Small, but difficult, first steps ~ but only for the bravest of the brave

I have asserted (albeit in another context) that the Canadian Armed Forces have “too many officers, especially senior ones, for a force our size.” Nowhere is this more of an issue than in our Army reserve force units.

hh-ranks-army-junior-officersNow, unless things have changed (and I don’t believe they have) most reserve force “major” units are tasked to be able to field one adequately trained troop or platoon sized element (say 35 soldiers commanded by a lieutenant). To do that most Army reserve units are allowed to recruit and pay about 150 people. That’s not an unreasonable number. That (150 soldiers) is only slightly more than we would find in a regular army infantry company that is commanded by a major, assisted by a captain and has three platoons commanded by subalterns. Considering that recruiting, training and, especially maintaining proficiency is much, much harder for reserve force soldiers than it is for the regular army, then getting a platoon from a 150 person unit should be considered a real accomplishment. But, the problem is that it is not just a mater of having one in, say, four of your people being trained, fit, equipped and ready to go in an emergency, because the reserve army unit doesn’t have 140 lieutenants and sergeants and privates led by a small cadre of experienced officers and warrant officers and supported by a handful of highly skilled and committed regulars, instead it has a C² superstructure that Canadian-Army-Officer-Rank-Insignia-2014-1024x405NCMis adapted from that of a unit of 500 or more soldiers: a lieutenant colonel, in command, a regimental sergeant major, several majors and captains and warrant officers and so on and so forth, but maybe just three or four lieutenants and only 50 to 100 soldiers fit and ready to fill the ranks. When one factors in availability to maintain readiness and go into action ~ say on a civil assistance mission ~ when required it is amazing that any army reserve unit can field a proper troop or platoon. In fact very, very can, and, knowing it is next to impossible, the higher commanders almost never ask them to do it.

sajjan4-aOur current Minister of National Defence, The Honourable Harjit Sajjan, knows this well, because, before entering politics he, as a lieutenant colonel, commanded one of those reserve army regiments, The British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own). He was, I am 100% certain, rightfully proud to command his unit and I am equally sure that he struggled mightily to put a group of, say, 35 Vance_Gen_2soldiers on exercise and to have them perform in manner that looked anything like a trained troop or platoon doing even a simple tactical task. You know, you could have put General Jonathan Vance into that position and even he, Canada’s top soldier, would have had a really, really hard time ~ nearly impossible ~ fielding a trained platoon. It wasn’t that Lieutenant Colonel Sajjan lacked anything in military skill or leadership ability, it is just that the deck was stacked against him; it’s stacked against every reserve unit commander. A few years ago a friend of mine, a reserve unit commanding officer, explained it something like this: ‘On a really, really good training night I look out on the parade square and I see two companies, each commanded by a major with the full panoply of officers and warrant officers but with only 30 soldiers in the ranks of the platoons ~ 15 in each. That’s sixty “working” level soldiers. Now,’ he went on, ‘there are another 15 “workers” in various places other than the parade square but fully one half of my “battalion” is “overhead.”‘ That’s what faces many reserve unit commanding officers, many others are even less lucky! They don’t even have the full 150, they are trying to field a platoon from, say, 120 or even 100 ~ half of whom are still “overhead” … not counting the band.

Five small steps, based on five principles …

Many of you will have already seen the obvious answer: merge several of those “top heavy” regiments and battalions into one, single, regional unit of, say, 600 or even 900 soldiers that can, then, field three or four trained platoons. That gets mooted about in NDHQ every couple of years and, also every couple of years, those who are older and wiser explain to newly promoted colonels, who have never served with the reserve forces, why it is impossible. It has even been suggested, up past the senior military levels, to the DM and even the minister more than once, and each time a consortium of regimental associations, local mayors and councillors and even local business leaders ~ all of whom are well connected, politically, to both Conservative and Liberal governments ~ rises up and it, always, has enough political clout to convince any minister of national defence that preserving the glorious traditions of the Buckshot Fusiliers is far more important to Canada than any financial savings or improvements in operational readiness that might result.

Principle No. 1, we may, therefore, deduce, is: Don’t touch the cap badges and colours; it’s futile.

The institutional army, the one with the big HQ in Ottawa, has learned Principle No. 1 and has responded by creating some regional battle groups into which each of several (really only imaginary) regiments and battalions put (equally imaginary) squadrons and companies. One of the regional reserve army unit’s command teams is designated as the unit HQ. is It’s a step in the right direction but it fails to address the “overhead,” wastage that is inherent when we have “regiments” and “battalions” and even (imaginary) brigades and divisions all over the place. The fundamental problem of how to field a trained, effective platoon of 35 soldiers, when you only have 75 part time people of the right sorts of ages and ranks from which to draw, remains unsolved.

Principle No. 2, for me, is: Reduce overheads in reserve units.

