National Defence: Some Basics/History

Sadly, for the past few years, what has passed for defence policy in this country has been far, far more concerned with trivia, buttons and bows issues, than with substance. Shame on us, Conservatives, and the governments we elected.

But defence is difficult … mainly because it’s expensive.

Before we can discuss defence in the 21st century we need to take a look back, about 50 years and more back, to the 1960s.

The enormous strategic difficulties of the 1940s and ’50s ~ creating the UN, the start of the Cold War, starting NATO, fighting in Korea, and, and, and … had given way, by 1960, to an operational level stalemate, but the strategic calculus said that a full blown war, NARTO vs the Warsaw Pact was very possible, even probable. But it would be a new kind of war.

Ike (US President Dwight Eisenhower), a notoriously good poker player, had bluffed the Soviets … the American led West was growing, as was the USSR and its satellites, in the ’50s, but the difference was that the West was reinvesting its economic gains in productive, economic programmes while the USSR was investing, unproductively, in its military. Americans and Brits and Canadians and Danes were getting richer and richer, happier and happier, while e.g. Russia34-Dwight-D-Eisenhower.jpgns, East Germans and Czechs were getting poorer and less and less happy. We were winning the Cold War, but no one, circa 1960, believed that the clearcut socio-economic victory, that came to pass in 1989-91, was possible. A fight, using tactical nuclear weapons was thought to be necessary. (The nihilistic doctrine of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) would put strategic nuclear war somewhere on the highly unlikely to quite impossible spectrum.) But the war which most informed observers expected was going to be a “come as you are” war.

This posed a fiscal problem …

For generations we had assumed that a small regular navy and army were required to provide a professional base upon which an active, partially trained militia and the general populace could be mobilized, slowly but surely, for a general war. Ik’s bluff shattered that comfortable model. Now we had to be ready to fight with what we had, what was “in the shop window,” so to speak. We would need larger, well equipped, fully trained, regular, professional armed forces. They would expensive to recruit, train, equip and retain.

Prime Minister Louis St Laurent was committed to the “come as you are war,” original.917and under his leadership the Canadian Forces understood and began to equip themselves for that war. Canada provided modest, but effective and large enough to matter, naval, land and air forces to confront the Russians in Europe and the Atlantic and to confront and fight the Chinese in Korea.

But it all cost a lot of money and, beginning in about 1959 the Diefenbaker government began to feel the fiscal pinch. Canadian were unwilling to pay for the armed forces Prime Minister St Laurent had said we needed. They wanted butter, not guns.

Life was even worse for prime Minister Pearson in 1963. The costs of new ships, tanks, APCs, howitzers and aircraft ~ and the salaries of the men and women needed to use them ~ were rising at a rate much higher than the general rate of inflation … something that persists today.

In 1960 a royal commission inquiring into government organization, the Glassco Commission, reported that Canadian bureaucrats were poorly, inefficiently organized and they spent far too much time trying, and often failing, to coordinate work amongst themselves. The Department of National Defence was singled out for some harsh criticism.

Enter, in 1963, Paul Hellyer …

imagesPaul Hellyer convinced Lester B Pearson that at least some of the money he, Pearson, needed to continue with Prime Minister St Laurent’s strategic vision could be found by solving DND’s organizational problems: especially those of the armed services.

Mr Hellyer and his team were thoroughly briefed (I have been told by people who were there) in Washington on two courses of action which the Americans had, already, studied and named:

  1. Integration, making all the services into one ~ what the Americans called “purple suiting” after the notional colour of the necessary new uniform; and
  2. Unification, which was, essentially, to follow on from the joint structures pioneered in World War II.

The Americans had, already discarded most notions of integration as being wasteful and even counter-productive but they had embraced and, under President Eisenhower’s direction, adopted unification … and they are still unified today.

It’s not clear to me why, but Minister Hellyer came home convinced that a fully integrated force with a unified command control, structure would work. So we got some bad and some good.

The bad included the initially despised but eventually grudgingly accepted “jolly green jumper,” and inordinately complex and unnecessarily and expensive administrative,. training, and support systems.

The good included a handful of truly joint commands ~ Maritime and maritime_command_badge_n11173Mobile Commands were proper and efficient joint commands: Maritime Command, the Navy, had its own, organic, Maritime Air Group in which Maritime Command pilots  flew Maritime Command owned aircraft in support of Maritime Command fleets conducting operations at home and abroad. Ditto for Mobile Command: it included infantry brigades and the 10th Tactical Air Group which had organic, Mobile Command owned and operated, jet fighters (CF-5s), tactical transports Mobile_Command_1967_200pxand helicopters flying in direct support of Mobile Command (Army) operations. The Canadian Forces Communication System was similar: Navy, Army and Air Force people and units were grouped together to provide common user, fixed, strategic telecommunications for everyone.

This was a good organization and it made sound fiscal, operational and logistical sense … it was doomed. The problem that doomed it was stars … the Navy and the Army each had a “three star” command that included air element formations and units but the Air Force only had a handful of one and two star commands.

The obvious solution was to group Air Defence Command and Air Transport Command into a single Air Operations Command with a three star commander but, instead, the situation was allowed to fester until, finally, in 1975, in an act of bureaucratic vandalism that makes absolutely no operational, fiscal or logistical sense at all, Air Command was formed.

Still, true to its best traditions, the Canadian Forces muddled through. But the overarching problem ~ money ~ remained.

Conservatives have long wanted to undo the damage Paul Hellyer did, but they have, generally, focused on the buttons and bows, not the meat and potatoes. Thus, in the mid 1980s, Conservative Defence Minister Robert Coates introduced new, distinctive service uniforms ~ Coates of Many Colours we called the project. It was a moderately popular, not too expensive and quite harmless project, but it was, also, useless. Ditto for more recent Conservative forays into defence: new ranks for the army, for example, and resurrecting unneeded reserve units. We, Conservatives, have nibbled at the edges of DND’s problems, eager to undo Mr Hellyer’s legacy, but we have ignored real defence policy and the complex and difficult fiscal reality that underlies it.

We live in an uncertain world, we need to understand how (and why) it threatens us and we need to understand how much of that threat can and should be countered by having adequate military forces.

Then we can talk about what kinds of forces, what they will cost and how we’re going to pay for them.

I’ll discuss both in the next few days.

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