Signal Officers are the Canadian Army’s information masters

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Article / January 8, 2016 / Project number: 15-0013

Ottawa, Ontario — All the firepower in the world does not guarantee success on today’s battlefield if the commander cannot pinpoint the exact location of the target.

Keeping the commander of a modern fighting force informed is as essential as ammunition and the means to deploy it – and that’s where Canadian Army Signal Officers come in.

Methods of getting vital information from the front lines of the battlefield to the eyes and ears of the command team have progressed impressively from the most basic smoke signal to flags, lamps, carrier pigeons, radios and now to satellite, computer and cellular networks.

It doesn’t matter how the technology changes, the signaller’s job is still to enable commanders to command, applying the technology to reconnaissance and surveillance, battlefield command and control, and much more.

I would say that what has characterized more recent operations is the fact that the enemy may be using the full range of civilian communications technologies, so that could mean they’re using Twitter to organize or they have access to modern computing or smart phones,” said Captain Carl Homer, a Signal Officer currently posted with the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) at the U.S. Northern Command Joint Cyber Center. “Anyone who has enough money has access to advanced communications today.

The Scarborough, Ontario native joined the Reserve Force as a 17-year-old and then transferred to the Regular Force in 1996 as a radio operator. “I had originally chosen signals because I had an interest in being the soldier with the radio on his back who could speak with artillery and aircraft,” he said. “I knew only what I had seen in movies and I saw them speak a few words and things would blow up and I said, ‘that seems like a great place to be.’

Capt Homer moved up the non-commissioned member (NCM) ranks in the signals trade and when he reached Master Warrant Officer, he commissioned to Signal Officer. He noted that the Signal Officer training is focused, in large part, on tactical level leadership and the deployment of the land command support system.

He considers himself lucky to have been involved in a number of deployments during his 19 years with the Army. “The huge advantage we have with Signals is that we get to go everywhere – we deploy and we deploy often.” Most recently, he was deployed to Operation IMPACT, Canada’s contribution to the multinational coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), from October to December 2014 to help direct theatre activation.

When not in the field, Signal Officers get the benefit of ongoing training that keeps them on the cutting edge. That, and the sheer variety of experiences that come with the job, are some of the things Capt Homer says he enjoys about the work.

When we walk into a new theatre, there is nothing,” says Captain Jason Kauenhofen of Canadian Forces Joint Signal Regiment in Kingston, Ontario. “We set up the infrastructure and provide the facilities and the layers of information systems that provide integral support to all elements, up to and including the command to fire. The signals people link the Commander’s strategic planners and advisors to the trigger pullers. An element of the Signals Corps is present at every victory.

Capt Kauenhofen, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, joined the army at age 22 as a Signals Operator in 2002.  In 2005, he deployed to Afghanistan as a signal operator with Operation ATHENA, Canada’s contribution of peace-support and combat forces to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

He went on to earn an engineering degree, majoring in power and control systems at the Royal Military College of Canada under the Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF’s) University Training Plan for Non-Commissioned Members (NCM).

I went from an operator within the trade as a NCM to an officer and now I am in charge of the same squadron I was in,” he said.

After deploying as the Disaster Assistance Response Team Signals Officer to the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, then a Lieutenant, Capt Kauenhofen was named Communications and Electronics Branch Subaltern of the Year for 2013 for his exemplary efforts. In his spare time, he is working towards the Professional Engineer designation from the Professional Engineers of Ontario. 

We enable everything to happen,” said Capt Kauenhofen, who added that one of the main attractions of the Signal Officer trade ­– as far as he is concerned – is the near-infinite variety of equipment and experiences that come with it.

There is networking, computing, cyber security – but you have only one Signal Officer, one trade that manages all of them. As a manager, facilitator and leader, I did not have to restrict myself to one category,” he noted. “Right now I am doing black core networking, but next year I could be working on signals intelligence or electronic warfare. And the year after that, I might be doing cyber security, information security and then there is always project management. I mean, you never really get bored.

Back in Canada, a main function of Signal Officers is training and preparing teams for new deployments. “We also support Operation NANOOK, we do the MAPLE RESOLVE exercises in Wainwright and we’ve also been fortunate enough to get called whenever there’s a requirement to respond for aid to a civil power in Canada – we’ve done the floods in Winnipeg, we’ve done the ice storm in Montreal,” said Capt Homer.

We get the opportunity to do a little bit of everything. I’ve had the opportunity to work with armoured, infantry, engineers, air force. It’s really been a variety and there are always new challenges. As the Canadian Armed Forces change, we change with them,” he said.

Quick Facts about Signal Officers in the Canadian Army:

  • Army Signal Officers may be employed in policy development, project management, systems engineering and network operation.
  • They work with command support equipment and systems that include computer-based information systems that assist with battlefield command and control; reconnaissance and surveillance and target acquisition; the full spectrum of radio systems; electronic warfare capabilities; cyber warfare capabilities; and cryptographic and communications-security capabilities.
  • Army Signal Officers work right across the Army spectrum, from overseas combat or peacekeeping deployments to the quieter settings of bases or garrisons. They may be posted to an international headquarters or to an exchange or liaison assignment in an allied nation.

Given the multi-faceted nature of the work, these Signal Officers agree that anyone considering taking on the role should have a wide range of skills.

The people that tend to go into that occupation are generally those who are looking for an intellectual challenge,” said Capt Homer. “I would say the ability to translate technical challenges to tactical decisions is a key skill.

You need to be adaptable and tenacious,” Capt Kauenhofen said. “You can’t say, ‘I only want to do this or that.’ The army tells you what it needs, and you must be willing to respond accordingly.” He also added that it’s camaraderie that provides the motivation to do what is asked.

Imagine you’re at your post, fighting the elements. It’s taking all your will to push through the pain and fatigue. The reason you continue is because you are defending your country and that is how you got there but it isn’t the reason why you stay. The reason why you stay is because of the guy next to you. Because if you fail, so does he.

By Lynn Capuano and Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

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