Off the Hook

Jul 15, 2006

It has been interesting to watch and listen to various reactions following the recent procurement announcements of new defence equipment – everything from strategic lift aircraft to modern workhorse army trucks.

While the current level of public awareness and government support of the Canadian Forces is welcome, reaction to the intended purchase of major new military equipment might be a tad superficial. Media spent more ink on the expected advantage to Canadian businesses, regional industrial spin-offs and gratuitous comments about the Minister’s past business lobbying links than on any valuable analysis of the impact these purchases will have on Canada’s defence capability. Military analyses seemed to be limited to four main points. Big airplanes will allow Canadian troops to go further away without having to rent other people’s planes (an inaccurate argument); big ships will allow and support bigger Canadian deployments overseas; new trucks will allow the Army to carry more stuff; and bigger helicopters will allow more tactical mobility within an operational theatre like Afghanistan.

Missing from this mix of coverage is any enthusiasm about the earlier announcements about increasing the size of the Canadian Forces. Higher numbers are crucial to providing the capacity to accommodate this increase in capability.

Government has authorized an increase of 10,000 Regulars and 13,000 Reservists in the Canadian Forces. This is the largest single increase since the beginning of the 1950’s after the outbreak of the Korean War and the establishment of standing NATO forces in Europe. Large increases were authorized only three times before that – in 1900, 1914 and 1939.

What seems to be unique this time around is that General Hillier, unlike his predecessors in the early 20th century, is apparently being left to lead the recruiting drive himself, without the active help of government, beyond providing the money to expand. In taking on the full load of expansion by himself, General Hillier may be letting government off the hook too easily.

Just as government has been responsible for ‘downsizing’ the Canadian Forces, it should also be responsible for increasing it. Government’s role should not be limited to allocating money and then dumping the hard part, actually getting the people, entirely onto the shoulders of the CDS.
Government needs to get actively involved in generating the additional manpower.

Contrary to the easy assumption that military recruitment is strictly a Canadian Forces affair, the large-scale acquisition of sufficient manpower for the nation’s armed forces is really a broad government responsibility. When looked at strategically, mobilizing effective military forces is a central component of the country’s defence capacity, and government must lead in attracting, motivating and ushering potential servicemen and women through the front door of all recruiting centres. Once they’re in the door, it is the military’s role to screen, train and employ them.

Recruiting at Job Fairs (Photo: Canadian Forces Recruiting Group)

Tactical level recruiting by Regiments is outmoded and simply will not result in the numbers required. The Canadian Forces, by itself, cannot reach all Canadians, but government can. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet should be publicly active in encouraging all Canadians to consider joining the Canadian Forces. Government could adjust non-military bureaucracy to allow for quicker, but reliable recruitment. Probationary security and medical clearances could be awarded for the period of recruit training.

Trouble is, government has always been a lousy recruiter.

Canada’s military history is characterized by, among other things, the consistent failure of Canadian governments to aggressively address the generation of sufficient manpower to meet the operational needs of the military commitments they have taken on. The Laurier government timidly allowed the raising of a volunteer force to fight in the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century. Whatever else one might say about him, Sir Sam Hughes did manage to raise substantial manpower for the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War, but government hesitancy and lack of initiative did not keep the fighting ranks up to strength and so brought on the first conscription crisis in 1917.

Then again, at the beginning of the Second World War, Prime Minister Mackenzie King hoped to get away with not having to generate too much manpower by eventually agreeing to the establishment of the British Common­wealth Air Training Plan in Canada. He had hoped that the BCATP might be enough of a contribution to avoid having to send large forces overseas, but the need for a larger army commitment soon overwhelmed government. The Canadian Navy, fighting in the North Atlantic, endured significant hardship as a result of manpower shortages and obsolescent equipment – not to mention the astonishingly difficult weather conditions and superior tactical ability of the enemy. The Royal Canadian Air Force did not have enough manpower to field its own air squadrons until late in the war and even then, most of the ground crews were supplied by the British Royal Air Force. The Canadian Army, from the start of serious fighting in Sicily in 1942, to the bloody, mud-sucking battles of the Scheldt in late 1944, started to feel the gradual drain of fighting manpower to the point that a second conscription crisis erupted in Canada. The one common element in all this is the timidity of governments in addressing the need to generate sufficient manpower. They simply failed to understand that the production of human capital is a fundamental process of defence capacity.

