I hope that in late October the brand-newly minted Conservative Minister of National Defence will, on the very first day that she or he takes office, meet with General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff. The meeting may take place in the minister’s hotel suite because the new minister will not, yet, have even found DND’s main office building. General Vance, who was appointed to his post by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in July 2015, will not be surprised by this hasty summons.
After the normal pleasantries, the new minister will, I hope, say something like: “General, I want to thank you for your decades of distinguished service. My purpose in asking you here, so soon, today, is twofold: first, I want to ask you to consider continuing to serve, but in another important capacity, and second, I want to seek your counsel on the key issue of your replacement as CDS.” General Vance will have been expecting this, he may even have let people know that he hoped for an early replacement ~ four years is longer than any modern chief of the defence staff has served since Jacques Dextraze back in the 1970s.
The minister will go on to say something like “The new prime minister asks me to tell you that we hope to be able to announce, very soon, that you will be Canada’s ambassador to <VIC (very important country)>. As you know, our relationship with <VIC> is both vital and, currently, very difficult. We are confident that your background, your personal relationships in <VIC’s capital city> and your demonstrated ability to deal with difficult challenges and difficult people will make you a good choice. You will nor be the first soldier to have stepped into a difficult diplomatic assignment and we hope you will accept this challenge.“
After a few more pleasantries about allowing General Vance a day or so to discuss this offer with his wife, the new minister will, I hope, say something like, “General, I’m sure you listened carefully to what we had to say on the campaign trail: we want to strengthen our military in both qualitative and quantitative terms; we want to spend more on national defence and we want to spend more wisely, too. But, before we start spending, we want to make some changes … and they are changes that may be unpopular with some of your colleagues. We spoke, during the campaign, about “repainting the military.” We said that we wanted more grey and green ~ more ships and aircraft, more soldiers and tanks and guns and so on ~ and less brass and gold ~ fewer admirals and generals sitting behind desks in various HQs. That wasn’t just rhetoric,” the Conservative minister will say. “We are convinced that previous governments, supported by senior officials and military officers, put our military on an unsatisfactory course. We are convinced that the military is top-heavy and that the command and control superstructure, including you at the very top, is, to be charitable, bloated. Before we start adding money to the defence budget to hire more people and buy more ships and aircraft and so on, we believe that Canada needs major changes to that structure. For reasons that are both principled and cosmetic, we intend ~ this is not negotiable ~ to cut the number of admirals and generals by more than ⅓ and we intend to reduce ranks, too … starting with the rank of the CDS.“
“Now,” the new minister will explain, “I do not have a lot of experience in government, but I managed some pretty big problems for large organizations in the private sector and I know how to get things done. I also know that it’s easier to get things done when my executive team is on-side with me … easier but not essential. I fully understand that many of your colleagues, quite possibly you, yourself will disagree with me and with our government on this. I am certain, however, that, no matter what your personal views might be, you and your colleagues will get on-side and support the lawful government of the day. But it would help if I can have a chief who shares, or at least is not personally offended by our plan. I am thinking back to the 1940s and ’50s when another defence minister, Brooke Claxton, a Liberal, had to make changes that were unpopular with some admirals and generals. I will be following his example. I will be taking advice from a number of sources, but no one knows the serving admirals and generals better than you and I would really like your honest opinion on who might be the best choice to see the Canadian Armed Forces through a difficult interregnum while we cut the fat and prepare to add some muscle.“
General Vance may have been expecting both these comments from his new political masters. But he and most of his colleagues might be quite heavily ‘invested,’ personally, in the command and control regime which I hope a Conservative government will want to overturn as a prelude to building a bigger, better and better-funded military for Canada.
The new Minister of National Defence, having accepted General Vance’s resignation, may have to reach farther down the ranks than one might think to find a new Chief of the Defence Staff. Given that General Vance and his five predecessors, going back to the 1990s have all been Army or Air Force generals, the new government might want to appoint a Navy admiral. Just a few years ago it looked, to some observers, that Vice-Admiral Mark Norman was being positioned for the job, but then, in early 2017, he was charged with criminal breach-of-trust and then, after those charges with withdrawn he retired, this year, in late June. A new Conservative government might still want to appoint a sailor and might, also, want to appoint a French Canadian officer and, perhaps, even a female. The senior ranking female French Canadian naval officer, as far as I can see, is the estimable Commodore Josée Kurtz who is, currently, Commander of the multinational Standing NATO Maritime Group Two. Even for a minister bent on having a three-star (vice-admiral or lieutenant-general) CDS, Commodore Kurtz, a 51-year-old one-star officer, might be thought to be a bit too junior. There are other female French Canadian officers, like Major General (two-star) Jennie Carignan, who has been selected to take command of Canada’s training mission in Iraq, who are available. Or, perhaps, a Conservative government might not worry too much about gender or language or both and look amongst the more senior ranks for someone who will lead the sorts of changes that a new government should want to make.
