What do quick changes to naval strategic and operational leadership mean?

The recent list of senior promotions and appointments from DND has prompted a flurry of comments about what it all ‘means’. Eleven flag-rank officers will retire and a series of 47 different appointments and promotions will result as candidates are shuffled and moved up.  As usual, the new appointments dominated the five-page announcement.  The retirements barely rated mentioning in the last paragraph. The sentencing of Sub.-Lt. Delisle on Friday (along with two massive winter storms) knocked this important story right off the news line-up.  But, in the two days before that, some pretty significant headline claims were made about why the shuffle was happening.

On Friday, Bruce Campion-Smith, the Bureau Chief in Ottawa for the Toronto Star, claimed, “A massive shakeup is reshaping the leadership of Canada’s military just as the country’s fighting forces face cost-cutting reforms.”  The headline read, “Retirements of senior military officers mean ‘extraordinary’ change for Canadian Forces.”  In the article, Campion-Smith cites historian Jack Granatstein: “Most of the annual promotion lists are rather slimmer than this one. This looks not quite wholesale but every large indeed.”  The author suggested that “[w]hile some departures were expected others came as a surprise, suggesting unhappiness over the direction of the armed forces.”

A day earlier, Murray Brewster, in an article for the Winnipeg Free Press, entitled “Senior ranks of Canadian military get makeover ahead of tough federal budget,” also suggested that the retirements were due to discontent about the way the future was shaping up for the military. He used quotes by Doug Bland, a defence analyst at Queen's University, to buttress his argument: “I think a lot of people — myself and others on the outside — expected many of these officers were going to guide the Forces through the post-Afghan period.” Bland connects the moves to resistance amongst the leadership to the Leslie Report on Transformation: “We’ll see the disappearance of those people who resisted the transformations, that were reportedly well received in the prime minister’s office.” The appointment of General Lawson as the new Chief of Defence Staff was seen as the start of a move to deconstruct the vaunted Hillier-era command structure in Ottawa.

General Lawson, however, has not been especially compliant with the Harper Government’s wishes to move forward on the reduction and procurement files. He is on the record as saying there is virtually no fat left to cut in the headquarters staffs, although another round of reorganization is clearly needed. It will likely consolidate capacity, rather than reduce it. Likewise, he is not squarely behind the F-35 project, as most expected an RCAF officer to be. So, something is amiss with the analysis here, at least as far as the navy is concerned.

Here is a quick summary of the senior naval appointments:

Vice-Admiral A.B. Donaldson will retire from service;
Vice-Admiral P.A. Maddison will retire from service;
Rear-Admiral M.A.G. Norman will be promoted Vice-Admiral and appointed Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy;
Rear-Admiral D.C. Gardam will be appointed Director General International Security Policy, at NDHQ, in Ottawa;
Commodore J.F. Newton will be promoted Rear-Admiral and appointed Commander Maritime Forces Atlantic; and
Commodore S.E.G. Bishop will be appointed Commander Canadian Fleet Atlantic, in Halifax, replacing Commodore D.C. Hawco, who will be appointed Director General Cyber at NDHQ.

From the navy’s perspective, both Admirals Donaldson and Maddison are highly regarded as intelligent and innovative officers. They could have stayed in place for at least a few more years, possibly until the post of CDS opened up again. However, Lawson was clearly appointed to oversee the new fighter acquisition problem; all of the headquarters reorganization and post-Afghanistan reductions are ‘cleanup duty’ he inherited from the Hillier-Natynczyk army-style administration. I see these as secondary issues behind the need to make a choice about the future of the RCAF.  A naval leader will make choices about the future of the RCN.

With the AOPS project on hold for another two to three years, no progress to report on the JSS, and the new CSC warship still a figment of the imagination, now is the logical time to position the next generation of naval leadership to move into the CDS’s post after General Lawson moves on. And, move on he will. It could be that Admiral Donaldson is caught up both by the headquarters restructuring and his criticism of the Leslie Report.  However, Admiral Maddison may just be caught in a time-and-numbers equation. From my perspective, I suspect the general future of the shipbuilding program played a major part in the timing of his retirement, but the actual details of the program did not.

It is just as unlikely that the RCAF will get everything it wants in terms of numbers and capability in the new fighter aircraft as it is unlikely the RCN will get either the numbers, types or capabilities in its future ships. It will be up to a naval leader of the institution to deliver the ‘bad news’.  Managing expectations is a key role of leadership, no matter what level they occupy or what uniform they wear.