The danger of tactical thinking in times of strategic change*

*Moderator’s Note: This article was published previously as the editorial in the Spring 2011 issue of Canadian Naval Review (Vol. 7, No. 1), pp. 2-3.

This article is rededicated to Dr. Peter Aucoin, colleague, mentor and friend, who passed away after it was first printed in Canadian Naval Review.

“Change is inevitable: change is constant.”
British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli

Historians and political scientists look back to the 19th century for parallels to the current age because it predates the era of global conflict and the bipolar stability of the Cold War. Prime Minister Disraeli’s experiences in the 1860s and 1870s are relevant to Canada’s current situation because he was a political leader in an era of unipolar military and economic power. It was also a time of major social, economic and technological change. Moreover, Britain was engaged in a losing war in Afghanistan. Disraeli was famous for his ability to think strategically and his largely successful efforts to advance the power of the British Empire. But what would he have made of the new strategic factor of our age: climate change?

Climate change is marching steadily upward in the list of security concerns. It is likely that coastal areas will flood and the Earth’s landmass will shrink as sea levels rise over the next millennium. These changes will occur even if we take action now to change our behaviour. Although Canada and Russia will fare better than countries in the southern hemisphere, the global outlook is dire. Is this sufficient impetus for institutional change?

The Canadian Chief of Force Development issued a future security study that came up with 45 deductions about trends in five analysis areas.[1] Four key words are used in connection with the terminology of probability: will, probably, possibly and unlikely. ‘Will’ means circumstances are already moving in a stated direction, and moving off this trajectory is not foreseeable. In other words, the trend is a change of strategic importance.

Six of the study’s deductions (Numbers 11 to 16) relate to environment and resource trends and three have direct bearing on Canadian maritime capabilities. Number 11 says “[c]limate change will call for military support to assist victims of disasters around the world, ranging from humanitarian relief to full scale stability operations.” Number 12 says “[i]ncreased access to the Arctic, brought about by climate change, will have sovereignty, security, and environmental implications for Canada that will result in increased CF engagement in the Arctic region.” Number 13 says “[t]here will be greater demand for the maritime surveillance capabilities of the CF and for standing patrols of marine space under Canadian jurisdiction.” The italicised words illustrate how emphatic the report is about the strategic importance of the trends. It is also categorical about the need for maritime capabilities. The extensiveness of Canada’s coastline, the global scope of foreign missions plus the coastal urbanization of the world all lead to the conclusion that the projection of maritime force will be needed and that strategic lift and transport capabilities are essential.[2] Are these requirements sufficiently important to spur maritime institutional change?

Despite the emphatic statement of need in the study, Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden made a statement in November 2010 that downplayed the new capability requirements. According to Admiral McFadden, “[w]e won’t structure and specifically train for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HA/DR) but they will be core military missions of the 21st century because we are the ones with the capacity to respond.”[3] The problem is that the relief effort to Haiti (Operation Hestia) showed the navy’s volumetric capacity is, in the words of Patrick Stewart, “positively puny.”[4] Destroyers and frigates can carry supplies, but not nearly as many as are needed.

The demand for logistical capabilities will increase as climate change progresses. As more people move to cities located near coastal areas, the number of people affected by climate change-related maritime events will escalate. By some estimates, globally we have the capacity to assist 150 million people who have been affected by a humanitarian/natural disaster(s). But by 2025, the potential number of people affected by such events will be 450 million people.[5] There will be a monumental shortfall, but the Royal Canadian Navy seems unimpressed and remains resistant to change.

Resistance to change by traditional conservative bureaucracies is an important aspect in the study of change management. It often relates to a phenomenon known as ‘goal displacement’ which happens when an organization reverses its goals and means. A ‘means-ends inversion’ results in the means (fleet force structure in this case) being elevated to become a goal and the goal (achieving maritime security for Canada) being subordinated in the interests of pursuing the means.[6] Protecting the status quo is viewed as loyalty to service organization and values. This attitude ignores that change is inevitable.

The force structure of the existing Royal Canadian Navy was developed during the Cold War. Canada was a junior partner in a grand strategic alliance and was a specialist capability provider within that construct. The tactical thinking of that age caused the means-ends inversion because it was a practical necessity. Outside of that stable historical context, such resistance to change is out of step with the strategic trends.

What should a new institutional balance look like? Elinor Sloan recommends that land force structures for the new security environment be changed to a 50-50 balance between combat capabilities and combat support/combat service support.[7] Currently, the naval balance is 19-2, based on current fleet assets. If the conclusions of the future trends analysis are any indication, amphibious, engineering, cold weather, logistical, medical and civil-military cooperation capabilities should be considered. But being able to conceive such alternate plans requires lateral thinking developed through advanced programs of education. These are decidedly lacking in the navy and their absence limit its ability to conceive options and to plan for institutional change.

There have been studies of the departmental changes that occurred in the 1990s in Canada. Peter Aucoin and Donald Savoie showed that the departments most able to take advantage of change had put effort and resources into advanced thinking. Research into alternatives to the status quo, testing alternatives against the judgements of external experts and best practices elsewhere, and seeking out the views of stakeholders and interested parties were essential to successful change. “The crucial importance of strategic research” was a key lesson of the entire review process and “good intentions, hard work or even a willingness to contemplate major change [were] not adequate to overcome the absence of advanced planning.”[8] The navy needs to put far more resources into advanced thinking.

Currently, the navy has no service-oriented programs for strategic education or analysis, no open process for consultation and no evident desire to acquire the logistical capabilities that will make them relevant and effective in a wide range of roles and missions, not just humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. The need for change has been identified but there is not much evidence that the message has been received and understood. Maritime forces can deliver strategic effects, but only if they are supported, sustained and supplied by logistical capabilities of adequate volumetric capacity. It’s time to change.


1. Department of National Defence, The Future Security Environment 2008-2030, Part 1: Current and Emerging Trends, (Ottawa: Chief of Force Development, 2010), available at:

2. Ibid., p. 7.

3. “Halifax International Security Forum, Day Three, Panel Eight,” “Crises Without Borders: Humanitarian Emergencies,” German Marshall Fund meeting in Halifax, 2010, available at:

4. Patrick Stewart, “Just How Shipshape Are We?” CBC News, 10 February2010, available at:

5. See: Gerald Martone, “The Right to Survive: The Humanitarian Challenge in the Twenty-first Century,” New York, Oxfam International, 20 April 2009, available at:

6. Hari Das, Organization Theory with Canadian Applications (Toronto: Gage Publishing, 1990), pp. 108-109.

7. Elinor Sloan, Security and Defence in the Terrorist Era (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), pp. 129-130.

8. Peter Aucoin and Donald Savoie (eds), Managing Strategic Change: Learning from Program Review (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Management Development, 1998), pp. 282-283.