Do The Easy Stuff First, Minister Sajjan

In June of 2012 then Prime Minister Stephen  Harper sent a letter to the then Minister of HarperNational Defence Peter MacKay telling him that even more savings had to be found in the defence budget but, additionally, telling him where to make the cuts, specifically to some surplus property and to headquarters staff. Not even a year later it was clear to the Parliamentary Budget Office that the reverse was taking shape: “overhead” was growing and, concomitantly, combat power was being weakened. General Tom Lawson, the then-new Chief of the Defence Staff said that there was “no fat left to cut,” but, more than two years before he said that, many, many serving and only recently retired military members said that the command and control (C²) superstructure was “bloated,” even “morbidly obese” for a military with less than 100,000 sailors, soldiers and aviators, regular and reserve. The current superstructure was foisted upon the Canadian Forces by General Rick Hillier, a very good man who, unfortunately, wasn’t perfect … and it was pretty clear, to many in the “military family,” that the Canadian Armed Forces’ C² superstructure was bloated, even in 2008.

The issue of defence organization raises two questions:

PETER-MCKAYFirst: Is Peter MacKay a strong enough leader to be Prime Minister of Canada or was he a “captive” of the admirals and generals? I’m not allowing that he may have been honestly convinced that the admirals and generals were right because, in my opinion, too many people ~ serving and retired military officers, senior officials in PCO and other departments, the staff of the Parliamentary Budget Office and the Prime Minister of Canada, himself ~ had concluded that the Canadian Armed Forces bureaucracy was bloated. It appears, to some, that many of the admirals and generals are themselves “captives” of an informal system that aims to strike a “balance,” based on the old 5:5:2 (Air Force:Army:Navy) “balance’ that existed prior to Paul Hellyer’s organizational experiments or “reforms,” if you like, in the 1960s, and, within the Canadian Army, to strike a “balance” between artillery, the armoured corps and the infantry and, within the infantry, between the three regular force regiments. In other words: “buttons and bows,” service affiliations (uniform colour) and regimental cap badges, drove and still drives the organization.

Second: What can and should the new Defence Minister, Harjit Sajjan, do about the 11451382situation?  He has the Leslie Report on Transformation that some regard as excellent (while some others see it as self-serving). It’s a start and implementing it was a Liberal campaign promise. Prime Minister Trudeau has promised and has directed Minister Sajjan to deliver a full defence review, apparently to be completed by the end of 2016. It may just be an excuse to do nothing. Given the global economic situation, Prime Minister Trudeau’s many campaign spending promises and his own, apparent, reluctance to use force, one would not be at all surprised if Prime Minister Trudeau wants, as Prime Minister Harper did, further and even deeper cuts in DND. Minister Sajjan has a whole host of deficiencies that need his attention: equipment ~ ships (combatant, patrol and support ships) and aircraft (new fighters and replacements for the antique Buffalos in the SAR role) are both HUGE problems, veterans’ benefits ~ now that Veterans’ Affairs has been rolled into DND (possibly an organization blunder: time will tell), and numbers ~ too few people, too little equipment, far, Far, FAR too little money. Where can he begin?

A good start would be to thumb through a whole bookcase full of reports that suggest, and sometimes even direct, that DND should have fewer Flag and General Officers (GOFOs), admirals and generals.

One thing Minister Sajjan, or anyone wanting to reorganize the CF C² (or worse C³ (command, control and communications)) superstructure must understand is that part of the problem is outside direction. Some of the GOFOs are mandated by the political centre (PMO) or policy centre (PCO). When some national projects are implemented it is considered important to have DND “on board” (the thinking is: If we can make the military do this then no one else will have any excuse) and, in my personal experience, the centre sometimes directs that, for example, a new branch, headed by a director-general, will be required to demonstrate DND’s/The CF’s “commitment” to a programme ~ and bang! suddenly you have another GOFO, a Navy commodore or an Army or Air Force brigadier general, and staff, doing something that, quite probably, people inside DND thought would be a good job for a team of only half the size headed by a Navy commander or an Army/RCAF lieutenant colonel. Some, not all, but some of the “too many GOFOs” who contribute to the Canadian Armed Forces’ “morbidly obese” bureaucracy fall into that category.

Another factor is “keeping up with the Jones.” Some jobs, especially those in NATO or in various US headquarters are over-ranked, often with admirals and generals, because that’s the “American way” and everyone else just follows suit. Sometimes it’s valid: a liaison officer to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon, for example, must be a GOFO or he will not even be allowed in to hear the briefings. We should have that LO to the JCS, it’s important that someone can tell General Vance what’s going on inside the Pentagon, and if the Americans insist upon a general then that’s what we have to provide. Some positions fall into that category … but not all.

Many studies and at least one directive have told defence ministers and chiefs of staff that a force of fewer than 100,000 people shouldn’t have more than 100 GOFOs, some have suggested that a number of about 65 is ideal.

