Time to cut the FAT!

I have said before, again and again, in fact, that the Canadian Forces’ command and control, superstructure is beyond fat or even bloated, it is, in my professional opinion, so morbidly obese as to be dangerous to our national defence. We have so many underemployed admirals and generals sitting in too many headquarters that do not even oversee any units that they ~ the brass and the HQs ~ are actually harmful.

Now, Lee Berthiaume, of The Canadian Press, reporting on CTV News, has put some numbers to the problem. “The Canadian military,” he says, “has been getting heavier IMG_2_JOINTEX_VTup top and not in the muffin sort of way … [because] … New figures show the ranks of the Canadian Forces’ senior brass have been growing at a much faster rate than the rest of the military over the last 15 years as dozens of generals and admirals have been added … [and, he asks] … How much faster? There were 130 generals and admirals in January 2018 compared with 81 during same month in 2003 – a 60 per cent increase over a period in which the rest of the military grew by less than two per cent.”

One might think that would be a wake-up call for a leadership team that is struggling with too many tasks and too little money and, above all, too few people … IF one thought that, in Canada, she or he would be mistaken, because the report goes on to say, “Defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance stood by the additional brass in an interview on Wednesday and said he plans to grow the senior ranks even more in the coming years in response to new demands and challenges … [because] … “The number of general officers in militaries is not a direct reflection or correlation to the number of people you have in your military,” he told The Canadian Press. “We don’t grow generals because we want more generals.”

He’s correct, of course, that “we don’t grow generals because we want more generals,” but we do “grow generals” because we have a silly organizational and management culture ~ not only in the military ~ that thinks that only senior executive can solve problems. That is demonstrably not true and very, very effective military forces, like Israel’s and India’s get along with far fewer very senior officers doing the most important staff work. The current Canadian structure is, in almost every single office, over-ranked by at least one level … almost every single Navy captain or Army and RCAF colonel in almost every HQ should be a Navy commander or Army/RCAF lieutenant colonel. The civil service “rank” of director is the first level executive … back in the mid-1960s, when Paul Hellyer was reorganizing (integrating and unifying) the Canadian military his team made a mistake and decided that Navy HMCS Winnipegcaptain and Army or RCAF colonel was the appropriate “benchmark” for executive. It’s not, as I said they made a mistake, the first executive level in the Canadian Forces is the commander who is captain of a frigate, or the lieutenant colonel who commands a regiment or battalion or a flying squadron or a base aircraft maintenance squadron … anyone, including some generals who disputes that simply doesn’t understand either “military” or “executive.”

That’s one of the main roots of our problem … but higher and higher ranks are popular in the officer corps and there is little pressure to change things. But there should be … we should be worried that our first level executives are probably getting a bit stale by the time they get to exercise their finely honed, in operations, executive skills in an HQ staff appointment. Plus, of course, if we replace almost all the HQ Navy captains and Army and RCAF colonels with commanders and lieutenant colonels then they (the captains and colonels) will need new jobs … and they’ll be ready and able to replace commodores and brigadier generals who will, in turn, replace rear admirals and major generals. It will not be hard, at all, to cut 50 admirals and generals ~ and hire 50 new vehicle mechanics or infantry soldiers or combat engineers or whatever we need most.

One of the visible signs of the overrank problem is that, I’ve been told by trusted sources, almost every time one of our senior officers is offered a decent civilian job they leave the military and take it. That should tell the Minister and the Chief of the Defence type-a-personalityStaff that there is not enough challenge in the system … there are too many “Type A personality” people ~ which is what almost all admirals and generals are ~ chasing too little really important, productive work. That’s the sad situation of too many generals with too few soldiers and too many colonels doing and re-doing too many needless staff studies.

Another problem that worries me more is that I’m not sure that a small regular force ~ from which almost all admirals and generals come ~  can produce 25 to 30 good commodores and brigadier generals every year, year after year, after year. I fear that in some years we are going to promote less than able officers to flag rank … if we promote just one or two, a couple of less than adequate officers every year or so we will soon have a leadership team that is not up to the task.