Reducing the overhead means replacing, in most units, the lieutenant colonel and most of the majors and warrant officers and, indeed, many of the officers with corporals and privates. Take, for example, a weak unit that, typically, can only “parade” 100: it has almost no chance of fielding even a small platoon when half the 100 are “overhead.” Reduce the “overhead” by, say, 20 and replace them with men and women in the junior ranks, and then things start to look manageable. Remember, please, that, in large measure, our “effective,” young, fit reserve members are, largely, students ~ they want to come out for two things:

  1. Pay, especially in the summer ~ college and university costs money; and
  2. Fun, they enjoy field soldiering; they’re less enchanted with regimental birthday parades and events that ask them to show up without signing the “pay sheet.” But they are, normally, willing to work hard at basic soldiering because they see its value.

But, not all “overhead” is bad and some is absolutely essential.

Reserve units need:

  1. Some experienced people, officers and NCOs, to provide continuity;
  2. Some experienced people to conduct training; and
  3. Some experienced, full time people to do administration, including equipment maintenance, and management.

Principle No. 3 should be to: Provide the right type and amount of overhead.

The necessary and productive overhead should include a good mix of experienced reserve soldiers on both part time and full time service, and excellent full time regular force people.

There is a perception amongst some regular force soldiers that service with a reserve unit is either career ending or soul destroying. Neither should be true, in fact the CDS and the Commander of the Canadian Army should guarantee that neither is true. Only really first class officers and non-commissioned members should be selected to serve with reserve units and the personnel management system should recognize and take account of the peculiarities of reserve service and adjust “scores” accordingly. When an officer or warrant officer is selected for posting to a reserve unit (s)he should know that, just be being selected, (s)he is in the top 10% of the army and is likely to promoted during or at the end of his/her tour with the reserves. Even more important, the full time officers and NCOs assigned to reserve units need to have the trust and active support of the staffs at formations and army HQs, and they need to be allowed to do their best to help their units, not forced into some “cookie cutter” system designed by people who don’t really understand the reserve situations.

Reserve and regular force members need to be able to move more easily between the two components, with their pay, benefits and pensions following, seamlessly. The way that many, even most reservists will gain the skills and knowledge they need is to serve for months and even, in some cases, years with the permanent force. Let’s just consider a hypothetical case: Bill ~

Bill joins his local reserve regiment (actually a company (although it’s called a squadron because it preserves its cap badge and “identity” even though it was required to re-role from armour to infantry*) in the local, regional battle group) when he is 17 and in his last year in high school. He serves, happily, through that year and four more years of university. He’s a good soldier and a valued member of the unit and he’s been very happy in his service because, amongst other things, it provided several weeks of pretty well paid summer work each year and some pocket money during the school 2-caf-9-30-08-pbyear. When he graduates with a BA, at the age of 22, he soon discovers that jobs in his field of study are very hard to come by. Bill checks the unit notice board and sees that there are vacancies for qualified reservists in a regular force infantry regiment. He’s adequately trained and qualified and, after a few interviews and some other checks ~ about four weeks in all ~ he is posted to a battalion on a distant base. He serves, again happily and well, for three more years and the CO encourages him to stay in the permanent force component of the army. But, now, at age 25, Bill knows that he wants something different and he returns home and enrols in a local college for a two year course that, with his degree, will let him start a business of his own in a field in which he is very interested. He also rejoins his regiment and becomes a sergeant. At age 27 Bill has both a degree and a diploma and three stripes on his sleeve … and a new wife, too. They need to earn and save some money, while she finishes her degree, and in order to have start up capital for the business they want to start together. Bill checks the notice board again and sees that there are some full time slots available with the regional battle group and he applies for one. Three years later, at age 30, 13 years after he first joined, Bill has completed a degree, a diploma, several important army career courses and five years of full time service. He and his wife start their business and Bill rejoins his “home” regiment as a part time soldier, again, now as a warrant office, second in command of the “training troop,” putting his skills and knowledge to good use, enjoying being a soldier (and enjoying the little extra in the bank every month, too) and taking some considerable pride in his position as both an entrepreneur and a citizen-soldier. Over the next few years Bill becomes the Squadron Quartermaster Sergeant, then the unit training coordinator and, later the Squadron Sergeant Major. At age 39 Bill has done it all and is ready, after 22 years of service to “retire” and run his business. He will get a small but welcome pension, based on six years of full time service and 16 of part time service. He has been offered an appointment on the brigade staff but Bill has achieved everything he ever set out to do, at age 17, and age 22, and age 30, and more, and he is happy to step away and let someone younger take over …

that’s how it should work. As anyone in the military will tell that’s not how it does work.

Principle No. 4, in my book, is: The Army needs to be a single, total force, organization.

