Yesterday, the Canadian military formally underwent a significant organizational transformation. It remains to be seen how the reorganization will shake out in real terms.
In a ceremony presided over this morning by General Rick Hillier, Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), command of all CF operations was transferred from the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (DCDS) to Canada Command, Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, and Canadian Operational Support Command. The new commands assume management of and responsibility for all operations as of February 1, while the DCDS Group dissolves on the same date.
A few things are certain, however.
Firstly, the CDS has made it plain that he embraces the Conservative vision for the CF, or at least appreciates the genuine attention they pay to this important pillar of federal responsiblity.
The plan to build icebreakers has been criticized as not worth the cost, but Gen. Hillier said the military believes Canada should have the ability to assert its sovereignty in sparsely populated areas and know what is happening there.
"Icebreakers have been on the books for a long period of time to give us capabilities around our country," he said. "I think they're a needed piece of what Canada does."
Gen. Hillier said he would turn the forces "inside out" to accommodate the 13,000 new regular troops and 10,000 reservists that the Conservatives promised to add.
"I love that kind of talk," he said.
As long as the money is there, he explained, the military can absorb the new troops within three to five years, even if it causes some short-term difficulties.
"We'll turn the Canadian Forces -- the army, the navy and the air force -- inside out if necessary to do so. It is much better to take that short-term pain . . . and to be short some people in operational units for a year or so, to give us the longer-term increase that troops like that would bring. Can we absorb them and train them and get them ready to be deployed? Darn right we can."
I find Hillier's 'can-do' attitude towards the prospect of training a significant cohort of new recruits bracing, but he's glossed over the key trade off here: operational tempo will have to slow down in order to accomodate the intense training demands. According to Christopher Ankersen in chapter three of "Canada Without Armed Forces?", personnel issues are among the most serious facing our military today, and unlike equipment - where if you throw enough money at the problem, you can buy your way out - there are no quick fixes to people shortages.
Since 1998, the number of non-effective personnel on full pay and allowances has increased from 4,000 people in 2000 to more than 10,000 in 2003...The growing imbalance between the total number of CF members (Total Authorized Strength, or TAS) and the number of trained and available members (Trained Effective Establishment, or TEE) is an institutional reality...One cannot, for instance, simply hire unit commanding officers or even junior leaders because they must be developed in-house and matured through experience. (Babbler's italics)
[aside: Anyone with an interest in the Canadian Forces should read this collection of monographs put together by Douglas Bland. Ankersen's chapter on The Personnel Crisis is worth the price alone. In fact, one of these days I hope to get around to delving into the issues he raises in greater detail.]
I don't know if the TAS/TEE gap has been brought back to normal levels since 2003, and would welcome up-to-date information on that front if any reader can point the way. From a training and recruiting perspective, the only positive aspect of such a brutal op-tempo over the past decade is that there are plenty of CF members who have now 'been-there-done-that', and can pass along their experience to the next generation - if they're allowed to come off deployment once in awhile. I'm not so sure "give us the money, and we'll get the job done" works as well for training and personnel issues as it does for capital and operations issues, but we shall see.
Secondly, the CDS has made it plain that with the possible exception of Bill Graham, he's not sad to see the Liberal Party of Canada turfed to the Opposition benches.
Gen. Hillier stayed silent during the election, but after a ceremony yesterday to mark a change in the military's command structure, he said he and troops across the country were offended [by the Liberal 'military' ad].
"In fact, I think like almost every other man and woman in uniform, and I heard from thousands of them and their families, we're insulted by that commercial," he said. "We don't think it reflects the national treasure that our men and women in uniform are. And we have troops in the cities around the country -- every single one of them -- who live there, who work there, who are posted there, and who are ready to help Canadians if they ever need our assistance."
Outgoing Prime Minister Paul Martin said during the campaign that he initially approved the ads, but did not give the go-ahead for them to air on TV. The controversy sapped the effectiveness of the Liberals' negative-ad campaign in mid January, after the second set of leaders' debates.
Gen. Hillier said outgoing Defence Minister Bill Graham -- the leading candidate to become the interim Liberal leader as early as today -- had called him to express his "immense respect" for the Canadian Forces and said he did not condone the ad.
Good for Bill Graham, and good for Hillier for giving public credit where it's due. But much as I like Hillier's straight-talking, I found this comment a little unwise. Hillier has no idea how long the Conservatives will form the government - none of us do. This sort of a parting-shot at the retreating Liberal tails will undoubtedly be good for morale, but it may come back to haunt him if the Liberals manage to win back power any time soon. For the sake of the CF, I hope we don't ever have to play that scenario out.
Thirdly, Special Operations is now officially a big deal in the CF.
The new structure was accompanied by a pledge that special operations will be more transparent than in the past
"I think it's fair to say that the fact I'm standing up here as the First Commander [sic], Special Operations Forces and speaking with you as the media, I mean, this is new," said Col. David Barr, who will be responsible for all special forces operations under the new system.
I remain curious to see how the idea of a reconstituted Airborne Battalion in Trenton, as outlined in the CPC platform, will be reconciled with the existing stand-up of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment in Petawawa. And I think it would be a good idea for someone much brighter than me to determine precisely how many 'elite' troops the Canadian Forces can support before either a) they cease to be elite or b) we seriously degrade the capabilities of our line units by stealing of all their best people.
Having said that, I'm excited about the prospect of a beefed up Special Ops force in the CF. We already have some of the best-trained and most capable troops in the world, and giving them added resources, recognition, and mission-focus can only enhance that capability. We're never going to be the biggest, but we can sure as hell be the best.
Fourthly - and I've left the most fascinating observation for last - I think the new Special Ops tan berets are, like, way cool. I just wish we had been able to pick our own colour instead of copying someone else's.