RCAF Commander LGen Meinzinger on Space Capabilities, Innovation in the RCAF, and Pandemic-era Readiness

This is an edited transcript of a discussion that took place January 28, 2021 between the CDA Institute and LGen Al Meinzinger

Q: What challenges has the COVID-19 pandemic presented for RCAF readiness? How is the RCAF adapting to these challenges?

A: Over the past 12 months continuously supported our operational commitments, both at home and abroad. Domestically, we’ve been very active through Operation Laser—the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) response to the pandemic. The CAF has been assisting Northern Indigenous communities by airlifting individuals and moving supplies to those locations. Towards the end of January 2021, there have been upwards of 35 flights moving hundreds of thousands of pounds of cargo and goods. Under Operation Globe the CAF has aided efforts to repatriate Canadians abroad during the pandemic. And the CAF will continue to plan and support the government in terms of vaccine rollout. We’re very busy operationally and will continue to face challenges . We closed our training and education schoolhouses for a period of time earlier on in the pandemic. Naturally, when there’s no training it causes a bit of distortion—as soon as you stop that process, you create some lag in the training enterprise.

Our schools have reopened with very disciplined, preventative health measures. The challenge for us will be rebalancing our training enterprise, which will take some time. At the CAF level we slowed our recruiting and halted our recruit school training for a period of time. Luckily, we have been able to leverage distance-learning and rapidly develop an e-curriculum approach in a number of RCAF schools. An unforeseen benefit of remote learning has been the ability for us to integrate international students into some of our professional development courses. They, of course, add tremendous perspective for our students.

We have also been able to procure some new aircraft during the pandemic. We’ve done some superb work in procuring capabilities relating to infectious disease transportation as well. Our team in Ottawa, in collaboration with Public Services and Procurement Canada and Assistant Deputy Minister Material, have very rapidly acquired equipment such as the Aeromedical Bio-containment Evacuation System—a sea container hosting a surgical medical facility. The sealed-off container offers world-class medical treatment in the back end of a CC-177 Globemaster III or CC-130J Hercules that might be bringing personnel home from a country abroad. These are good examples of our agility and flexibility in a couple of areas during the pandemic.

Q: How is the RCAF enhancing the resiliency of space capabilities for critical operations amid a more congested, contested, and competitive space environment?

A: The RCAF is a champion for all the work happening with respect to space capabilities. Canada really is a world leader in space, dating back to 1962 when we were the third nation to launch a satellite. And our current Defence Policy highlights the importance of this domain for the CAF. We have tremendous industrial capability in areas such as Earth observation, sensing, and robotics as well. When you think about what satellites do for Canadians every day, whether that is using navigation in your car, emailing, using your bank card—none of that would be possible without the critical infrastructure in space. We recognize that the domain is very congested and competitive. It is, to some degree, contested, as adversaries will always look to leverage their capabilities in a way that would provide them with an advantage.

We do a lot of work with our allies. The Five Eyes nations gather a few times a year—that body serves as a superb crucible for us to explore discussions on policy and new capabilities, as well as how to work collaboratively and create resiliency together. It is paramount that norms of behaviors are promoted so that the domain can be used in a peaceful manner. From the perspective of a “global community”, it’s about establishing the rules of the road. We need to have foundational, universal rules, like the laws of the sea that govern how we operate. Establishing norms of behaviors in space is a priority effort and we will continue to pursue this vigorously.

We have a strong relationship with the Canadian Space Agency. We’re very proud of the fact that two of their astronauts are members of the RCAF. We have a great relationship with Global Affairs Canada, who is the key to establishing policy and direction.  We also cannot be blind to the fact that much of our success, and perhaps more so in the future, will speak to our ability to leverage and collaborate with industry. Several companies are launching massive constellations of low-Earth orbit capability. We’re very tuned into to what’s going on, because is where you see a lot of technological breakthroughs.

Q: Can you explain what the Vector Check initiative is? What are some of its successes and what has been done to encourage innovation in the RCAF?

A: Vector Check provides an opportunity to pitch new ideas to the Commander of the RCAF —we often refer to it as the Dragon’s Den, because it is a similar concept to the popular CBC show. It’s really about acknowledging the importance of our people. The RCAF succeeds because of the incredible contributions that our teammates make every day. Providing members within our squadrons and units with a voice is extremely important. Three thoughts dominated my thinking about innovation when I came into this job— 1) we need to embrace change in an agile manner that strives for continuous improvement, 2) we need to learn fast and leverage evidence-based analytics for operational readiness, and 3) it’s to our advantage to stimulate freedom of ideas at all levels within the RCAF. Good ideas have no rank. Often, it’s the junior members or the members that are at the tactical edge of the organization that have the brightest of ideas. We bring in the most junior members from our wings and squadrons from across the country, and they have an opportunity to make a pitch to the Commander of the Air Force and senior leadership. After the initiative is presented, we discuss the idea and, if we like it, then we’ll try to foster its growth.

