What does transformation mean to the navy?

Rumours have been swirling ever since Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie submitted his report on transformation to the CDS that there was big trouble brewing.  John Ibbitsen writes in today’s Globe and Mail, in an article entitled “Discord over cuts leaves direction of Canadian military up in the air,” that “Senior officers at National Defence headquarters, according to sources, are opposed to the recommendations of Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie,” … “[b]ut the report is far from dead, with officials in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government looking closely at its cost-saving proposals as they seek to trim at least five per cent from every departmental budget to meet deficit reduction targets.”  My sources indicate that at least two major off-site meetings, including one for Canadian Army senior staff, are being held to sort out the whole mess.

Ibbitsen sums it up this way: “The report recommends redeploying or eliminating 7,000 regular forces personnel and civil servants, mostly at Defence headquarters; cutting the number of reservists in half, to 3,500; and chopping $1-billion from the budget for contractors and consultants.” General Leslie views headquarters growth as ‘fat’ that drains people and money away from the combat formations of the CF. It has been a very popular argument throughout the ‘Afghanistan Era’ that while our soldiers are in the field fighting without the equipment they need, ‘fat-cat’ bureaucracy is growing in Ottawa and preventing the acquisition of combat equipment to ensure mission success and safety for the troops.

There is a lot of hyperbole being expended on this argument. Editorials yesterday in the Toronto Star (“DND cuts must start at top”) and the Victoria Times Colonist (“Cutting Waste in Defence”) both maintain that the report should not be shelved and that the cutting of headquarters ‘fat’ (or ‘tail’, as it is sometimes called) to preserve combat capability (or ‘tooth’) is the right way to go.  Nobody is asking why the growth in headquarters staffs happened in the first place.

The type of expeditionary operations the Canadian military has undertaken since the end of the Cold War have been very different in type, tempo and locale from the predictable and stable activities of the past.  General Leslie’s approach to transformation, when viewed in connection with the new requirement to conduct short notice, complex operations, brings up a real paradox.  I have written elsewhere that headquarters ‘capacity’ and useful doctrine are essential to conducting complex operations, especially at short notice.  (“Command and Control Canadian Style: The New Medium-Power Dilemma,” in The Operational Art: Canadian Perspectives - Leadership and Command, Allan English (ed.), Kingston, ON: Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2006, pp. 163-172.)  It is both a ‘numbers’ game and, equally important, an ‘intellectual capacity’ game.  The headquarters staffs have been chronically short on both accounts and the necessary doctrine is non-existent, and that is only from the perspective of planning operations.  My arguments did not include the increased needs for procurement and logistical support staffs, which are just as important and just as scarce.

General Leslie’s efforts to cut fat and save combat troops in order to get more ‘boots on the ground’ is, in my opinion, really just an attempt to preserve the status quo because it perpetuates an infantry-centric model of the army which is not especially relevant in the current security context.  Professor Elinor Sloan, in her book Security and Defence in the Terrorist Era (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005) is probably the only commentator that has voiced a different view of the army’s structure for the future.  She argues for a balance of one-to-one in combat and combat support/service support troops for complex operations (pp. 129-130), instead of the traditional three-to-one ratio for combat operations, but she does not seem to have any backers other than me.  The navy’s focus on fleet combat resources at the expense of headquarters staff is a comparable problem.

The navy came in for specific criticism from General Leslie at the 2011 Conference on Defence and Security held by the Conference of Defence Association Institutes in Ottawa on 24 and 25 February.  The Report of Proceedings, written by Col. (Ret.) Brian MacDonald, recorded it this way:

“Among the key questions is the balance between overhead and output, or to put [it] another way, between the number of persons in Headquarters and those in deployed and deployable units.  The Navy, for example, has shrunk since 2004 while its personnel are populating HQs.  Put bluntly, the Navy has to get back to sea and to be able to get back to sea.  There is a significant resistance to necessary change in the HQs, though younger personnel see the need for change and understand that the status quo is simply unsustainable.”

What General Leslie fails to recognize is that the navy’s project management and naval architectural design staffs were gutted in past ‘tail cuttings to preserve tooth’ and that, as it stands now, the navy has insufficient capacity in order to oversee and manage the major capital programmes that are necessary, as he puts, “to be able to get back to sea.”  Building and acquiring ships is far more complex than buying tanks.  That is the main reason that the navy is busy shipping people from the waterfront to the headquarters.

General Leslie’s very narrow view of utility is focused on tactical operations only, and he fails to understand the institutional requirements of the individual services, which are different, and of the CF corporate structure.  Appealing to ‘younger personnel’ for support is particularly odd as none of them will have any experience beyond tactical employment, so their ability to understand service or corporate staff requirements will be zero.

You have to wonder how it is possible that General Leslie could render such a bombshell of a report at just the time when the government is looking for ‘appendages to sever’ in order to save money.  How is it possible that such a senior member of the CF could have such a narrow view of the institution or of its constituent parts?  He might be right that “the status quo is simply unsustainable,” but if transformation is the goal, then all parts of the organization should be viewed as changeable and no part should be sacrosanct.