I apologize in advance for a rather lengthy post and for the fact that it deals with some quite arcane details of military management, administration and organization, but, in my opinion, those things matter.
A couple of weeks ago I posted an article about the importance of “junior leadership” in the military, especially, but, by extension, in all enterprises. My point was that if one lays a good, firm, foundation of “junior leadership” (tank and rifle section and troop and platoon commanders in the Army) then everything else ~ senior leadership, management, operations and even strategy ~ will probably thrive, but, if the foundation is weak, poorly laid, then success is unlikely in anything, and, if it does occur, it will be by accident.
I am reminded that back in the 1960s one of the (many) problems than then Minister of National Defence Paul Hellyer wanted to solve was pay. The Navy, Army and Air Force were having some trouble recruiting in the late 1950s and early 1960s: the post-war recessions were over, the economy was growing, the threat of war seemed to be receding and military pay was quite low … all those things made recruiting and retaining the right people more difficult ~ especially for a military that was changing, rapidly, into a technologically sophisticated organization. There had been several boards and panels, reporting to both Prime Ministers Diefenbaker and Pearson, recommending new, better, higher pay scales for the military but little action had been taken because there was no public appetite for military pay raises. Paul Hellyer decided to ‘workaround’ the problem by changing the definitions of “junior leadership.” Whereas, prior to the mid-1960s, the tank or infantry section commander had been a corporal (a rank that one could, theoretically, achieve after only 18 months of training ~ and 20 or 21-year-old corporals were not rare, I know because I was one) and the platoon or troop commanders were lieutenants, Mr Hellyer changed the rank of tank and section commander to sergeant (a rank that, typically, takes 10 years to achieve) and made promotion to corporal automatic, subject only to passing a trade/speciality skill course, and he made troop and platoon commanders captains and lowered the time that had to be spent as a lieutenant.
The effect was to debase the rank of corporal ~ which still retained its status as a “non commissioned officer” rank in the National Defence Act and Queen’s Regulations ~ by making privates and corporals interchangeable as “workers,” and, equally, to debase the captain rank by making captains and lieutenants interchangeable as first-level combat commanders. In effect, while trying to solve one problem, Mr Hellyer created another ~ which I believe might be more serious.
All of the above is, to the best of my understanding from reading and recollection (I was there, in the 1960s, as a soldier and officer) factual. What follows is my personal opinion and it:
- Is just an opinion, based solely on my own personal experiences and, indeed, prejudices;
- Is applicable only to the Army ~ the RCN and RCAF have their own organizational and leadership issues and dilemmas;
- Would be very disruptive and costly to implement and might even be harmful to morale (as almost any change often is) in the short term; and
- Seems not to be considered important by the Canadian Forces’ senior leadership or, despite the cost and disruption, they would have done something about it sometime during the past 50 years.
Most armies have eight to ten or more enlisted ranks, the Canadian Army has seven distinct ranks and, within them, 10 pay levels because, amongst other things, Mr Hellyer tied rank to trade level.
I think we need to take a look at leadership requirements and then derive an Army rank structure that suits it.
My list of “leadership” levels would be something like this:
- Enlisted soldiers
- No leadership
- Private Recruit
- Private under training
- Trained private, needs supervision
- Trained soldier, works without much supervision
- Junior leader
- Apprentice junior leader ~ leads one or two others
- Junior leader ~ leads two to five people
- Advanced junior leader ~ commands a tank or infantry section
- Senior leader
- First level senior leader ~ commands a technically complex section or is the 2IC (second in command) (to a lieutenant) of a troop of four tanks or a rifle platoon of 35± person platoon
- Second level senior leader ~ 2IC of a large and complex troop or platoon or a staff NCO in a company or battalion HQ
- Third level senior leader ~ company sergeant major or a senior staff NCO
- Fourth level senior leader ~ regimental sergeant major or a technical staff manager
- No leadership
- Junior leaders ~ second lieutenants and lieutenants ~ platoon troop commanders
- Leaders ~ captains ~ command large, complex troops and platoons and are staff officers in HQs
- Senior leaders ~ majors ~ command squadrons, batteries and companies of 75 to 250 soldiers or are staff officers in HQs
- Commanders ~ lieutenant colonels ~ command regiments and battalions of 500 to 1,500 soldiers and are senior staff officers in HQ
- Senior commanders and generals officers ~ colonels and above
The key, it seems to me, is to get the junior leaders (the apprentice junior leaders, junior leaders and advanced junior leaders ~ who we might call lance corporals, corporals and master corporals if we want to assign ranks, and the second lieutenants and lieutenants) right …
… and then trust that they will provide a firm, secure foundation upon which we can build senior leaders, non-commissioned and commissioned, from sergeant to general because we will have a good, solid pool from which to select.
