Title: MDA: The move towards information dominance

Sub-title: MDA provides comprehensive C4ISR solutions to help modern militaries tackle the complex challenges of 21rst century warfare


As chief of defence staff Richard Hillier works to transform the Canadian military into an effective 21rst century fighting force, one of his key focuses has rightfully been C4ISR. Like general Hillier, many Canadian armed forces stakeholders have long realized the importance of getting the right information to the right units at the right time. However recent developments in the post 9-11 world, notably Canada’s deployment into Afghanistan’s dangerous Kandahar region, have raised the stakes considerably. 


The good news is that one of the most effective and innovative C4ISR providers is located right here in Canada, on the country’s West coast. MDA (also known as MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates), provides defence departments, national security authorities and public safety agencies, with sophisticated operational information systems, that help manage the deployment of mobile army, navy and air assets.


MDA has a solid track record of working with the Canadian Armed Forces. Ongoing initiatives include providing key technology for the C-140 Aurora deployments, the Maritime Command Operational Information Network (MCOIN) and Naval Combat Operator Trainers (NCOT) programs. However the company could well be an even bigger player in the coming years as new initiatives such as the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS), Marine Security Operations Centers (MSOC), Joint Support Ships (JSS) and others come on stream.


Leveraging complex technologies

According to Dan Friedmann, MDA’s, president and chief executive officer, the company is first and foremost an information services provider, which, because it is active in so many fields, has a unique ability to cross-leverage its technologies from one area of expertise to another.


“Our fundamental 10-year vision, is to provide our customers solutions for all of their surveillance and intelligence needs during the coming years,” says Freidmann. “That includes application and sensors that could be positioned on a satellite orbiting at the highest point in the atmosphere, to tripwires placed at key choke points at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, as well as everything else in between.”


MDA has three primary operational focuses. Its advanced technologies division is involved in cutting edge areas such as space robotics and miniaturization, and is also notable for the work of its EMS subsidiary (which it acquired last fall) on the NASA space shuttle’s famous “Canada Arm.” Another MDA backbone is its financial services division, which uses sophisticated surveillance technology to provide specialized information for land and property owners.


All of these advanced technological capabilities come together in its intelligence and reconnaissance division, which primarily services defence organizations such as DND, the U.S. Armed Forces, the National Security Administration and the National Geospacial Agency.  According to Freidmann, MDA’s key competitive advantage is the ability to make complex technologies work together to provide seamless solutions. “A lot of companies have built brilliant pieces of equipment that do one particular thing very well, but which do not necessarily get key information to the proper end-users in an optimal manner,” says Friedmann. “That’s what we are all about.”


Friedmann is a defence industry veteran. He joined MDA in 1979 and has worked in almost all of its key operational divisions including engineering, sales, marketing and most recently his current position and chief executive officer.


As a result of his long experience in the field, he has developed considerable empathy for the challenges facing the modern soldier.

“We share general Hillier’s view that the Canadian Army needs to re- focus from a Cold War Soviet style “bear” mentality, to the asymmetrical “ball of snakes,” threats, which can pop up, seemingly out of nowhere,” says Friedmann. “That has important implications for our company. Because to be successful in that kind of a war, you have to first and foremost have “information dominance. We provide the tools to help accomplish that.””


A long history with the Canadian Armed Forces

In fact, MDA has been tackling challenges of the “ball of snakes,” variety for decades in the civilian arena, where the company’s complex surveillance technology is used to monitor everything from property delimitation to agriculture and forestry.


The fact that these initiatives are widely varied and take place in all types of geography and terrain, ranging from locust infestations in Africa to beetle breakouts in North America, gives MDA a leg up in asymmetrical operations, which could take place anywhere, at any time of day under any conditions. “In sense it was easier in the old days, because you knew who the enemy was and where his major military installations were located,” says Freidmann, with a wry laugh. “Today who knows where you are going to find your next snake.”


According to Lee Carson, the director of MDA’s defence security and information group, a large part of the company’s success can be attributed to its long and mutually beneficial relationship with the Canadian Armed Forces. “If you look at Canada’s inventory of information, surveillance and reconnaissance solutions which either have been delivered or are in development, you’ll find that we have been involved in the vast majority of them,” says Carson. “In fact it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship. We get as much from our CF contacts, in the form of feedback for possible solution paths and markets, as they get from us.”


MCOIN III and MSOC: The Sonic Shield and Arctic sovereignty

One of the key threats to Canada’s territorial sovereignty during the coming years could well come from the country coastlines. This is especially true in the Arctic region, where melting polar ice, is creating the possibility that a North West passage may one day open up.


Under international law, if Canada does not patrol and monitor those areas it could well lose its jurisdiction. The bottom line is that Canada’s navy needs what Carson calls a “Sonic Shield,” a capable, modern and efficient shore based command and control information system that can acquire and disseminate classified and unclassified information, from sensors emanating from a variety of sources, on a 24/7/52 basis.


Surprisingly, Carson’s primary influences for the Sonic Shield concept did not originate in either military or even terrorist threats, but rather from the flow of economic refugees into first world countries. Among the well publicized cases have been boats of Chinese immigrants that have landed in Canada, Mexicans and Cubans washing up on the American coastlines and Albanians floating into Italy. 