We, beginning, I think, way back in 1970, became fascinated with the US way of doing business. Now I’m not a fan of the US military command and control superstructure but I am happy to concede that it works for a gigantic military establishment: over 2 million active and reserve military members and a budget of over $(CA)740 Billion (as compared to Canada with 111,000 regular and reserve military members and a budget of less than $(CA)19 Billion). I am definitely not a fan of the US staff system which, in my professional opinion, is too rank heavy and which, too often, confuses control with command. But, in the early 2000s, we went “all in” with the American model and the result is one admiral and general for every 900 or so officers and sailors, soldiers and air force member – one for every 500+ if we count only the regular force members because all most all the admirals and generals are “full time” while only 60% of the remainder are on full-time service.

Now, I accept General Vance’s contention that “Canada has deployed more senior officers to act as liaison officers with various U.S. and foreign commands in response to evolving threats and the need for greater understanding of what is happening overseas.” The fairly simple fact is that the Americans, by and large, will not talk to anyone below the rank of brigadier general … the exception, of course, is that Israel sends a colonel and (s)he gets into the room … because (s)he represents what many, including many in the Pentagon, consider to be the best military force in the world. It is also true that, sometimes, the policy and political centre in Ottawa demand that the Canadian Forces get “on board” with some political priority and they expect an admiral or general or commodore to be the public face the military’s enthusiasm for the project … but those two factors (US and Ottawa political pressures) probably only account for less than 10 of all those generals. We have, in the Canadian Forces, HQs with two or three generals and a half dozen colonels who do not “command” a single unit … that is, in my opinion, both amateurish and organizational madness.

Not everyone agrees with me: “The business of defence has become increasingly complex over the last 20 years,” Canadian Forces College professor Eric Ouellet said in an email. “So, there is a need for more ‘management’ and therefore more (senior officers).”” He’s partially right: the bureaucratic “business” has become more complicated but he’s quite wrong to assume that the “answer” is more senior officers. The first, better answer is to cut away some, a lot actually, of the bureaucratic madness that makes the “business” of defence more complex; the second step is then to put the right level of executive in place where they are necessary … the last, and often unhelpful step is to over-rank that executive. Good management needs good people, not, necessarily, higher ranked people.

A few years ago the management gurus were talking about “delayering:” reducing the number of layers of control and management between the executives and the workers on the production line, in the control room or at the retail counter. Delayering worked, processes were streamlined and profits increased but middle managers ~ who should be in the corporate incubator, being “grown” into senior managers suffered. Corporations responded by importing management from outside of their own corporate structures and were delighted to find that a financial manager can learn to be an industrial production manager and an industrial production manager can learn to manage retail operations and so on. It’s not exactly like that in the military. An infantry platoon commander does not understand, even with a bit of training and experience, how to command a “flight” of aircraft and an air forces flight commander, even after passing through a joint service staff college is not ready to command a warship ~ some “streams” and “stovepipes” are needed in the military. But, even allowing for that, much of the military middle management does not require specialists, or, when it does, as in e.g. some technological areas or in human resource management, professional training can be provided. Further, as the Canadian Forces is proving, right now, some staff appointments can be filled by chief petty officers and warrant officers after they pass a long (one academic year) course at a specialized service school. Additionally, some military middle management jobs can be done by civilians. But, in the early 2000s, the Canadian Forces decided that more and bigger HQs were the right answer to its perceived problems.

