This article in the National Post just caused me (and many of my friends and former colleagues with, in total, centuries of experience in National Defence Headquarters) to shrug. You might have looked for at least an eye-roll, but, no, all it rated was a shrug.
What didn’t surprise anyone? Well, according to the Canadian Press report, published in the National Post, “The Department of National Defence is being called out for not properly tracking the rollout of the Liberal government’s plan to invest tens of billions of dollars in new military equipment, troops and training … [and, the article says] … The criticism is contained in an internal Defence Department audit … [that’s right, this was not the dreaded Auditor General, it was only an internal audit, authorized, most likely by a senior civil servant and leaked to the press] … and follows previous concerns that delays and other problems are slowing implentation of the plan, which was first unveiled in 2017 … [but] … The plan is seen as critical for replacing much of the military’s aging equipment and adding new capabilities such as armed drones and defences in cyber and space that are needed for 21st-century warfare.“
The report goes on to say that “Auditors found that there were less than three people specifically tasked with overseeing implementation of the defence plan, which aims to invest $553 billion in the military over the next 20 years … [that’s three people in what can only be described as a morbidly obese HQ, and] … The auditors also flagged concerns that senior defence officials were not receiving clear and accurate information about the state of the plan, raising fears about bad decisions being made.“
So, why am I not surprised?
National Defence Headquarters is a HUGE place with diverse functions. First: it is, simultaneously, the management centre of the Department of National Defence, which is a very large (and complex) department of government that includes the Canadian Armed Forces (but the CAF is just one of DND’s “arms”), and it is the national command centre for the Canadian Armed Forces. Second: it is one of the biggest budget departments in Canada. Defence spending supports many hundreds of thousands of jobs in the military, in the civil service and all across the spectrum of Canadian industry from the highest of high-tech enterprises through to janitorial services. It is never surprising when things fall through the cracks in any large, complex organization, is it?
But there are two other problems:
As defence spending has declined, year-after-year, always in terms of GDP and often in terms of its share of the public accounts and sometimes in real, dollar terms, too, the headquarters, especially the military’s command and control (C²) superstructure, has grown. A bit of growth is not surprising when one must “do more with less” as I well remember being told during the rounds of budget and staff cuts in the 1990s. Although to their credit, defence ministers in the Chrétien-Martin era imposed a series of staff cuts on the HQs in Ottawa, there was a bit of growth in the (largely civil service) policy and financial management areas. But in the Harper era that all changed. Budget pursestrings were loosened by governments after 2001 and, under e.g. Conservative Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor the Canadian Forces began to receive some much needed new equipment including the big CC-177 Globemaster III transport planes, new CH-147F Chinook transport helicopters and Leopard tanks ~ all procured on sole-source contracts, over the objections of many. But then O’Connor was replaced by Peter MacKay and, it appeared to me, the generals and admirals took over and the HQ went from lean to overweight and then to downright fat. Then, in the Trudeau era, the HQ went from simply being fat to being morbidly obese. There are, now, hundreds of admirals and generals, managing a military force that numbers in the (too few) thousands. Even serving flag and general officers have told me that cutting the highest ranks by ⅓ would do no harm and some retired officers and civil servants (with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the HQ at the highest levels) say that a 50% cut would be healthy. The simple fact is that the Canadian Forces have too many very smart, very able senior officers with too little real work to do. They, not surprisingly, fill the time available with “work” of their own devising which, often, involves creating new and more complex command structures which require more and more general officers. The process seems unconstrained from the top.
Why? What happened?
Well, it started with the very best of intentions. I recall being told by one very, very fine general that we, the Canadian Forces, must, above all else, be “interoperable” with our American allies and that, he explained, meant adapting to their command and control system, poor as he thought it was. He said, and he meant, adapting, not adopting. But he retired and a new generation of officers entered the most senior ranks and some of them seemed, to me, to be more interested in adopting than is just adapting to. We seemed, in the 2000s, to be seized by a giant case of military penis envy and we seemed to want to have a local version of whatever the Americans had. The result was a proliferation of new command and control organizations, all put in place as the combat elements were actually shrinking. The end result was an unconscionable GOFO* to combat sailor and solder ratio and a bloated and, in my opinion, weak and inefficient command and control superstructure.
The other big problem is bureaucratic. We could see it coming in the 1980s and ’90s when I was in the HQ, near to the senior levels. The Ottawa Citizen alludes to how bad it has gotten since. The whole of DND, including the very top levels of leadership and management are obsessed with what we used to (only half-jokingly) call the 11th Commandment: “Thou shall not embarrass the minister.” It was not always so. I remember (1991) when Vice Admiral Chuck Thomas, the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff resigned because he felt that the CDS of the Day (General John de Chastelain) was failing to lead a full-blown, public debate about national defence. Admiral Thomas was right, even then, 10 years before 9/11, and he made his views known in the right way, in a public letter of resignation. Now admirals and generals ana very senior civil servants leak things to the press. (I’m not upset that Prime Minister Trudeau’s minions, including Defence Minister Sajjan, are upset, the leakers are cowards who, unlike Admiral Thomas, care more for their careers than they do for their country.
I understand that admirals and generals and senior officials are angry and upset, especially at the last five years, and they saw, in Admiral Thomas case, that principled challenges fail. The media, with a handful of notable exceptions …
… simply doesn’t care, and when the media shrugs then the public ignores the issue.
So, we have too many very smart, hard-driving admirals and generals and senior civil servants looking down at too small a combat force which has woefully inadequate logistics support, and they make busy work for themselves and circle the wagons when the media asks embarrassing questions, and then we should wonder why no=-one pays attention to how to manage even the niggardly resources that the Trudeau regime has made available?
No, no-one is surprised.
It’s past time for a new government, one which I sincerely hope will be led by Erin O’Toole; and he will need to contain defence sending because Trudeau-Morneau is leaving Canada with a fiscal nightmare. But even while he contains defence budget growth he can institute major reforms by slashing the military C² superstructure ~ cutting at least ⅓ of the admirals and generals and Navy captains and Army and RCAF colonels.
(For those “in the know” this means down-ranking the appointment of “director” (the first executive level of management) to Navy commander and Army/RCAF lieutenant colonel who, as everyone knows, are the real first-level executives in the military. Anyone who doesn’t know that doesn’t know anything much about what command of a warship or a regiment or a flying squadron means.)
A new government can institute a real defence review ~ which needs to come after it has published a new, 3P, foreign policy ~ which will provide a framework and a realistic, achievable timescale to rebuild Canada’s military capabilities so that they reflect our status as one of the world’s most powerful countries.
There is no magic. bullet, no one single thing that can “fix” DND and the Canadian Forces, but reform of the HQs and the C² superstructure is one place that leaders can look early and where they can act at (relatively) low costs.
* GOFO means General Officer and Flag Officer (commodore and admiral)