The key issue, I hope, will be to use the new, three-star Chief of the Defence Staff as an example to all the others … we’re going (yet again) to do more with a bit less fuss.
Lowering the rank of the Chief of the Defence Staff will, I hope, trigger an immediate and thorough overhaul of the entire, top-to-bottom, military remuneration and career system. There has been too little change since Paul Hellyer, in the late 1960s, gave us the current system which ties rank (leadership) and technical skill together for non-commissioned members (those who are not officers). The military, guided by best practices in the private sector and by remuneration scales in the public service, needs to re-examine its complete rank/skill/pay system. The entire system including pay for rank, skill, hazardous duty and so on needs to make sense for all ranks and needs to make the Canadian Forces an attractive option for young people. Leadership needs to be revitalized, especially at the lowest levels, corporal and 2nd lieutenant. One of the things Mr Hellyer did wrong was to try to solve a pay problem by shifting responsibilities up, from corporal to sergeant and from lieutenant to captain, for example, but all he really achieved was to take critical junior leadership training and experience away from the corporal and 2nd lieutenants. Lowering the rank fo the CDS from four to three stars can be a symbolic catalyst for a more thorough review of the entire career structure for all sailors, soldiers and air force members.
A new, hard-working command and staff team will, I hope, recognize that officers like Commodore Kurtz and Major General Carignan became real executives when they took command of a frigate (HMCS Halifax in Commodore Kurtz’s case in 2009) and a regiment, (5e Régiment de génie for General Carignan in 2008) … that was when they were in the ranks of Navy commander and Army lieutenant colonel, respectively. Being an executive doesn’t mean just sitting behind a desk in Ottawa, it really means making hard, sometimes life and death decisions on the bridge of a ship at sea or in combat in the field. That’s the kind of executive experience that senior military leaders must possess and officers with that command experience, in the ranks of Navy commander and Army and RCAF lieutenant colonel, are ready and fully able to replace almost every director-level (executive) officer (currently mostly Navy captains and Army/RCAF colonels) in every HQ, leaving the navy captains and army colonels ready to replace commodores and brigadier generals in other HQs, in Canada and around the world. Will lowering ranks be disruptive? You bet … for a year or two. When the ranks are lowered there will be a wave of resignations, some people will be sorely missed, others will be leaving just a year or two or three ahead of schedule, opening up opportunities for other officers to advance. There were greater disruptions before, during great wars and during the upheaval in the 1960s, when I was a junior officer, that was consequential to Mr Hellyer’s changes. The military survived. Indeed, in some cases, some would say it prospered when there were large scale replacements of senior leaders by younger men and women.
In the midst of the disruption of the military, especially amongst the senior ranks, caused by resignations, down-ranking and cuts to HQ senior staff, and while a major study of military career structure and remuneration is underway, I hope that the new Conservative government will announce that it is working on new White Papers for both foreign and defence policy. Each White Paper will be prepared by a non-partisan “tiger team” of academics, public servants and policy experts; each will be given political/policy guidance by and will be answerable to a senior minister who is a member of the so-called “inner cabinet.” I hope the new government will say that it aims to get the two White Papers out ‘on the street,’ for comment, both nationally and internationally, in late 2020. The “tiger teams” should be invited to look back at Paul Martin’s policy statement, ‘A Role of Pride and Influence in the World,’ and, indeed to look all the way back to Louis St Laurent’s famous (1947) Gray Lecture, for non-partisan inspiration about embracing, inter alia, “muscular multilateralism, institutional reform of the United Nations, and new rules … for humanitarian intervention in failed states.” A new, principled and practical Conservative foreign policy, will, I am 100% certain, call up a requirement for bigger and better ~ better funded, better paid, better managed, better organized, better trained and better equipped ~ armed forces. Canada will need both, a principled and practical foreign policy and bigger and better naval, land and air forces to play that “role of pride and influence” that Louis St Laurent, John Diefenbaker, Mike Pearson …
… Brian Mulroney Paul Martin and Stephen Harper all wanted Canada to play in the world and that
I believe I hope most Canadians still want us to play.
A principled, practical foreign policy and a robust defence policy are not just Conservative issues. Half the prime minister pictured above were Liberals and many current Liberals, led by people like Paul Martin and John Manley want both for Canada, too, now, in the 2020s.
The chain of events that I hope will happen seems to start with a conversation between a new Conservative defence minister and the current Chief of the Defence Staff … but it all depends upon what I hope Canadians, in their millions, will do in October: elect a majority, Conservative government and put Canada back on the right path.