we actually have to adopt some of those capabilities, which is what we’re trying to do within the department, so I’ll leave that to the department to speak to.

VAdm Auchterlonie visits the Engineering Training Element during Op UNIFIER in southern Poland on March 25, 2023 Credit: Master Sailor Valerie LeClair


CDR: What is the status of the Canadian-led, multinational enhanced forward presence battlegroup and its evolution into an enhanced forward presence brigade?

VAdm Auchterlonie: Canada signed on as one of the framework nations in Latvia around 2016/17, so we’ve been the leader of that for about seven years, and the next stage that came out of the discussions within NATO last year is to augment the size of the force to a brigade level. So, Canada will be leading the multinational brigade in Latvia, and that’s going to happen, really sort of initial operating capability, next summer into the fall. They’re already doing that by pre-positioning forces now as we speak, and we’re working closely with our Latvian partners as well as our sending nation partners to ensure that we have that nascent capability in there next fall to respond to our NATO commitment, and respond to our Latvian allies as well as our Baltic Allies, to ensure we have that combat capability in theater in accordance with direction from NATO. In terms of the actual planning, CJOC is working closely with the Canadian Army and the Joint Staff here in Canada, but also with our NATO partners, our team in SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe] as well as in Brussels, to ensure we have the right capabilities going into the brigade, and making sure we have those capabilities and enablers associated with the brigade so that we can fall within the NATO command structure.

As the operational commander of the Canadian Armed Forces, I’m significantly concerned with the force protection of my forward deployed forces, namely the current battlegroup in Latvia. They will have some enhanced capabilities that we’re currently purchasing to ensure they have the force required to deal with what’s happening on the battlefield in Ukraine right now. Obviously, anti-tank guided missiles, ground based air defence, and armed UAS are key.

CDR: The Canadian Armed Forces operate all around the world, but do you see a regional focus emerging for the branches of the CAF?

VAdm Auchterlonie: You’ve nailed it on the head, Joetey. In terms of prioritization, obviously, Canada is first — we’re here to support Canadians at home. Second would be continental defence. The next priority is really twofold: it is NATO and support to Ukraine, so Op REASSURANCE and Op UNIFIER; and the Indo-Asia Pacific. So, in terms of balance of forces, you’re going to see a significant land heavy contribution to NATO and also supporting Ukraine. At the same time you’re going to see more maritime presence and air presence supporting the Indo-Asia Pacific theater. So yeah, your question is bang on, and we really see it that way. Obviously, the big muscle movement for the army is the brigade in Latvia, and the big muscle movement for the Navy is to ensure we’re putting frigates into the Asia-Pacific along with the oiler [CSS Asterix] to make sure we’re able to sustain operations there.

For the Air Force, they’re now reinforcing two major theatres out of 8 Wing in Trenton, tactical helicopter support in Latvia, and maritime patrol support in the Indo-Asia Pacific. At the same time we’re going to have fighters that are forward — some are in the UK right now for an exercise.So, you’re going to see that the Air Force is going to be supporting both these theatres, but you’re really land heavy in Europe, and maritime heavy in the Pacific.

CDR: Is there a security threat in the North and Arctic?

VAdm Auchterlonie: Yes there is. People have the notion that it’s just a military threat that’s going to come across the North, but that’s not necessarily the only case. It could be who is buying the infrastructure, who’s buying the rights to mining, what numbered company is doing this, or what’s happening in cyber and in the information domain to misinform or ill inform — and we’re seeing this play out with respect to influence in elections — and that’s much broader than just the Arctic. We need to be aware of all domains in the Arctic and everywhere else — land, sea, air, space, cyber and within the information environment. And the fact is, it’s not only within the military lens, it has to be looked at across all elements of our national power.

: VAdm Auchterlonie tours the Engineer Training Element training area where CAF soldiers instruct Ukrainian and Polish Armed Forces soldiers in south-western Poland during Op UNIFIER on March 25, 2023 Credit: Corporal Marco Tijam


CDR: It is widely recognized that the CAF has a personnel crisis, so is that affecting your remit as Commander of CJOC?

VAdm Auchterlonie: That’s a great question and nobody is discounting this. It’s the Chief of the Defence Staff’s biggest concern: personnel and reconstitution. Am I being affected as the operational commander? That’s a tough question but I would say not yet. I can see the pains that are being imposed on the Army, Navy, and Air Force as force generators. Have I been able to conduct operations domestically under Op LENTUS? Yes, I have. Have I done continental defence stuff with our NORAD and NORTHCOM partners? Yes, we have. Have we deployed on all missions around the world? Yes, we have, but not without a cost to the services.

You’ve heard the Chief say we’re trying to reconstitute, but at the same time the demand for the Canadian Armed Forces has gone up. We just did 131 days in a row of Op LENTUS, which is operational support to aid of civil power in Canada. 131 days in a row across eight different mission sets all across the country with over 2,100 Canadian Armed Forces personnel engaged directly in Canada. At the same time, we’re putting a brigade in Latvia, I’ve got three frigates in the Indo-Asia Pacific, and I’m conducting air, land and sea activities and Op REASSURANCE in NATO with a force that is already strained. My answer would be not yet, but you can see the strains it is putting on the Army, Navy and Air Force. I look very carefully at what we require so that I don’t overburden them.