We ran a Vector Check a ago and it was very powerful. The ideas presented were related to issues of rapid software development. A bright junior member with a computer engineering background wanted to create an on-line community within the RCAF to foster the development of agile software. There’s no doubt in my mind that this effort is going to foster many products, capacity, and capabilities that we can leverage moving forward. The general purpose of Vector Check is to create a flatter organization and allow good ideas to surface much quicker so that we evolve, innovate and, in some cases, stay ahead of our adversaries. We must be adaptive and change quickly. If we stifle good ideas, it will have a negative impact on the organization. We’re trying to be leading edge and provide a voice for everybody.

The RCAF has been able to establish a foothold within Communitech in Waterloo, Ontario. Within this startup incubator, we have established what’s called the Flight Deck—a small clutch of our CAF members who rub elbows with corporate Canada, and startup companies that are thinking about disruptive technologies. The objective is to discern how we can take advantage of disruptive technologies like quantum computing or Artificial Intelligence. Each academic term we hire co-op students from Waterloo. These efforts have culminated in the development of a very agile piece of software that we have named Dispatch, which is a tool to enable operational flight planning. This software is being updated multiple times a day through the Flight Deck. We also use the Flight Deck in our relationship with Communitech, to run base camps, which are built around a challenge or vexing issue that we’re dealing with—such as a technical or personnel-related challenge.

For instance, we ran a base camp on retention. We’ve been very seized over the last few years in retaining personnel in order to maintain higher experience levels across our trades and occupations. We are trying to create a better balance in our RCAF ecosystem between experienced and inexperienced members. Communitech facilitates an approach to problem solving, which is not an approach that we use in our military context. They assist in broadening our perspective and they force us to think about things differently. We’ve also established a very healthy fellowship program in the RCAF over the past few years. We send our members to companies for upwards to three to four months. They are given the opportunity to broaden their horizons and come back to us with new ideas that can benefit the RCAF.

Q: How is the RCAF ensuring it recruits and retains the specialized personnel critical to embracing the proliferation of emerging technologies?

A: We are very focused on recruiting talent into our organization. Most of the trades and the occupations that exist today within the RCAF require a great deal of technical skill and prowess. We see a lot of highly skilled individuals come knocking on the recruiting office door and I think that’s a great thing . Over the past few years we’ve been focused on retaining as much talent as we can. Operation Experience is our effort to address the experience balance for pilots and maintenance technicians. We have also rolled out Operation Talent—the broader RCAF retention strategy equally focused on encouraging individuals to stay with us for the long-term. Our success is derived from the great people we have on our team, but also the critical knowledge transfer between experienced and “green” individuals that occurs each and every day in our maintenance organizations, flight lines, control towers and cockpits. This knowledge transfer is vital and is key to how we succeed and maintain our advantage.

On the broader retention strategy, we’re really focused on quality of life and quality of work ideas. One example is our program to help families if they need to move across the country or relocate to another country. Moving is the most challenging activity for a military family, and we want to help provide stability where we can. Our new program links a moving family to an in-place family in order to ease the transition. Beyond the family connections program, since the pandemic started, we’ve also made efforts to encourage re-enrolment into the RCAF.  We’ve grown our re-enrollment office to facilitate the process of skilled applicant’s re-entry into uniform. We invest heavily in the training of our members. As such, if someone wants to serve again, then the door is open for them. There’s a host of about 30 to 40 initiatives we are advancing that relate to retention. While the RCAF has no direct role in recruiting, to assist with personnel intake into the RCAF, we’ve opened a new training school to help train new entrants.  We’re not yet able to train new entrants at scale because of social distancing requirements, but our efforts are assisting the overall CAF intake effort.

Q: Do you have any final thoughts before we end our discussion?

A: I’ve traveled around the globe and visited all of our deployed air task forces as well as our many squadrons and wings across Canada. What always amazes me is the incredible ability of our small teams to get the job done. There’s something very unique about the way that the RCAF delivers operational excellence, whether that be abroad, or here in Canada. We entrust our leaders with the right authorities and decision-making space to allow them to do what we’ve trained them to do. When I was in Afghanistan as the Wing Commander, for example, I was given a very big box to operate within. That ability for decisions to be made rapidly and appropriately—it really empowers a team to be able to accept missions on the fly, and to be the first nation to step up to accept the task.

I think that’s uniquely Canadian. That agility is very important. We look to sustain that at all echelons of our military. Our ability to continue to do what we need to do for the country during the pandemic has been really impressive. I challenge leaders at all levels to ensure that we create an environment that makes everybody feel that they’re a part of a team that makes them feel like they’re contributing—that they made the right decision by joining the RCAF. I’ve been trying to cultivate an atmosphere of inclusiveness, ensure that our people can flourish, and feel like their contributions are meaningful. I want our people to retire feeling proud of what they did in uniform. At the end of the day, regardless of the challenges that we face as an organization, we will carry the day. We will be there when we’re needed.

LGen Meinzinger joined the regular Canadian Forces in 1985. After serving as commander of 403 (Helicopter) Operational Training Squadron, he was deployed to Afghanistan as commander of Canada’s Joint Task Force Afghanistan Air Wing in 2011.He went on to be Deputy Director of Strategy, Policy and Plans at North American Aerospace Defense Command / United States Northern Command in June 2012, commandant of the Royal Military College of Canada in July 2013 and Deputy Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force in May 2015. After that he became Director of Staff, Strategic Joint Staff in March 2017 and Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force in May 2018.

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