There was always a problem with the old (1900s to 1960s) Army rank structure: there was some need to tie rank to trade, but not as tightly, many military people believe, as in the Canadian Armed Forces today. Some branches (corps) used to have fairly strict rules: in the old (1960s) Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, for example, the technicians, amongst the very highest paid soldiers in the whole army, could not attend the long, difficult and expensive, advanced (3rd of 4 levels) technician course until they had passed the junior leadership course and they could not attempt the senior leadership course until they had passed the advanced technician’s course, and so on. But that system always excluded some good people. There were, and still are today, many people who can be excellent, even outstanding technicians but cannot lead or manage soldiers. The United States Army addressed this same issue by creating the “specialist” grouping which allowed soldiers to “advance” trough part of the pay system ~ higher salaries for technical skills ~ but not the other ~ even higher salaries for leadership. In past years there were many different (paid) grades of specialist but now it is a “rank” equivalent to the US Army corporal for soldiers who have not yet or cannot pass the first level junior leader course. The British Royal Air Force has a similar and, in my opinion, a better system …
… which recognizes both technical skill and leadership requirements.
In my opinion, we should undo much of what Mr Hellyer did, while thanking him for addressing the pay problem, and restore the junior leadership positions, especially the tank and rifle section commanders, to the real, and younger, junior leaders: those in the rank of master corporal. This will restore the senior leaders to their traditional roles as “guides” and mentors to the junior leaders: both to the corporals and the lieutenants. The ranks of sergeant ~ in several “grades” and warrant officer are often, and very correctly, referred to as the backbone or even the “heart and soul” of the army. That is partly because, traditionally, they stood ever so slightly “aloof” from the rank and file. The lieutenants gave orders, advised, coached and mentored by the sergeants, to the corporals who, then, directly led the riflemen but were also mentored by the sergeants. It was, to repeat the words I used to describe the US constitution, “a fine and finely balanced system;” we upset the balance 50 years ago to solve a pay problem. We should, also, adapt the RAF’s aircraftman/technician to our own needs to allow some soldiers to advance “up” in their technical field (and be paid more) without becoming leaders (and being paid more for that, too).
To do that the Army will have to reform itself.
First, it will have to repose trust in its junior leaders; that’s something that will be hard to do, even after the Army, of absolute necessity, makes junior leader training ~ making privates into corporals and civilians into second lieutenants ~ its highest priority and the job it assigns to its very, very best senior leaders.
Second, it will have to restore the “sergeant’s mess” to its traditional pride of place in the Army by giving the sergeants and warrant officers back the senior supervisory and management duties that have, in far too many cases, migrated “upwards” until they are now done by captains and even majors. Once again, it is a trust issue and we live in a world where many of the most senior leaders are timid because they have been “burned” too often, by their own superiors, when a subordinate makes a mistake. Mistakes are part of human nature; they have to be corrected, forgiven, in most cases, and, very often, used as teaching aids.
Third, the government will need to revise the pay system so that junior leaders are paid more and, meanwhile, the gap between corporal and master corporal and sergeant is maintained.
Fourth, promotions, in the Army, at least, to corporal and to captain must not be automatic. Promotion to corporal must require that one pass a very tough junior leaders course; promotion from lieutenant to captain should be by examination.
But, doing these four things will, in my opinion, give the Army a firm foundation upon which to build and fight.
I am driven towards this position in some part because of something that the great British strategist, one of the “fathers” of modern armoured-mechanized-mobile warfare, Major General JFC “Boney” Fuller, wrote in the mid-1930s called “Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure: A Study of the Personal Factor in Command.” In it, Fuller was harshly critical of what he saw as an old, fat (quite literally) and out of touch military command structure that was intent on fighting the last war, or even the one before that, and was unable to innovate or accept change. Too many generals, he suggested, were physically and mentally unfit for the stresses of modern war, they could not “rough it” with soldiers and actually needed to be in nice warm chateaux behind the lines while soldiers and colonels fought in the mud. This is related to something that the brilliant British soldier-scholar Field Marshal Lord Wavell said in his comments on “generalship:” commanders need to be “robust … able to withstand the shocks of war.” Fuller, especially, went to great lengths, and back two thousand plus years in history, to say that wars and military leadership require physical and mental vigour and that young people, often very young people can master both war and leadership. I suspect that both Fuller and Wavell would look at our modern Canadian Army, especially at out seasoned, experienced and relatively old sergeant section and tank commanders and so, “No, no, no! You’re wasting all that good training and experience at too low a level. Section commanders need only half that much training; those sergeants should be doing more and more important things.”
