This all sounds very familiar

The Canadian Forces are feeling the strain of their ISAF responsibilities and need another operational pause to set things right:

OTTAWA — Canada’s army, strained by the military mission in Afghanistan, may need a one-year operational pause to regroup and rebuild when troops withdraw in 2011, the head of the army says.

Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie told a Senate committee today that the dangerous Kandahar mission is taking a dramatic toll on army personnel and equipment.

He said that the military is struggling with a shortage of experienced officers and soldiers as well as a breakdown of armoured vehicles, caused in part by the strain of the mission.

And Leslie, the chief of land staff,said a shortage of skilled mechanics is slowing repairs to the fleet.

Despite the pause, Leslie said the army would still be ready to respond to emergencies if called on.

“We will always be prepared to carry out our various national and international tasks,” he told the Senate defence committee.

— Bruce Campion-Smith.  “Military strained to limit, Senate committee told“, Toronto Star, March 9th, 2009.

Not quite, General Leslie.  The fact that an operational pause is called for means that no, the CF will not always be prepared to carry out their various national and international tasks. It means that they have to refrain from—or at least drastically curtail—some of those tasks so as not to break CF recruiting and logistics.

Incidentally, didn’t we have one of these operational pauses back in 2005?  What was the goal of this pause, exactly?  To diminish out-of-control personnel turnover and to replace or refurbish aging equipment.  Let’s have a look at the 2004-2005 Report on Plans and Priorities for DND.  First, the message from the Hon. Bill Graham, MND at the time.

Taking care of our people also means taking steps to mitigate the impact of operations on our members and their families. Although the Canadian Forces have always delivered when called upon, we must do a better job in balancing operational deployments with family life and training needs. With this in mind, we have begun to reduce our operational commitments and are undertaking a regeneration period for the Canadian Forces. In addition, Defence is focusing its recruitment and retention efforts on military trades under pressure to ease the current strain on our uniformed members.

In order to operate effectively in the new international security environment, the men and women of the Canadian Forces must also have modern and capable equipment. Since December 2003, this government has committed more than $7 billion for new equipment for the Canadian Forces, including the Maritime Helicopter Project, Mobile Gun System, Joint Support Ship and Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft. This is not to say, however, that the modernization of our military is complete. Pending the outcome of the Defence Policy Review, our priority is to invest in the right mix of relevant capabilities to meet Canada’s defence and security commitments in a new century.

Here we are, four years later, and apparently recruiting and retention in the stressed trades is still not up to par.

Wear-and-tear and insurgent attacks have created a demand for replacement vehicles in Afghanistan, depleting the stocks of serviceable vehicles in Canada to the point where 70 per cent of some fleets are unusable.

Last month, 33 per cent of the army’s light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) were out of service, along with 76 per cent of its reconnaissance Coyotes, 100 per cent of its tracked light-armoured vehicles (TLAVs), 73 per cent of its multi-purpose Bisons and 71 per cent of its Leopard 1 tanks, Leslie said.

And as more vehicles break down, he added, fewer are available for soldiers to train on before deploying to Afghanistan.

“We are not in a position to repair them because we don’t have enough mechanics and technicians,” Leslie said, noting that the army is short about 100 mechanics.

“This situation is extremely serious because the number and types of equipment that have to be repaired and replaced continues to increase at a rapid pace,” he said.

Conservative Senator Pierre Claude Nolin said he was “stunned” to hear the figures.

“It’s fine to buy equipment but if we don’t have mechanics and technicians to maintain that equipment … then we have a very serious problem,” Nolin said.

— Bruce Campion-Smith.  “Army running on empty“, Toronto Star, March 10th, 2009.

And that’s just the Army.  How promising.  I’d be willing to bet that aircraft and marine mechanics are similarly leaving the field in droves.  When trades get thinned out too much, the CF brass likes to do stupid things like extend the obligatory service period, reduce eligibility for specialization pay, and—hilariously—reassign recruits from their preferred trades into some other, more critical trade.  So you sign up to be one thing and find out, after you’re sworn in and under military discipline, that your career will be something else entirely.  That’s always a crowd-pleaser.  Imagine if universities did that to young freshmen.  Pay your tuition and then hey, the courses you want?  Too full.  You’ll be taking these other ones that we’ve picked out for you instead.

Here’s two comments from a David Pugliese post on CF recruiting for stressed trades that amply illustrate the crux of the problem.

B Maxwell, February 17, 2009, 5:56 PM

“This is a funny article to someone in the “distressed trade”. My training was conducted in a civvy school, in St John’s, NL. 6 months prior to graduating, recruiting promises were broken. These promises included; 5 year Obligatory service (turned into 6), Specialization pay upon graduation (this changed to once completed equpment training, and also 20 years service (this changed to 25).

The Combat System Engineering department (of which Naval Electronics trades fall under) also have a ridiculous level of seconday duties.

The navy treats all new personnel as, for lack of better term, “bitches”.

The career managers also briefed us all on amalgamating the trades, into a “Combat systems tech”.

This means that you may have signed up as a “Radar tech”, too bad, you’ll be acoustic.

This is the answer to “fix” the retention/recruiting problem.

I wonder why no mention of this to the public and politicians, but only to the already serving members. I guess they need a new bunch of suprises to spring on fresh recruits.”

