Military support and services

cms-image-000006323Apache_Helicopter_Firing_Rockets_MOD_45154922I have dealt, somewhat perfunctorily, with the bright and shiny aspects of the military, the things that attract public attention and, often, the public’s ire, too: new ships and aircraft and so on and the many, many men and women who use, operate and maintain them.

My view is that Canada, since about the mid 1960s, has been trying to “do more with less,” and has failed until, today, a half century after our last, serious, restructure of the Canadian Forces, we have far, far too few uniformed women and men, too few using old, tired, expensive to maintain ships, tanks, armoured vehicles, radio and aircraft in pursuit of too many “penny packet” missions. I think the reason that Canada can provide offer only 450± soldiers for NATO deterrence in Latvia and 650± soldiers and police officers for UN duty is that the Chief of the Defence Staff has explained that, with ships, soldiers and air forces already, in those small “penny packet” teams in the Eastern Mediterranean, Ukraine, Iraq and Kuwait there is only enough “capacity” to send about 1,000 more people anywhere, maybe 1,500 if they were, all, going to just one place, but only 1,000 if it is two or three new places.

One of the likely constraints that I suspect the CDS understands is that even if he had enough ships, combat troops and aircraft, he doesn’t have the administrative and logistical capacity to support them ~ especially, as my friend Infanteer commented in “places without bases.”

Support and services run the gamut from the highest strategic levels (defence policy and procurement) right down to the tactical level (resupply runs and on-site repair of e.g. vehicles and weapons). The “supporters” are, sometimes, civilians working in air conditioned offices far from any battlefield, and, other times, tired, dirty soldiers sharing the same risks as the infantry. It may be that there is a young engineer officer, today, helping Iraqis to clear mines so that the infantry can pass through, who will, six months from now be planning the maintenance of kitchens and barracks and school buildings at CFB Borden.

CME_BadgeSome supporting services, like Engineers and Signals in the Army, are ubiquitous (in fact Ubique (everywhere) is the Engineers’ motto) while others are, somewhat less often found throughout the combat zone and are, instead, concentrated in the brigade and division rear areas and, of course, all the way “back” to the national supply depots.

We might, broadly, think about support services in two groups: those which serve the sailor, soldier and air force member as individuals (medical and dental, pay, postal and individual training, for example) and those which serve the military en masse, in groups, like procurement, supply and transport and engineering and telecommunications and personnel management).

There is a constant tendency in “official Ottawa” to try to make support and services, of all types, more efficient and effective and, concomitantly, smaller and less costly … now and again it actually happens. I would argue that military support services have been studied and organized to death.

One key factor that all arm-chair strategists ought to consider is that it is cheaper, quicker and easier to recruit and train a whole section of infantrymen than it is to recruit and train one RCAF avionics technician or one RCN missile technician. The permanent, full time, regular military force probably ought to be a bit “top heavy” in support because the “supporters” are needed when it is time to recruit and train the “fighters.” (This is part of an argument for a “support heavy” regular (full time) force and a combat effective, well trained, well equipped reserve force that can, quickly (say 90 days), generate something like 35± rifle platoons from 50± reserve infantry units – nearly enough platoons for an infantry brigade.)

I have mentioned before that amateurs talk about tactics and professionals study logistics, but professionals also study organization and administration to ensure that both the combat forces and the logistical support are prepared and available for war. Good organization and administration start from the very top: from the political and policy centre in Ottawa where the government of day does not accept top heavy, hide bound administration and management nor morbidly obese military command and control (C²) superstructures. The organization of the whole of the defence staff, from top (the deputy minister) to bottom (the clerk in a company orderly room), must have just two aims:

  1. To support the commander-in-chief and other authorized commanders in the exercise of command by relieving them of detail; and
  2. To support subordinate formations and units in the execution of their tasks by managing resources, including time.

That is exactly what a military staff does ~ it is possible to dress up those two tasks with bureaucratic bafflegab but anyone who thinks that a military staff (or the bigger defence staff) does anything more (or less0 doesn’t understand either the military or a staff.

So, the first key component of “support” is the defence staff itself. In both the big, broad field of national defence and in the narrower domains of support and services for the armed forces: (good) management matters.

The second key component is resources: support and services are, also, “big ticket” items. The cost, for example, of maintaining a modern warship or jet fighter-bomber is far, Far, type-26-ship-sizedFAR more than paltry hundred million or even a billion that the aircraft or ship costs to “fly away” from the manufacturer’s plant or “sail away” from the builder’s yard. The business of keeping ships and sea, tanks running and aircraft in the air also requires legions of skilled people: military and civilian, in dockyards, on bases and in the ships and in units, themselves. And it is also a never ending cycle: the men and women doing the support mustcanada-hangar be supported themselves. Consider a very remote, “unmanned” wireless station: it is “unmanned” except for a few technicians, but they cannot exist alone ~ they need supplies and that means there needs to be an airfield with, e.g. a control tower and a snowplow to keep the runway cleared and someone to maintain the radar and the snowplow and, then, a cook or two and a nurse, and, and, and … until, suddenly, the “bill” for supporting a half dozen technicians, who “support” the radios, is 65 supporters! That;’s an extreme, but not at all unreasonable example.

It doesn’t matterimages if the Canadian Forces are supporting others in training or disaster relief missions, or doing peacekeeping or full blown combat operations. Every ship, every unit, every aircraft and every person must be supported ~ all the way from Ottawa to, nearly, the end of the world. Every ship and every tank and every airplane and every building has a support “bill:’ often much higher, over the years, than the capital costs. Understanding support and services and supporting the supporters matters.

Support and services is neither easy nor cheap, but both are vital. A military force, even one with the most bight and shiny new things, cannot be ready to fight if it does not have adequate support services and a force that is committed to battle with inadequate support will almost always lose.


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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