Thinking About Defence (for a third time)

When most of us do most of our thinking about our national defences we tend to do it in terms of numbers: so many sailors, soldiers and air force members, so much money in the budget, this or that many ships, tanks and airplanes, and so on …

… indeed, when Vice Admiral Norman and Lieutenant Generals Hainse and Hood (the (current) commanders of the RCN, Canadian Army and RCAF, respectively (two of the three will change in 2016)) have a few minutes to worry, that’s the sort of thing they think about, too …

… but Defence Minister Sajjan has, or should have the luxury of thinking beyond just the numbers, of matching quality with quantity.

Nothing in what follows is, in any way at all, intended to minimize the importance of quantities ~ quantities of people, quantities of dollars and quantities of ships, tanks and aircraft ~ but it is intended to stress that there IS a qualitative measure to national defence: how much must, always, be balanced with how well. Indeed, sometimes, “not really well” can be offset by “lots of men (and women), money and materiel” and, equally, often “not enough people or equipment” can be offset by “able to get 100% out of every person and every bullet.”

For many years I have preached that we, Canadian sailors, soldiers and air force personnel need to be four things ~ we need to have four attributes ~ and we need to be those four things in a specific order. We They, now, need to be:

  1. Tough;
  2. Superbly disciplined;
  3. Very well trained; and
  4. Adequately equipped.

Now, a few years ago some friends suggested, and I agreed, that I needed to “bookend” those four things with two more; they also need to be:

  • Well led; and
  • Properly organized

I agreed and revised my list accordingly:


Some attributes are easier to discuss for what they are not, rather then for what they are.

Toughness, for example, is clearly not what MGen (ret’d) Clive Addy (late the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps) once called “macho thuggery,” when he was explaining, to an inquiry, what had gone wrong when military leadership and discipline failed, it is, rather, more akin to what Field 240px-Archibald_Wavell2Marshal Lord Wavell, the great British soldier-scholar, described as “robustness: the ability to withstand the shocks of war.” It has to be there in all ranks, in all occupations and in all places: a young, air force, pay clerk has to have it because she has to endure rocket attacks and bombings and the threats of ambushes as she goes about her business in a camp overseas, and the engineer troop commander has to have it as he leads his soldiers in building a bridge under direct enemy fire, and a navy admiral or army or RCAF general has to have it as he orders ships and sailors to certain death as they face the “dangers of the seas and the violence of the enemy.” The postal clerk, in the rear areas has to be tough just to endure the risks and hardships … and, unlike the infantryman, artillery NCO or pilot, she cannot even fight back.

Toughness is not something that can be taught. The Canadian Armed Forces must select tough people during the recruiting process and then, through discipline and training, make their inherent toughness into a valuable asset. Tough people are not brutes or bullies … they are strong: physically fit and emotionally resilient, able, as Lord Wavell said, to withstand the shocks of war and, in the process, strengthen those around them, and, as we continue to learn, those shocks come in many shapes and sizes and they impact each person in a different way.

Toughness, in and of itself, is good and necessary, but, in a soldier, it must be focused. Discipline is the sine qua non of soldiering and superb discipline has, for a century or more, been the hallmark of the Canadian soldier.

Discipline starts on the parade square, and Canadian military men and women take a back seat to no-one when it comes to pomp and circumstance, but “real” military discipline is self discipline and it comes from doing what needs to be done when one is near exhaustion, in the dark, in the cold, and when no one is looking … I remember, some years decades ago, when I was a junior officer, I was escorting a foreign visitor into our unit. As we drove in the main gate a trumpet call sounded over the loudspeakers; “what’s that?” our guest asked. “The lunch signal,” I replied, “we’re just in time for lunch.” As we drove past the transport lines we both observed many soldiers washing vehicles, loading stores, repairing armoured personnel carriers and so on … “why aren’t they breaking for lunch?” our guest asked. “They’re not finished yet,” I answered, “they’ll be off for their lunch as soon as they’re done their work.” “In our army,” he said, “they would have just dropped their tools and run for the lunch line.” “Oh, ” I responded, “not here. This is our army and these fellows know what has to be done and they’ll do it without being told or watched.” We were, in fact, discussing the fundamental difference between a very large, very well equipped and very average army, on the one hand, and a small, adequately equipped but very well disciplined Canadian army on the other. Discipline certainly starts with sergeants bellowing orders on the parade square, but in a good army it is exemplified by individual soldiers doing the hardest jobs, in the worst of circumstances, alone and without supervisions. It doesn’t really matter if the task is “square bashing,” a lonely, dangerous, standing patrol at night, or the loneliness, even in a crowd, of command at sea; whatever the task, a tough, superbly disciplined Canadian sailor, soldier or aviator can do it, and do it right, the first time.