the-new-chief-1I believe that General Vance is wrong. I also believe that his predecessors, going all the way back to, and indeed far back past, Rick Hiller, were wrong when they adopted the wrong models for the command and control of our small, professional military force. I 127203-004-346A8CF6believe that Andrew Leslie, a retired general, himself, knew they were wrong and wanted to fix some of the problems before he entered politics. But there was a lot of pressure to change ~ sometimes just for the sake of change ~ LT-GEN-ANDREW-LESLIE-14-1-1-1“transformation” was a big thing in the early 2000s, and change for the sake of change was a popular pass-time. Now it’s time for another change … ““Initiatives to reduce overhead should target the disproportionate increases in senior management … aiming to restore civilian and military (executive) positions to roughly 2004 levels,” Leslie wrote” back when he was, still a general in 2010. I agree ~ that would be about 90 admirals and generals and commodores for a force of 111,000+ in all ranks in all services in both the regular and reserve forces ~ still, I suspect, “top-heavy” by, say, Israeli standards.

I believe that Canada needs a new defence minister, not a retired general, although I think Andrew Leslie would be a fit in almost any cabinet post, but someone who has led and managed things on her or his own and who will not be a “captive” of the admirals and generals in the HQ, as I thought Peter MacKay was and as I suspect Harjit Sajjan is, too. That new minister needs to serve in a cabinet that actually gives a damn about the military … in other words not in one led by Justin Trudeau and Gerald Butts. That new minister in that new government needs to impose some fiscal and managerial discipline on a military that has, I believe it is fair to say, lost its way.

The new minister, a Brooke Claxton type, needs to begin by directing the military to dump the US style command and staff system and adopt one that has actually won wars, large and small, in recent years … I have my own ideas on what models might work best but I’m no longer current with best practices. What I am certain about is that “best practices” and “the Pentagon” are rarely able to be said in the same sentence. Not all countries with good naval and military forces follow the US model. Not all countries with good naval and military forces see the need for many, many very senior officers in too many HQs. There is a lot of talk in the US Military and in the Canadian Forces about “mission command” which is, somehow, supposed, to help overcome the fear of subordinate failures that is endemic in those two forces … it doesn’t work. “Systems” like “mission command” are absolutely useless and until the entire command culture accepts that individual ship, unit and squadron commanders are operationally autonomous ~ not in need of minute-by-minute micro-management by some overweight staff officer in an overstuffed HQ ~ and that they, being executives, can be trusted to make the best decision possible under whatever circumstances they face. Sometimes they, the local commanders will fail ~ that, mission failure, will embarrass the minster … So what? The only way to “grow” the generals that General Vance says he needs is by trusting subordinates, and that, I believe, will require taking 30ish years of Canadian military command and control doctrine and chucking it (and many of its most senior practitioners) onto history rubbish heap where it (and they) belong.

That’s not something that any admiral or general is going to want to do … it will need ministerial level leadership of the first order and political commitment in equal measure.

fatcomputerBut the alternative is to accept that this is the sort of military we want and need … and I’m pretty sure most Canadians, if they ever think about it, want something better. Canada is being shortchanged by the Canadian Forces; we have a bloated command and control (C²) superstructure perched atop a puny mix of too few old, rusty ships, too few and all understrength regiments and battalions and too few squadrons of, mostly, too old aircraft. Cutting 50 admirals and generals might not make much difference in the big picture … unless it is accompanied by wholesale military reform which includes adapting better C² models to Canada’s needs.

Such models exist … just not in Washington or Brussels.


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.

6 thoughts on “Time to cut the FAT!

  1. over 2 million active and reserve military members and a budget of over $(CA)740 Billion (as compared to Canada with 111,000 regular and reserve military members and a budget of less than $(CA)19 Billion)

    The old 10:1 rule (10 Americans for every Canadian) would suggest an equitable Canadian effort of 200,000 reg and reserve members (or a little less than double the current numbers) and a budget of $74 Billion (or 4 times the current budget).

    And all we are being asked to do is pony up our commitment of 2% of GDP resulting in a budget of half of that. In exchange for a decent Free Trade Agreement.

  2. Currently, when a navy ship is in a foreign port, a flag officer jets in at great expense.

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