Again, anyone in the military will tell you that the RCN is farther along this “total force” path than the Army, and the Navy is having many difficulties ~ facing systemic problems. Terms of service, personnel management, pay and pension portability, component transferring, and, and, and … are all HUGE obstacles to creating a workable “total force.” A lot of very hard (and in some cases very senior) staff work and negotiations with e.g the Treasury Board and even parliament will be required to revise laws and acts and regulations to make the “total force” work. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the Army has too many staff officers, especially senior ones, doing less that critical work in too many headquarters which often exist only to coordinate with one another. A minister and a CDS who want to make some useful progress, even while serving a government that is anti-military, can and should focus on devoting sufficient (and sufficiently senior) staff effort to making the “total force” possible and workable.

But solving the “total force” conundrum, reducing and quantity and addressing the quality of “overhead,” and even safeguarding the cap badges will not “fix” the army reserve unless some more, probably considerably more resources are provided.

The reserves need people to support them, people to teach them (and those people need to be both regulars and reservists) and they need equipment with which to work. In many cases it is best if the reservists use the same equipment as the regulars …

… in other cases the equipment used by the regular force may be too complex to be allow part time soldiers to gain sufficient skill to use it in any reasonable time frame. In that case different equipment, and consequently, different roles for reserve units may be appropriate …

… in any event the reserve units need equipment, more and better equipment than they have, in their local armouries for training on evenings and weekends, and in regional pools, perhaps in army training areas, for collective use on field exercises, and that equipment needs to be maintained in first rate working order so that scarce training time is not wasted because equipment is unserviceable. That means more equipment maintenance resources need to be assigned to the reserve force.

Principle No. 5 is: The reserve force is only as good as the “institutional army” makes it.

So there are five, mostly fairly small steps based on what I hope are sound principles for making the reserves better. But, although small steps none are easy, not even the first one. Steps 2 and 3 require attitudinal changes in both the reserves and in the regular, “institutional” army. Step 4 will require some very hard, very diligent staff work and some courage, on the part of the most senior officers when they face up to reluctant and suspicious bureaucrats at the most senior levels. Step 5 requires that money and people be taken away from the regular force and be used to support the reserves … that will not be popular.

I have not addressed what the reserve force ought to look like. More experienced and knowledgable peole than I may want to weight in. But: The reserve army is authorized to have about 18,000 people, all ranks. My guess is that the reserve army should be able to produce something like:

  • Eight to 12 batteries of artillery;
  • Four to six engineer squadrons;
  • Four to six signal units;
  • Ten to 15 infantry heavy battle groups (reserve battalions); and
  • Ten to 15 combat service support units ~ supply and transport companies, etc.

Thats 40 to 50 units. There are, I think, about 100 units in the reserve force now, 65+ with unique armour or infantry unit identities that need to be “protected.” If each of, say, 12, battle group “protects” 4, 5 or 6 “cap badges” in a HQ squadron or company, three or four “line” squadrons/companies, and a combat support squadron/company, then that should be achievable.

Conclusion …

timthumbWhat I have described are five vastly oversimplified steps based on what I hope are sound principles: I have no illusions about the difficulty of all of them and the enormous complexity of a couple of them. But, as Lao Tzu suggested, we have to start somewhere, sometime … the time, it seems to me, is now, when it is likely that the government of the day will be uninterested in other military matters. The where is in “fort fumble,” as National Defence Headquarters (in the Pearkes Building) in Ottawa is called ~ it’s where the Minister of National Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Commander of the Canadian Army all work.

Making the reserves qualitatively better should be a very high priority for the Army, especially is, as I expect, the government will be, at best, indifferent to national defence.It should also be a priority for all those individual politicians who actually care about defence and the Canadian Armed Forces ~ it should be, in other words, a non partisan issue.

But, it will not be easy and “reforming” the reserves is something to be attempted only by the bravest of the brave.


* The re-role business is not new, the Governor General’s Foot Guard (how much more infantry can you get?) was required to re-role to armour in 1942 and served well in that role,in North West Europe; nor is it unique to the Canadians Army ~ the British Army continues to do it, today.

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.

10 thoughts on “Small, but difficult, first steps ~ but only for the bravest of the brave

  1. While I agree on near everything that has been said regarding our Reserve units, it requires commitment and example by the Regulars. If we want to get rid of the Reserve glut of LCols and CWOs it should start with the Regular Force. Our Regular Force is populated by useless HQs. The job of these HQs is nothing more than to create jobs for LCols and above. There are approximately 79 generals, but captains make up the largest single cohort at 5,827. There are almost as many military people in Ottawa as we have in all the combat arms combined. We have the 1st Canadian Division HQ, sounds big and powerful. In reality it is nothing more than a bunch of officers and the HQ is subservient to the Canadian Joint Operations Command, another HQ. The brain trust and Regular Force have to lead by example and cut this number down before we worry about part time soldiers.

  2. I agree with you 100%, Dave, but my suspicion is that this government will have little stomach for any military matters but this minister might have some thoughts on how to make the reserves, from whose ranks he came, better.

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