The reserve is not an operational resource, but strategic one

This debate is a pleasure to read, but also somewhat frustrating. In speaking of “relevant” operational tasks, it seems to me that Eric Lerhe misses the whole point of the part-time naval reservists.

When Capt. Walter Hose founded the naval reserve (NAVRES) in the 1920s, it was highly unlikely he ever suffered the delusion that reservists training in Winnipeg could achieve and maintain the readiness to “mobilize” for service aboard operational warships. During the Second World War, tactical experience demonstrated the need for years of training and deadly trail-and-error before the Battle of the Atlantic could be meaningfully influenced by the ‘Corvette Navy’. “Mobilization” was always an army concept only ever truly applicable in the pre-1914 era of light infantry supremacy. Naval personnel, on the other hand, have always been highly skilled tradesmen: the Persian failure to mobilize a skilled fleet to battle against Athenian professionals resulted in defeat at Salamis. The inability of landsmen to acquire sailor's skills on a part-time or short-term basis is absolutely not new. The word “reserve” was always a policy fiction and a political cover - and still is.

Today’s Naval Reserve Divisions (NRDs) and their part-time sailors are closer to what Hose’s Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve units were intended to be: a public relations operation. Hose realized that the army was much closer to Canadians’ hearts and, unless people living in away from the coasts could somehow have personal contact with the navy and its sailors, they would never see the need for Canada to have a navy - and they would certainly never vote to fund it.

For example, the crewing of the Kingston-class maritime coastal defence vessels (MCDVs) is a vastly less important NAVRES mission than NRD reservists parading alongside their militia counterparts on Remembrance Day. The mere sight of peaked-caps prompts thousands of Canadians at cenotaphs across the heartland to have a simple, brief reflection: “What regiment is that?? ...Oh I see, there’s a navy, too!” Those moments are the stuff whereof destroyers are made, because they build the spirit of affiliation and ownership of amongst the public. Without them, naval spending seems to be an alien and esoteric priority.

With respect to Derek Carroll, part-time naval reservists do not train ashore in order to do search and rescue operations (SAR) in 2-week blocks, but the reverse; they participate in SAR operations in order to be able to tell sea stories about them ashore.

To presume that kinetic operations are the only criterion for “relevance” would be incredibly naive - and typical of a service that has rarely bothered to climb down from the “bridge wing” and explain itself to Canadians. We continue to suffer the consequences. For the NAVRES, operations must be Job #2. Naval reservists exist in order to preach the “Gospel According to Mahan.” In my own years as a Class A part-timer, I cannot count that number of times I rose to reply to the challenge of classmates at the University of Guelph who said things like: “I support peacekeeping, but a navy? Except, maybe to create jobs for those poor Maritimers... a navy is better than plain old EI, I guess.”  That attitude - roughly representative of central-Canadian public opinion - is the true, ultimate source of the Regular Force navy’s budgetary and recruiting crises. These uninformed people are our future doctors, lawyers, stock-brokers, and public executives: in other words, our governing elite! To a degree, crewing MCDVs has, as Derek Carroll alludes, distracted the reserve from its core mission of maintaining “presence” ashore via the NRDs.  This tendency to rank “operational output” ahead of strategic purpose is a tragic error.

On the other hand, the establishment of a NAVRES Public Affairs trade is the most logical and mission-relevant move in NAVRES policy in decades. The real purpose of the NAVRES is to conduct out-reach in communities who have no other experience of the naval mission and the reality of Canada as a maritime nation. Only if the navy can be lifted out of obscurity will our operations be politically and culturally relevant - and therefore strategically sustainable.