At the beginning of the Korean War, the government again chose to recruit a Special Force rather than deploy elements of the tiny regular army of the day. In a fleeting example of enthusiastic interest, Defence Minister Brooke Claxton personally visited a recruiting depot in Toronto and insisted that much of the bureaucratic red tape be dispensed with so that more recruits could be enlisted faster. His impact was short-lived. Only the initial army units deployed to Korea in 1951 were up to authorized strength. Units in the next two rotations, over the following two years, were all under-strength when deployed and had to absorb soldiers from other units. In 1952, there were not enough French Canadian soldiers to maintain the 1st Battalion, Royal 22e Regiment (the Van Doos) at full strength. It could field only three of four rifle companies usually found in infantry battalions. In order to adequately cover the Brigade front, 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment formed a fifth rifle company from clerks, cooks and other support personnel, to occupy a position unable to be covered by the depleted Van Doos.

After the end of the Cold War, successive governments ignored the growing and self-produced quandary characterized by continuous cuts to military manpower in the face of increasing military commitments. From 1992 on, over and above the normal task tailoring required for any mission, virtually every army unit deployed overseas required augmentation and reinforcement from outside its ranks. It was Korea all over again, but this time, it continued for over a decade.

Swearing in Ceremony, Quebec (Photo:Canadian Forces Recruiting Group)

The climax came in 2003 when there was no other option than to declare an ‘operational pause’ during which CF operations were scaled back, overseas missions reduced and attempts were made to diminish out-of-control personnel turbulence. During this pause, the Canadian Forces were to be rejuvenated and equipment ‘refurbished’. Many military personnel did not feel the difference at all – while ships were paid off, army units remained ‘hollow,’ air squadrons were amalgamated and the number of operational aircraft continued to decline.

At the same time, government sent the Canadian Forces back to Afghanistan, as part of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. Some argued that returning to Afghanistan was a political move to occupy what military capability we had at the time, so we could claim ‘poverty’ as the reason why we could not contribute to the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq. Few remember that Major General Cam Ross, the Director General International Policy in National Defence Headquarter resigned shortly after the government’s decision to join ISAF, privately hinting that military advice regarding the ‘burn-out’ of military personnel went unheeded by government. During the so-called ‘operational pause’, the ISAF contribution grew and we eventually took on the role of Deputy Commander and then Commander, each being supported by an enlarged contingent of Canadian military personnel. All the while, there was no growth in military strength.

The operational pause faded to a close by the spring of 2006 and things are officially busy again, although opinions at the grass roots simply see it as just more of the same. For military families especially, there never was a ‘pause’.

In the meantime, the political wind changed. The 2005 federal budget had seen a minority government promise money and people for the Canadian Forces – but not right away. The wind subsequently changed again and another minority government promised even more money and a lot more people in the 2006 federal budget, but that promise too would only take real effect in a few years. So far, the limited recruiting targets set by the Canadian Forces to meet normal replacement needs and achieve early expansion targets have been met. However, still less than 1,000 of the required 13,000 additional regular force personnel have been brought on board.

The Canadian Forces, under the ­imaginative leadership and drive of General Hillier, have launched Operation CONNECTION, a comprehensive recruitment programme aimed at achieving recruitment targets for expansion. Even so, current Canadian Forces plans foresee that the targets of 10,000 Regulars and 13,000 Reservists, bringing the total strength to 75,000, will not be met until about 2015. It will take nearly a decade to recruit less troops today than were recruited in two years beginning in 1950.

General Hillier and the Canadian Forces, by themselves, cannot recruit enough new personnel fast enough to meet continuing operational demands – let alone any new ones that may come up – taken on by government. The military’s priority focus must be the prosecution and sustainment of on-going operations. They need help recruiting more people. Government needs to exercise its responsi­bility to engage the necessary elements of its national defence capacity to raise the significant manpower needed. Hopefully their efforts in the 21st century will be more aggressive and effective than the last.

Brigadier General (Retired) Jim Cox is a PhD Candidate in the War Studies programme at the Royal Military College of Canada. The views expressed here are his own and are not intended to reflect any opinion of the government of Canada.
© FrontLine Defence 2006