In the last few years, since the defence budget was shrinking, attention was focused on our military heritage … we got the “executive curl” back on RCN officers’ uniforms, and “old army” ranks for Army officers and equally old RCAF ranks for the RCAF …

… one wonders why no one bothered to look at the “old army” staff system, which worked, in peace and war, for generations, too.

The “old Canadian” staff system is, like the “old army” ranks, similar to the staff system and structure used, today, by the British Army.

The staff has two duties:

  1. To assist commanders in the functions of command; and
  2. To assist subordinate formations and units in carrying out their tasks.

That’s it, that’s all there is … everything and anything else is just verbiage.

The staff ~ and there is just one staff that runs from National Defence Headquarters, in Ottawa, all the way down to a battalion in Valcartier ~ accomplishes the first task by relieving the commander of the details of military organization and administration (management) so that he can focus on the Big Picture (leading). The second, and equally important task, is accomplished by managing resources so that subordinate formations (brigades and divisions and so on) and units have what they need, when they need it, or, at least, so that shortages are shared in ways that do the least harm. It is a tough business that requires the best brainpower the Army has at its disposal.

(There was a famous German general (it’s normally thought to have been Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord) who developed a “matrix” with two axes: intelligence and industriousness. He reckoned that the very few officers who were both ferociously bright and very hard working should be assigned to the general staff, those who were intelligent but rather lazy, would, he reckoned, be the most able commanders ~ they would be happy to let the industrious general staff officers do the all the boring, detailed but so necessary work of coordination and resource management. The not very smart and not very hardworking majority could, in his view, be usefully employed in junior positions. He only worried about 

one group: the stupid but industrious. These, he said, must be weeded out at all costs because they are dangerous.) 

It was possible, some years ago, for we Canadians to adhere to General von Hammerstein -Equord’s advice about appointing only the “best and brightest” to the staff because the staff was small … there were only a few real staff officers in a (relatively) few HQs and the staff college system, through both its competitive selection process and difficult curriculum, ensured that only the most able of the best and brightest got into the staff. I fear that a bloated morbidly obese C² superstructure has done real damage to the general staff.

One principle of the old Canadian/current British staff system is that it rests on a principle of clarity and supremacy of command.

In any formation, the principal staff officers in any HQ may never outrank the principal subordinate commanders and, generally, the principal subordinate commanders outrank the principal staff officers in the higher HQ. In an army corps, a formation of about 100,000 soldiers, for example, the commander is a lieutenant general (a three-star officer), the principal subordinate commanders, the infantry and armoured division commanders are major generals (two-star officers), the principal staff officers in the Corps HQ, heading the operations and administration & logistics staffs, are only brigadiers (one-star officers). The pattern follows in divisions: two-star commanders, one star (subordinate) brigade commanders and two colonels heading the ops and log staff branches. Even in the brigades, the system works, one-star brigade commanders, lieutenant colonels commanding the regiments and battalions and majors as the principal staff officers. That system worked for Canada, in war and peace, and it works, today, for the Brits, also in war or peace. But Canada abandoned it in exchange for an American inspired model that seems to produce only grossly overstaffed HQs that do not, always, seem to do much of real, military value.

 The old Canadian system actually made good staff officers even better because they had to be right, all the time, when they were, on their commander’s behalf, controlling operations by directing the actions of subordinate formations and units. It’s easy for a brigadier general in a division HQ to tell a colonel commanding one of the brigades what to do. It’s still easy when the ranks are reversed, as they should be, when the principal staff officer is smart and hard-working and where he and his colleagues have earned the respect of the subordinates. The current Canadian system is in danger of rewarding weakness … which is never a military virtue.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan can, right now, without too much “study” tell General Jonathan Vance to clean house, to consolidate functions into far fewer, albeit larger, HQs where the staffs are smaller and lower in rank …

One of the structural problems with the defence staff is an “output” of the 1960-s and Paul Hellyer’s reorganization. It was decided to “benchmark” military personnel against the civil service ~ as a way to give the armed forces a much needed and sensible pay structure. In the civil service a director is the first level of executive responsibility.

Who are the executives in the military?

I think that any fair-minded, sensible person would agree that a warship’s captain, the commanding officers of an army regiment or battalion (500 to 1,000 soldiers) or the commander of an airforce squadron is the first executive level in the military.

But almost all directors in NDHQ are Navy captains or army and RCAF colonels, not commanders and lieutenant colonels, as they should be. It is one of the main reasons for rank inflation on the staff. If Minister Sajjan would sort that out he would be well on the way to making real reforms to the C² system that would both:

  1. Save money ~ real, measurable money; and
  2. Sort out some of the HQ “bloat”

Minister Sajjan doesn’t need to wait until his “review” is finished. He can just have a quick read at the letter that Prime Minister Harper sent to Minister Peter MacKay and follow that guidance:

  • Fewer HQs,
  • Less duplication and mutual interference;
  • Better coordination;
  • Lower ranks;
  • Better morale;
  • Lower costs.

It’s all achievable, Minister. Cutting the fat in HQs, and there is some, need not be complicated. Go ahead, be bold … do the easy stuff, first.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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