The key to flexibility is in building logistical capacity

 While I agree with Brian Wentzell that our nation needs flexible forces, and that the public should insist that the government provide for them, I cannot agree with his characterization of Canadian army and air force operations in Central Europe during the Cold War as expeditionary.  If the origins of Canadian expeditionary policy are “rooted in NATO and UN mandated missions,” they certainly post-date the end of the Cold War.  But, the army’s force structure still reflects that earlier era, which limits is mobility and utility.

The army was able to sustain its fourth brigade group in Germany by creating what amounted to conditions for ‘garrison’ duty overseas.  All of the combat support (signals, combat engineers, military police) and combat service support (transport, supply, administration, psychological operations, civil-military affairs, medical and other engineering services) was provided from an established base at Lahr.  This allowed the army to continue to focus on tactical-level training and operations without addressing its support shortcomings.

As Professor Elinor Sloan explains in her book, Security and Defence in the Terrorist Era (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005, 129-130), the typical brigade operated with about a 3:1 ratio of combat forces to support forces during the Cold War.  While Canadian forces were able to provide roughly this level of support in Europe, the resources at home in the rest of the Regular Force were not so well balanced.  Once the stability and predictability of the Cold War ended, and the requirement to deploy to totally new operating theatres arose, the paucity of Canadian combat support and combat service support was clearly felt.

A force planning exercise by the students of the Advanced Military Studies Course that I supported as a staff member at the Canadian Forces College showed that, while the existing force structure (circa 2000) had more than sufficient combat arms (armour, infantry, artillery) forces to generate and sustain 14 - 15 expeditionary battle groups of a new formulation over a cycle of four years, the support and service support forces could only sustain between 2½ and 3 expeditionary groups.  The exercise came to an abrupt halt when the students realized that combat arms soldiers would have to be ‘traded in’ to create new support troops.  The service corps loyalties of the army students could not be overcome via a collegial group-think approach to solving the problem.  Today, the critical shortages that hinder sustaining operations in Afghanistan are still mainly in the areas of combat support and combat service support.

Sloan’s book makes an even more astounding declaration about what type of a land force structure is needed for expeditionary stabilization and reconstruction operations.  She cites a report by the National Defense University [in Washington] that recommends those forces deployed on these sorts of missions should have a 1:3 ratio between combat and combat support-combat service support troops.  She agrees with the report and maintains that these are the sorts of forces that are needed for missions in failed and failing nations.  Such a move would bring the overall ratio between combat and support troops in the total force structure to 1:1.  Having already seen the vociferous debate over the measures necessary to bring the CF structure closer to 3:1, I can imagine clearly the response from the combat arms regiments to moving the force ratio to 1:1.

Despite parochial arguments for preserving the status quo, a plan that enhances logistical capacity is eminently sensible when circumstances are uncertain and threats are unclear.  Combat potential is quickly rendered impotent without adequate sustainment.  Moreover, combat support has a force multiplication effect regardless of which service is providing the main elements of the battle force.  Eliminating logistical capacity to preserve tactical ‘core capability’ is short-sighted.  The evidence suggests that logistical support should be viewed as equally important as combat arms and that logistics is the key to achieving flexibility in future force structure plans.

If the government intends to continue to deploy the Canadian Forces on expeditionary operations, some very tough decisions about priorities and force composition need to be taken.  Undoubtedly, there will be strong resistance to change from those elements of the force structure that have had it all their way since the before the end of the Cold War.  If a “Canada First Defence Strategy” directs a change in priorities to sovereignty protection and disaster response, the same force structure recipe still has much to offer, both as a flexible and effective national capability, but also as the basis for emergency mobilization and force expansion.