“People in third world countries are starting to see the huge advantages of living in the first world and they want to be a part of it,” Carson said. “Canada is arguably world’s richest nation in terms of natural resources and we have the world’s largest coastline. If we don’t monitor it, we are going to have problems both domestically and with people using Canada to transit through to the United States, our primary ally and trading partner.”


Through its participation in the Maritime Command Operational Information Network (MCOIN III), MDA is already heavily involved in helping Canada’s navy generate a recognized maritime picture that provides stakeholders information about what vessels are active in Canadian waters and what their trajectories are. MDA acts as prime contractor and provides an integrated solution that includes screens, system architecture and software.


In fact MCOIN III is slated to evolve substantially during the coming yeas as the Canadian Navy moves forward with its Marine Security Operations Centers (MSOC) initiative, which will integrate sensors deployed on land, sea and in the air and link these to information gathered from a variety of sources to enhance surveillance capabilities.


A proven record of success: NCOT and CP-140

One of the most important technological innovations in recent years has been the increased used of simulations and trainers to help increase training efficiency in modern armed forces. Through its support of the Naval Combat Operator Trainers (NCOT) initiative, MDA is helping Canada’s naval staff better prepare for the challenges they will meet when they set out to sea. “Ship consoles are extremely expensive to build and maintain,” says Carson. “NCOT emulates these important pieces of hardware so that more personnel can learn how to work with them, faster and at a lower unit cost.”


The Canadian navy uses naval combat operator trainers to conduct basic training for operations room equipment found in the Canadian Patrol Frigates (CPF) as well as Tribal Class destroyers.  Examples of the equipment that naval personnel can be trained on include radar, sonar, command and control and electronic countermeasures.


MDA is also currently under contract to provide imaging radar, as well as system design and software for two of Canada’s key surveillance assets: the CP-140 Aurora patrol aircraft and the Radarsat-2 earth observation satellite. MDA radar can be used both to conduct air-based maritime and land searches, ranging from sub-marine detection to moving vehicle searches using its Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) technology.


In fact MDA’s satellite experience is a huge competitive advantage going forward, particularly its capabilities in terms of generating space qualified software, which is far more rigorously tested, due to the tremendous quality control stakes.


Two key initiatives: JUSTAS and JSS

One major implication of the shift from the “bear,” to “ball of snakes,” type of thinking, has been the increasing importance of electronics, software and communications technology in platforms ranging from naval vessels, to surveillance aircraft to UAVs. “It’s no longer the platform that is the most important piece of the puzzle driving a particularly initiative,” says Carson. “More often than not, the software and equipment carried on board are just as important, if not more.” The upshot of this key shift is that MDA is increasingly able to act as prime contractor on initiatives which in the past it may have been considered secondary or ancillary.


One example of a program that MDA official feel is a great fit for their capabilities is the Canadian Armed Forces Joint Unmanned Target Acquisition Program (JUSTAS). However although the $420 million initiative is commonly known as the “UAV program,” you’d be better off not using that term around Carson. “Think capabilities,” says Carson with a laugh, “What the armed forces need is not UAVs, they need the information and capabilities that UAVs provide. The vehicle itself is merely one possible platform.”


With its rough terrain, harsh operating environment and massive territory, Canada, has surveillance challenges are unique, demanding and will likely grow substantially in the years to come. And Carson is convinced that the JUSTAS program is a big part of the puzzle. As a result, MDA has teemed up Israeli based IAI MALAT, the world’s largest manufacturer of UAVs in all classes, which will act a platform provider on the joint bid.


For its part, MDA will act as prime contractor and will ensure that the project’s key elements, including sensors, controls, data processing, data management and distribution, as well as platform integration all work seamlessly. 


Another key initiative that MDA officials are optimistic about is its role in the Canada North Atlantic Marine Partnership, which is bidding on the Canadian Navy’s Joint Support Ship program. MDA will draw on expertise that it has acquired on its MCOT initiative, to provide mission systems including command, control, information and surveillance.


“We feel very good about our team, which includes ThysssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) as prime contractor and systems integrator, Peter Kiewit Sons as the Canadian shipbuilder, Flensburger as ship designer and Maersk Canada as the logistics provider.” says Carson. “It includes some of the world’s top players in a variety of fields ranging from ship design, construction and system’s integration.”


Despite all of the opportunities at the company’s feet, the biggest challenge facing MDA officials right now is the fluid operating environment. The recent Canadian elections will no doubt lead to numerous policy reviews and priority changes and the shaky geopolitical context will also no doubt continue to cause constant rethinking. “The key is to stay flexible,” says Friedmann. “We’ve been working with Canada’s armed forces for so long, the one thing we know for sure is that to stay on top we have to be open to change.”




Corporate Snapshot


Company: MDA

Canadian Operations: Dan Friedmann, President and Chief Executive Officer

Head Office: Vancouver

Employees: 2,500

Products and services: Information products and systems.

Chief export market: The U.S.


Peter Diekmeyer (peter@peterdiemeyer.com) is a senior writer with Canadian Defence Review.









Home | Gazette articles | Eye on Ottawa | Book reviews

  © 2005 Peter Diekmeyer Communications Inc.