The Innovators: DRDC plays War Games

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It’s an overcast day in late fall at the Shirleys Bay research campus located in Ottawa’s west end. The intense summer heat and humidity have suddenly dissipated – a cool breeze now in its place. You can tell change is in the air.

“When the weather changes you have to activate the body, so the mind can be ready for what’s coming,” says a yoga instructor to a small group of people sitting in a grassy field before a forest of swaying birch trees, as she guides her students through an intense session testing both their physical limits and mental focus.

Some might be surprised to learn that the instructor, Dr. Gitanjali Adlakha-Hutcheon, is also a defence scientist. While some might see such a peaceful philosophy and the conflict inherent to defence as being contradictory, Dr. Adlakha-Hutcheon feels yoga and defence science are a perfect fit. Her research is all about being ready for change. She studies emerging technologies that may be disruptive to Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) operations.

A disruptive technology is one that fundamentally alters the battlefield, giving one team an incredible advantage over their adversary – at least for a time – until the other team figures out a way to counter it. That might take years, or just a few days. Countries could pour millions of dollars into a futuristic laser beam, only to have their adversary find out it is easily obstructed by smoke, at no cost to them. So how can organizations figure out which technologies will be disruptive, and which might not?

You play a game. A war game, that is.

Shortly after joining Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), Dr. Adlakha-Hutcheon would be flown to Germany to work within NATO and thrust into a field of study that was entirely new to her – representing Canada at the NATO Panel working on their Disruptive Technologies Assessment Game.

“I had never played war games before. It was surreal,” she says. “I was a complete bundle of nerves. I would listen and try to figure out what was going on.”

She would ask questions that others might have seen as coming out of left field. But they would be intrigued and ask: “OK, why would you do it that way?”

Over time Dr. Adlakha-Hutcheon recognized there was an opportunity to leverage the NATO game for different end goals. So she added her own twist and created a new version of the game for DRDC and the CAF.

MAD game

The Methodology for Assessing Disruptions, or MAD game she developed contains an entirely new part. Defence scientists can come up with futuristic concepts that could be disruptive to military operations. In the second part, officers use the concepts to test which ones give them a strategic advantage over their opponents in a realistic scenario.

When Lieutenant-Commander Corey Gleason from the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) was asked to participate as one of the players in a MAD game focused on joint operations in the Arctic, he was excited about the opportunity for the Navy, Army and Air Force to learn more about each other.

“It was really interesting to watch other officers learn about the complexities of a Canadian warship. They got the opportunity to learn about the communication suite; the air, surface and sub-surface sensors; the defence and offensive capabilities.”

Major Daniel Kucherhan, a signals officer in the Canadian Army, was a bit skeptical at first before playing. “I was unsure just how much we could glean from such a large spectrum of technology employed by each component of the CAF,” he said.

But as the game picked up momentum, he found himself getting caught up in the scenarios, like the High Arctic exercise. “Geographically speaking, it was impressive,” said Maj Kucherhan. “The expanse of land and just the small pockets of life that exist, and the very harsh conditions in which these technologies may or may not be employed.”

The unique environment forced him and his team-mates to think about the limitations of different technologies. “You had to think about communication between these pieces of technology, and forecast how they would interact with your existing equipment,” he said.

“A lot of the technologies required batteries, and some of them could fly over long distances, while others were quite local.”

New possibilities

The ultimate satisfaction for Dr. Adlakha-Hutcheon is when a concept lights up a military official’s eyes. It’s those concepts that might merit further investigation by Dr. Adlakha-Hutcheon and her team, and possible investment from DRDC.

Defence scientists have taken some of the futuristic concepts assessed by the MAD and are developing them into projects. The CAF is also excited about a few of these concepts.

One concept in particular caught the eye of LCdr Gleason. As the incoming commanding officer for the new Harry DeWolf-class ship, the RCN’s first Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship, he has his mind set on the CAF’s requirements in the Arctic.

An invisibility cloak for ships is one example of a futuristic concept formulated during a MAD game. “Of course, the cloak concept is not the same as one from Harry Potter or Star Trek that allows an entire vessel to vanish into thin air,” LCdr Gleason says, but more of an enhanced stealth sheath made up of advanced materials.

“To sit down in a room and to be presented with something that is actually tangible is extremely useful,” he says.

But Dr. Adlakha-Hutcheon cautions that the MAD game is not about trying to predict the future. “Our intent is to minimize surprise,” she says.

“If one works on studying the future, seeing things from other perspectives, and assessing which is or could be most disruptive to operations, one is better prepared for whatever comes.”

Much like paratroopers who practice jumping out of a plane many times before deploying on a live operation, by playing out all the potential disruptions repeatedly, and taking note of counter-moves, both the CAF and defence scientists can be more agile when reacting to disruptions.

Collaboration across environments

Maj Kucherhan says the war game gave him a greater appreciation for the complexity of technology outside of the Army, and how the three environments integrate their technologies. “Some of the technologies, if coupled with Army assets, could multiply their effect, or multiply the effectiveness of our systems.”

LCdr Gleason speaks highly of his MAD game experience. “If you ever get the opportunity to bring your personal expertise to the table, respecting everyone else that they all have something to contribute, the outcome insofar as professional development is amazing,” he says.

Maj Kucherhan thinks there could be a revolutionary new technology that appears in the coming years that will be a complete game changer for the CAF.

“It’s just a matter time before the next one crops up.”

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