CDR: I don’t want to diminish the importance of Operation LENTUS, but is it a strain on the Canadian Armed Forces primary remit of being a combat capable fighting force?

VAdm Auchterlonie: Absolutely. It takes away from force generation of our primary goal, which is a combat capable force to defend Canadians and our interests at home and abroad. The Canadian Armed Forces is a force of last resort for Canada and there are certain things that we do very well. We are an autonomous force, so we can send folks and they will take care of themselves and not be a burden where they go, which is huge for people.

We will respond to direction from government, but are we the best tool to always do so? Not necessarily, but we have become the quickest tool to call by provinces when things are going poorly, which is why we get called upon quite often. This year alone we have conducted eight Op LENTUS operations across the country. I completely understand that it reassures the population and I’m more than happy to do that, because we’re reassuring Canadians and protecting Canadians in their time of need, so I’m not discounting that, but it does take away from our readiness and it’s often not necessarily well aligned with what we can do. For example, we are now all doing Type 3 wildfire training every year within the divisions and brigades across the country. As soon as you add more training you have to take away other training.

We do have some niche capabilities. For example, we were assisting in the evacuation of Yellowknife and the key thing is we had the capability to conduct the evacuation and extraction of all the long-term care facilities and the hospital. Those were unique capabilities that the CAF could offer. This was a last resort, and we had the capability to do so, so it was a perfect use of the Canadian Armed Forces with our medical extraction team. We didn’t get a lot of coverage on that, but it was a really good use of the Air Force, so in terms of Op LENTUS, that was entirely in line with what we should be doing.


CDR: You have been to Ukraine a couple of times, so what would you say to anyone that questions Western funding and support?

VAdm Auchterlonie: Canadian support to the ongoing war in Ukraine is steadfast. Their nation is at war and it’s a whole of society effort to fight that war. They’re fighting it on behalf of the international rules-based order so I don’t think that can be lost in this. Russia invaded a sovereign country and Ukraine is defending themselves as they have every right to do so. They’re suffering on behalf of everyone else in the free world, and that’s not an understatement. They are fighting a battle on behalf of all the nations that support international rules-based order and they’re doing a phenomenal job. They are a resilient population and they’re also a very adaptive population, adapting to new technology quickly. They’re integrating massive amounts of different equipment successfully, and they’re learning from their lessons on the battlefield and they’re implementing changes right away. So I think we can learn a lot from Ukraine, and our support has to be steadfast. Obviously, we all want to see an end to the conflict. There have been hundreds of thousands of killed and injured in the conflict, and I think that’s a tragedy for the world.

Our ongoing training is going to continue in support of Ukraine. We will always respond to government direction, but support within my organization and within the Canadian Armed Forces is steadfast. We work with our Ukrainian partners across the board, and we integrate and implement changes as quickly as we can.

CDR: What is the status of the training we are delivering to the Ukrainian forces?

VAdm Auchterlonie: So, we are linked very heavily with the Strategic Advisory Group Ukraine in Wiesbaden, Germany. We have training priorities from Ukraine, and we align our training to their priorities as quickly as we can. The priorities rotate between individual training, collective training, specialist training, and professional development and staff training. On any given day we’re training over 600 Ukrainian Armed Forces and that’s across seven or eight different training elements. We have the basic training we’re doing in the UK with the UK training element; the Leopard training we’re doing in Poland; the leadership development training we’re doing with battalion staff in Latvia; M777 maintenance training we’re doing overseas as well; engineering training in southern Poland; and at the same time we are working with the Polish, basically giving combat first aid and medical training.


CDR: I know you’re not a force generator, but are you feeding lessons learned from the war in Ukraine back into the Canadian Armed Forces to help it evolve as a fighting force?

VAdm Auchterlonie: You’re bang on, Joetey. Lessons learned are vitally important to us and something we’re looking at very closely with organizations in Canada. The Special Ops folks are taking their own lessons, and we’re taking lessons and working with the Canadian Army doctrine training system. What are we taking from them in terms of tactics, techniques, and procedures that we need to change or adapt to with our brigade group in Latvia, and across the army writ large, because everybody else is learning from this as well. I think you’re seeing adaptations for ground-based air defence, dispersion of personnel, you’re seeing all these things play out given the threats that are now in the modern battlespace with armed UAVs.

For example, in terms of armoured kills, we’re looking at how did that tank get hit — what sort of capabilities were used against it, and then was it a mission kill or a mobility kill? We’re looking at this to make sure that our stuff is properly prepared to go, and we need to be able to defend against it. The fact is we’re looking at what’s happening on the battlefield, incorporating it into our own lessons, and turning that around into training.

That gets back to my previous comments when I said we are learning now that we need to fight at echelon. It is no longer a battlegroup, you need a division, and a division is going to be conducting operations under a corps, and we haven’t talked about this in decades.

CDR: Thank you, Admiral.

Joetey Attariwala is CDR’s Senior Staff Writer


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