RH, February 26, 2009, 3:33 PM

“Ref. B Maxwells remarks….I am in agreement with his assessment of the situation. I will be retiring soon and I remember when I first entered the military as a new recruit. After finishing basic trg we were off to begin our trades training and quickly discovered a substantial number of us were shunted off to unexpected trades and even made to change uniforms…Airforce to Army and vice versa….all this was never discussed at the recruiting center….so what is the message??? You cannot rely on what you are told by the military chain of command as no one can guarantee anything. This was 20 years ago and nothing seems to have changed. When it comes to retention and recruiting the CF has to start following through on what is promised to members.”

Amazingly, the geniuses with scrambled eggs on their hats have a hard time figuring out how to solve all this.

Let’s move on to the equipment. Of the four specifically identified procurement projects, two are sorta-completed, one is still on the books, and one is dead in the water.

The CH-148 Cyclone has been selected as the maritime helicopter, but first deliveries to the CF will not occur until 2010.  The Mobile Gun System got shelved in favour of 80 used German Leopard 2A6M purchased from the Netherlands—but half of them are sitting idle in Montreal waiting for a maintenance contract to be concluded.  The C-27J Spartan is rumoured to be MND MacKay’s choice as FWSAR replacement, but there has been no word on whether Cabinet has the political balls to approve yet another ACAN shortcut instead of a full blown competition.  Finally, the JSS’s ballooning cost estimates have made it political kryptonite to both the CF brass and the skittish Conservative government.

The bottom line is that six years after our last operational pause, we’ll be due for another one.  And, shamefully, it’s due to the same basic issues.  Massive turnover.  Lack of equipment.  Have we learned nothing?

Canada’s defence policy suffers from two basic structural issues for which there is no easy cure.  First, Canadians are geographically privileged, living next door to the world’s pre-eminent superpower. Canadians do not understand that nation-states behave like animals, predator or prey; and the only reason we don’t have a lot of unfriendly predators prowling the neighbourhood is because the biggest one lives next door, and he’s our friend.  As a result our politicans (and the population they are drawn from) are congenitally incapable of comprehending the raw and occasionally bloody calculation of national interest. They do not understand that one of the primary responsibilities of any government is to defend the security of its citizens and the integrity of its national territory.  Like a lazy neighbour who never mows his own lawn, we get away with skimping on defence because the United States is always ready to pick up our slack.  Whether they should be doing so—and whether we ought to feel any shame at our own lack of concern—is a question which the Canadian polity is never prepared to ask itself.

The second structural problem arises from the first.  The CF senior brass are, in many cases, highly motivated and highly dedicated to the success and welfare of their force.  But that is not always enough.  Four years have passed and we are still facing the same basic challenges we did before the last operational pause.  High optempo missions combined with chronic underfunding and inadequate equipment; and barely a peep from the top brass at NDHQ (with the notable, outstanding exception of Gen. Rick Hillier).  Where is the Canadian equivalent of Billy Mitchell, who lambasted his superiors after USS Shenandoah accident:

“I have been asked from all parts of the country to give my opinion about the reasons for the frightful aeronautical accidents and loss of life, equipment and treasure that has occurred during the last few days,” he told the press. “This statement therefore is given out publicly by me after mature deliberation and after a sufficient time has elapsed since the terrible accident to our naval aircraft, to find out something about what happened.

“About what happened,” the colonel continued, “my opinion is as follows: These accidents are the direct result of the incompetence, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments. The bodies of my former companions of the air molder under the soil in America and Asia, Europe and Africa, many, yes, a great many, sent there directly by official stupidity.”

— Andy Stephens.  “Oct. 28, 1925: The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, Part One“, Bolling AFB news feature, October 28th, 2008.

Mitchell’s words could easily apply to every Canadian government since 1957, regardless of political affiliation.  They have treated one of their core missions—the maintenance of the national defence—with almost criminal and treasonable negligence.  Following the Korean War, Canadian Forces have always been asked to do more with less, but we are now reaching a breaking point.  A second operational pause six years after the first, for the same root cause.  Who among the brass is willing to put it all on the line?  The Canadian officer corps has no men willing to risk their career, point the finger where it squarely belongs, and say “You need to do better.  Men are dying because you are failing us.”

When the legislation to amalgamate the Canadian Army, Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Canadian Navy was presented in 1966, senior leaders like Rear Admiral W.M. Landymore and Rear Admiral Jeffry Brock opposed it.  Their careers paid for that opposition via dismissal and early retirement. In his memoirs, The Thunder and the Sunshine, Rear Admiral Brock had a scathing critique of the Canadian body politic:

“Canadian politicians are not and never have been interested in defence,” he wrote, adding “the Canadian public cannot escape a share of the blame. Too many of our people think that all we enjoy was always there, was not fought for, will just continue, without our personal attention. We are no longer pulling our weight in international affairs. While some reasonable degree of freedom still remains for us under our form of government, we must face the fact that this freedom will soon disappear unless we exercise our rights wisely. We must take greater pains to ensure that we are well enough informed to choose wise leaders – perhaps, great leaders.”

— Dr. Wilf Lund.  “Integration and Unification of the Canadian Forces“, CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum.

How very sad that his criticism is still relevant today.

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