Military recruiting and retention

Lee Berthiaume, writing in the Globe and Mail, says that “The Canadian Forces are considering whether to recruit elite special-forces soldiers straight off the street rather than forcing them to follow the traditional route of first spending several years in the military … [and] … The idea, which is still being debated, comes as Canada’s special forces – and the military as a whole – look at radical new ways to attract and retain people with the skills and experience needed to fight tomorrow’s wars … [some insiders suggest] … That includes not just computer experts, for example, but also those with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and language skills, as the special forces aim to operate more effectively in different parts of the world.

First, I agree that “tomorrow’s warswill may require some more people with scarce or special skills than we are likely to need in conventional or traditional military operations, but, despite the fact that a) I have been retired for almost a generation’s worth of years, and b) I was never in special forces,  I am confident in saying that a special forces soldier is, first an foremost, a soldier and then, after much training, a special soldier.

Second, there is nothing new about recruiting special forces soldiers, right off the street, because they possess some special skills …


… but the men in the picture underwent horrendously difficult military training before they were ‘streamed’ into the special forces (Force 136) and sent to South East Asia to fight.

I take MGen Peter Dawe, Commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command at his word when he says that ““This is not about achieving set quotas or anything else … [and] … From a hard-operational perspective, do we have the right mix of people with the right sort of background, education, language, ethnicity, gender … that will allow us to do what our government expects us to do and will expect us to do in the future?”” I believe that any focus on gender is politically inspired rubbish; I know that many women can do everything that many men can do, sometimes better ~ their gender is totally and completely irrelevant.

I also know, from discussion with serving members, that the Canadian Forces have an across the board recruiting and retention problem. The solutions to the recruiting and retention (both matter, equally) problems include

  • Better pay and allowance ~ that’s always a pretty obvious solution to part of the problem;
  • Separate pay for leadership (rank) and for skill (trade) ~ it has been over 50 years since Paul Hellyer screwed up the rank/trade system (especially the junior leadership ranks) in a (very welcome by all who, like me, were serving then) attempt to solve a remuneration problem. It’s well past time to revisit the whole pay and allowances system;
  • Newer and better equipment ~ who can blame young, hotshot fighter pilots for not wanting to fly 30+ years old, hand-me-down from Australia, jets? Who can blame sailors for being tired of constant sea duty in old warships? Who can blame soldiers for showing disdain for an Army that cannot even issue them proper boots or replace a World War II vintage pistol? and
  • Fight! This may seem counter-intuitive, but history and experience and academic studies all say that the best recruiting sergeant, better even than a pay raise and shiny new equipment, is the voice of guns. Now, I know this is exactly 180º out of phase with the current government’s policies and also goes against what many (most, I suspect) Canadians think their military ought to be all about, but neither the government nor many people really know or care much about he health of the military.

The article goes on to say that “Anyone who wants to join [Canada’s] special forces is required to have at least two years in uniform, though they are often required to attain other qualifications that require more time … [that is not too much different from the hasty training of Force 136 in World War II, many Chinese Canadians enlisted in the Army in 1939 and 40 and they were trained in ’40 and ’41 and then, after the war with Japan began, the Chinese Canadians became sought after recruits] …  [MGen] Dawe said some “really hard-charging, high-achieving individuals like varsity athletes and super-talented folks out there on civilian street” are interested in the special forces, but they don’t want to spend several years in the regular military before applying … [but, it takes a lot of training to become a parachutist and to master weapon TF7KBM5JMJH75CDHW3UIHBC6CMhandling and learn how to us explosives and telecommunications systems and how to navigate in the jungle and across a desert, and so on] … “So,” MGen Peter Dawe says “one of the things we would like to look at is whether there is scope to accelerate that, because there is a qualitative dimension that we might not be exploiting or tapping into as well as we could.” … [and the article says] … There is precedent for such a move, Dawe said, pointing to Australia and the U.S. as examples where “accelerated” recruiting has been successful … [that all sounds great but, even if the Australian and Americans have had some success with such schemes there is no guarantee that this will work for the long term health of the Canadian Forces or for the Special Operations Forces Command and MGen Dawe acknowledges] …  At the same time, “inculcating future members of the Canadian Armed Forces, doing that properly, making sure they understand what they are joining and why are joining it, is important,” he said, noting recruits will still need to meet the same standards and go through training … [and] … “You have to make sure you strike a good, healthy balance there in terms of making it as efficient as possible without discarding those important enculturation gateways that have served us so well historically,” Dawe said.” So, it looks like he is really talking about a sort of promise that will be made to selected recruits that if you can pass all the (damned difficult) prerequisite training . courses then we will put you into our special operations forces. That is a far cry from the silly idea of proposing to “recruit elite special-forces soldiers straight off the street rather than forcing them to follow the traditional route of first spending several years in the military.”

I have three messages

Beyond the four ideas, above, to improve both recruiting and retention, I have three messages:

  • My first message is to the hundreds of young men and young ladies, those varsity athletes and student council presidents and multi-lingual young people who want to wear the same beret as MGen Dawe does … prepare yourselves for two or three or four years of brutally intensive training before only some of you earn the right to wear it. It is called special forces for a reason … many are called, but few are chosen (Matthew 22:14);
  • My second message is to government policy makers … if you agree that MGen Dawe needs 600 more special forces people then you need to grow the Canadian Forces by, at the very least, 6,000 new, additional people, in other words, from about 89,900 to something like 95,000+, and maintain them at that new strength, year after year and decade after decade. And that’s just to make provision for special forces. Canada probably needs a military of at least 100,000 full time, regular sailors, soldiers and air force members; and
  • My third message is to Canadian voters: if you care about your country’s defences then you need to support a political party that will promise a sound, sensible defence policy … that means you cannot support the Greens, the Liberals or the NDP.

Canada needs efficient and effective armed forces, neither is especially difficult on its own; getting both, together, takes both a modest combination of military leadership, bureaucratic skill and political determination.

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.

2 thoughts on “Military recruiting and retention

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