I believe that we, the Canadian public, need and deserve a more efficient and cost-effective Army, and one way to make it so is to lower the ranks of junior leaders: tank and rifle section and tank troop and rifle platoon commanders. It should be harder but quicker for young soldiers to achieve the ranks of lance corporal, corporal and master corporal and command a tank or rifle section ~ but the corporals and master corporals should be paid more. Junior officers should spend longer in the ranks of second lieutenant and lieutenant, and be paid more, while they are given the opportunities to master the basics of their profession. If you have first-rate platoon commanders you’ll get good generals without too much trouble … if you don’t have a plentiful supply of really good tank troop and rifle platoon commanders then good generals will only appear now and again, by happy accident.
Another way to address what I consider to be a serious over-ranking problem in Canada is to revisit the staff system.
Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st there have been, largely, two staff systems:
- The continental system ~ which is used by most European armies and also used by the American and many, many Asian armies;
- The imperial, or British staff system which was used by the Canadian Army throughout most of the 20th century.
The two are fundamentally different.
The continental system is based on the great and impressive German General Staff system which grew up in the 19th century based on lessons learned in the Napoleonic Wars and then relearned in inter alia the Franco-Prussian Wars. The imperial system came later and reflected British thinking about what the Germans had formalized.
The best way to see the difference is to look at how the commanders and staff relate. In a French or German battalion ~ at least this was the case a few years ago ~ a company (100 to 150 soldiers) is commanded by a captain; there are only two or three officers in the company. The battalion, three, for or five companies, is commanded by a lieutenant colonel, and there is a major deputy commander. The battalion staff consists of:
- S1 – personnel officer – a captain
- S2 – intelligence officer – a captain, sometimes a major
- S3 – operations officer – a major
- S4 – logistics officer – a major
- S5 – plans officer – a captain, often a major
For the German captain, company commander, looking “up the chain,” all he sees is higher ranks and he will never be blamed for being unsure if the commanding officer or the operations officer is the real “boss.” Ditto for French and American officers whose command-staff relationships are very, very similar. One of the great strengths of the German General Staff system was it “coherence.” The staff, at every level, was part of a single, coherent whole that stretched top to bottom from Berlin to the smallest battalion in the field. It is part of what made the German General Staff so famous and so feared by enemy armies. But the British, especially in 1914-18, saw a flaw in the continental system. The soldiers and commanders in the battalions and brigades in the trenches saw the general staff as being too remote, and even comfortable ~ removed from the horrors of combat and, consequently, many felt, making poor staff decisions. The system of the staff out-ranking subordinate commanders extends all the way to the top of the US Army and most European armies. Higher rank staff officers tend to build bigger and bigger HQs, too.
The British adapted their imperial system so that is was always crystal clear that commanders, from company up, always outranked and “out-appointed” the staff. Consider a British or Canadian battalion, also with, say, five companies. Like the US or European battalion, the commanding officer is a lieutenant colonel, but each company commander is a major and the staff are:
- Adjutant (S1/personnel) – a captain
- Intelligence officer (S2) – a lieutenant, maybe a captain
- Operations officer (S3 and S5) – a captain, but, after about 1944 usually a major by “misemploying” the HQ Company commander
- Quartermaster (S4) – a captain
So a British or Australian or Canadian or Indian major, company commander, looking “up the chain” saw that there was no one between him (or her) and the CO except officers of equal or lower rank. The same applied, top to bottom: Field Marshal Montgomery’s (famously able) chief of staff was a major general … but you can be 100% certain that when Major-General Sir Francis Wilfred “Freddie” de Guingand, a two-star level officer, phoned General (four-stars) Henry Duncan Graham “Harry” Crerar, commander of the 1st Canadian Army in 1944/45 was wakened up and took the call because Monty’s chief-of-staff only dealt with important people and important matters. Rank didn’t really matter: de Guingand didn’t need any more stars ~ his appointment and ability both spoke (loudly) for themselves.
One result was that imperial (Commonwealth) armies tended to have smaller and lower-ranked HQs, top to bottom.
There is no empirical proof that the continental staff system is better than the imperial one. The German General Staff was, indeed, superb, but that didn’t help, in 1944/45 when the German divisions and regiments and battalions were being defeated in detail on the front lines. Ditto in Korea and Vietnam: large numbers of excellent staff officers and superior communications systems didn’t help (and may have hindered) when the (first French and then) American brigades and battalions were being beaten in the jungles and rice paddies. The British, too, were defeated in battle ~ Dunkirk, Hong Kong, Singapore ~ but there is no evidence that bad operational staff work was to blame.
The Minister of National Defence would be well advised to revisit the command vs. staff structure to ensure we have the right ranks, corporal to general, in command, and equally, the right (lower) ranks in supporting staff positions at every level.