The technical issues are complex

I am the Standards Chief Petty Officer for marine propulsion systems at the Canadian Forces Fleet School in Esquimalt.  I find the points made by the contributors to this topic are interesting but they require additional input about the technical issues.

Commodore Gagliardi states that the status quo is not sustainable, but this should come as no surprise.  As he points out, the “part time” naval reserve was given a full time mandate and mission.   Hence what was perceived as a force generator became a force itself.  Due to the manning problems being experienced on the maritime coastal defence vessels (MCDVs), we have actually now discussed using Regular Force naval engineering personnel to supplement the reserves.  Fundamentally, this is the diametric opposite of how the army uses militia personnel as a force generator.   To further complicate things, as Cmdre.  Lerhe points out, there are competing interests within the navy about our larger strategic objectives.  Before we can define the “reserve concept” therefore, I would suggest, we must first define the “naval” one.

For coastal patrol and inshore tasks, the MCDVs do a sterling job.  However that job is not the total extent of the navy’s mission, nor, one could argue, given the “combat” aspect of the 1994 Defence Policy Statement, even the top priority.  Granted, the Concept of Operations for the MCDVs extends beyond just coastal operations, but the reality is that the vast majority of their tasks remain within that context.  Should the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS) fit predominately into this context it could, and perhaps even should, see substantial, perhaps even total reserve manning.  So, Cmdre.  Gagliardis’ comment may be well taken, but still needs fleshing out within the total naval structure.

The key question for the naval reserve is: “What is not sustainable?”  Is the current manning of the MCDVs not sustainable?   If so, could we reasonably expect the reserves to take on the manning of the AOPS as well?  Certainly not without a corresponding increase in manpower.   If so, is this possible to recruit, attain, and sustain?  Cmdre. Gagliardi and LCdr. Carroll both appear to be saying “no,” at least when it comes to engineering.   As well, however, we cannot ask the Regular Force navy to take on more ships without a manpower increase.  So, this concept is not sustainable at current manning levels regardless of which side of the house takes on the responsibility.  Should the choice combine the two?  Should we define some vessels as non-combatants and adopt an RFA concept, transitioning additional naval personnel or reserves to Transport Canada certification? Perhaps, but that too brings issues which, when one steps back to look at the bigger and more long term picture, short term gain may well cause us serious long term pain.

Both Cmdre. Gagliardi and LCdr. Carroll make points about the training time it takes to develop Marine Engineering Systems Operator (MESO) and, although well intentioned, they are missing key details.  To begin with, the Regular Force navy has no “Diesel Mechanics” while the reserves have no Chief Engineering Room Articifers (CERAs).

While there are those who unfortunately believe that there is similarity between reserve MESOs and the Regular Force Marine Systems Engineer, in fact there is almost none.   This error is doubly unfortunate as it indicates that not only have the Regular Force Maritime Surface and Subsurface (MARSS) and Maritime Marine Engineering (MARE) solitudes grown to a dangerous level, but also that the gulf between the MS MARE and Marine Engineering NCOs is equally lacking in knowledge and communication.  It can therefore hardly be surprising that there is confusion on the reserve side as well.

It is disheartening to realize that when it came to MARSS training, the reserves argued intelligently and successfully that it was necessary that they get as close to the same training as their Regular Force counterparts. Ditto for the Bos'un training.  Yet when it came to the engineering side of the house, they argued precisely the opposite and initiated a divorce between Marine Engineering profession and MESOs.  To some extent this was understandable. As Cmdre. Lerhe points out, there was a desire to, as much as possible, have the MCDVs run by reservists only.  However, while the principles of navigation and shiphandling may change comparatively little between classes of ship, the way they work often changes substantially.  Critically, it is the knowledge and experience gained over long years that determines success in responding to the emergencies, for instance those that were experienced on HMCS Chicoutimi, which forms the crux of Marine Systems Engineering skills, particularly in large and complex vessels.

In view of the question posed by all contributors here, we should be asking how many resources we should be expending on those who, through no fault of their own, cannot contribute in this regard.   Conversely, if their contribution can be managed and focused on skill sets that do not need long term investment for training or utilization, is that not a more useful and intelligent use of our resources?  Why would we ask a part time reservist with severe time constraints to embark on a job description that we know will take more than they have to give and then, after expending significant time and resources training them, complain that they can’t provide a satisfactory return on the investment?

Cmdre. Gagliardi’s comment, “Therefore, the part-time sailors cannot progress in their trade, don't get promoted, eventually get discouraged, and leave,” bears examination in this context.   Whether one speaks of Canadian patrol frigates, the Iroquois-class 280s, or the MCDVs, retention is and always will be an issue for both regular and reserve naval members.  It stands to reason therefore, that we should be rewarding and retaining those who put the time and effort forth to become qualified in order to retain their skills.  But at the risk of being frank, if someone’s contribution is severely constrained by time, then it is stating the obvious to recognise that the skill sets and experience they manage to acquire, and therefore their contribution to “getting ships to sea” as Cmdre. Lerhe observes, will be affected by those same constraints.   We must, therefore, focus on our strategic requirements.

Perhaps the best way forward is one where we move more towards what is actually a more total force concept by concentrating on what each side of the house most effectively brings to the table instead of maintaining these two solitudes.  The Regular Force, which has the ability to do the long-term training necessary to develop technical expertise, should provide those technical personnel whose training takes long-term investment.   The reserves, likewise, should concentrate on those aspects which can be done within the time constraints they have to work with, instead of attempting to do more than their manning profiles provide.  It is here that common sense may recognise the best cost and manning efficiencies.

Cmdre. Gagliardi showed it now takes nine full summers of training for a naval reserve engineer to obtain his/her Engineering Officer of the Watch certification. Within the context of the above, this illustrates the very flawed mechanism with which we now try to function.  These problems should have been foreseen.  In addition, trying to expand that initial problem into the AOPVs as well not only compounds the original error, but also increases the potential problems exponentially.

As mentioned by Cmdre. Lerhe, one of the larger threats to the functionality of the major warships is Certificate Three “ticket” production needed to sustain fleet operations.  As the incident on HMCS Chicoutimi clearly illustrated, the very survival of both the vessel and her crew depended on having experienced and knowledgeable engineers.

If, as has been suggested, we attempt to staff the AOPVs with a mixture of Regular Force Marine Engineers and reserve MESOs, then we simultaneously do two things.  First, we mimic the construct that has been created with the combat trades by separating the operator and maintainer functions.  Secondly we would be creating a situation that would almost guarantee an increasing exodus of senior marine engineers at the Certificate Three level with the attendant effect on fleet operations.  Consider a Regular Force Certificate Three approaching 20 or 25 years of service.   He has invested over three full time years of formal schooling, another three for on job training, and gained over a decade of experience at sea on deployments.  Critical for the operational effectiveness of the blue water fleet, he is also now or will be shortly be eligible for a pension.  He sits across that table from a chap that has a fraction of that time and energy invested.  In fact, were he to seek release from the navy and do a component transfer he will be able to essentially almost double his salary (pension plus pay) while removing him from employability in the navy.  It is hard to imagine a construct that would be more damaging to the fleet.

NCOs in the technical worlds have debated for some time as to whether we have descended below critical mass, too low to actually support the fleet without continually being in crisis.  Too often now, for every technician (Certificate Two or Three) who gets sick, there is a scramble to find sufficient manning for ships to go to sea.  It would appear that bad decisions are now coming home to roost in both the regular and reserve force naval worlds.  The debate should switch to how we sustain our priorities and put in place the long-term solutions that will address the growing credibility gap that we have between operational commitments and real capacity.