The Canadian Armed Forces do almost everything from dropping bomb, and then defuzing them, to repairing radios and people …

… and they must be properly and vey well trained to do each job under the most difficult conditions and, frequently, without adequate tools, spare parts and supplies or time. Canadian sailors, soldiers and air force members have a long standing reputation for being able “scroungers” and for being able to make better use of the things they “liberated” than were the original owners. Good, well trained military personnel can always “make do” and “make the best of it” or “make a silk purse from a sow’s ear” because they are well trained as, for example, motor mechanics, rather then being just repair specialists on one type of vehicle. What’s more, the well trained sailor, soldier or aviator can do whatever task needs doing under the worst and most dangerous of conditions … all because of good training. Training is expensive but it always pays off.

If you have good, tough, superbly disciplined and well trained people they still must be adequately equipped: adequate in function, adequate in quality and adequate in quantity, too. There is an old and somewhat cynical joke in the military ~ I’m 99.99% sure Minister Sajjan has heard it and probably told it, too ~ it goes, in a stentorious, politician’s voice:

“Nothing is too good for our boys and girls in uniform …

… and that what they’re gonna get: nothing!

There is always a tradeoff, often a painful one, between “nothing but the best” and “affordable.” Sometimes, as with the EH-101 ship borne helicopter in 1993, “nothing but the best” becomes nothing at all: “zero helicopters,” as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said on the campaign tail .. it was one of the promises he kept …


Wishbook CoverThe Canadian Forces, like any military force anywhere, always has a shopping list, usually a long one. Sometimes it looks a little too much like the Sears Christmas Wish Book and firm political and bureaucratic guidance is always necessary too keep the admirals’ and generals’ wishes from interfering with the realities of the legitimate, minimum, operational requirements of the sailors, soldiers and air force members in the fleets and the field forces. One of the key roles of the politicians and bureaucrats is to design the nation’s military forces, including buying equipment that meets the requirements to which political leaders have agreed.

That brings me to the two bookends: good leadership and proper organization.

The focus of military leadership training and development ~ the whole business of producing a well led military ~ must be on the most junior leaders: the leading seamen and corporals and the sub-lieutenants and 2nd lieutenants. We do not hire majors or major generals: we “grow” them from within, from seed, if you will, and those “seeds” are private soldiers on their way to the most junior leadership rank and officer cadets, aspiring to become officers. Their training must be rigorous and comprehensive or else we will end up with second rate commanders and colonels and admirals and generals; it has happened before and it will happen again.

Good leaders must be like the people they lead: tough, superbly disciplined ~ always better than the ranks and file, and, for the officers, even better than the petty officers and sergeants ~ and very, very well trained, too. Leaders, corporals and colonels and commodores, are a reflection of and an example to the men and women who serve under their command.

imagesOne of the great, perhaps the greatest flaws in Paul Hellyer’s military “reforms” in the 1960s resulted from an honest attempt to solve a military pay crisis. In the late 1950s and early 1960s military pay had fallen farther and farther behind both the private and (civil service) public sectors but, despite sundry advisory board and committee reports, there was no political will, in either the Diefenbaker or Pearson governments, to deal with the issue. Minister Hellyer did it: by mixing ranks and trades and, in the process, damaging the coherence of the critical junior leader ranks (leading seamen and corporals) and (navy sub-lieutenants and 2nd lieutenants in the army and air force). Mr Hellyer’s officials, in their enthusiasm to build a big, jolly green, integrated machine, ignored the fact ~ and it is a 11451382fact ~ that each service has its own unique leadership requirements and they each had solutions that had been developed over years, decades and even centuries. One great service that Minister Sajjan could do, without waiting for a full scale policy review, would be to revisit the rank, trade and pay system and reform it, again. It will not be a simple task but that is a reform that is long overdue and well worth the effort. That reform, because it involves the very structure of the military rank and pay system, is a task for a ministerial team, not for the Chief of the Defence Staff. In Canada, our Parliament (very properly, in keeping with the best traditions of parliamentary government) decides how many men and women may be in each rank level in the Canadian Armed Forces and how much they may be paid; so it is the minister, who is accountable to parliament, who must recommend changes ~ needed changes ~ to the current system.

Finally, we need a properly organized military force. I have dealt with military organization, perhaps at too great a length, just a few days ago. Organization matters: a good organizational structure and a good C² superstructure can add real, appreciable value to the military. A less than good structure ~ which is what I believe the Canadian Armed Forces have now ~ can bleed resources,. create confusion and can (does in my opinion) actually weaken the military and scarce waste money.

Nothing I have said can be taken to mean that we don’t need enough “numbers:” numbers of people, numbers of dollars and numbers of ships, tanks, trucks and aircraft. But we need to always ensure that we put a sufficient (for a G7 country) quantity of equipment into the hands of (enough, again) people of the very best quality: tough, superbly disciplined, very well trained and (at least) adequately equipped.

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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