Too many bureaucrats, not enough troops

Paul Wells on the fierce resistance to Andrew Leslie’s plan to shift resources from Ottawa to the front lines

A man of action

Cpl Bruno Turcotte/DND

Why was a Canadian military with 65,000 men and women on active duty and 25,000 reservists sorely tested by the task of keeping 1,500 soldiers in the field in Afghanistan? Why are Arctic sovereignty patrols a strain on the same military? The way Andrew Leslie sees it, it’s because the Canadian Forces’ tail has grown bigger than its teeth.

“We have the same number, or slightly more people, in Ottawa that we have in the Royal Canadian Navy—20,000,” Leslie was saying the other day. By “Ottawa,” he meant the personnel working in command and support functions at National Defence headquarters, not far from Parliament Hill.

So that’s about as many people riding desks as the Canadian Forces has riding boats. “And we have a lot of coastline,” said Leslie, who until the first week of September was a lieutenant-general in the Canadian Forces. “And we have really busy ships’ crews.”

The same rough ratio of desk assignments to field deployments works for the army, too, Leslie told Maclean’s in his first in-depth interview since he retired from the military. “We’ve got almost as many people in Ottawa as we have in the regular-force deployable army.”

But what’s most worrisome, Leslie says, is the trend line. In the six years from 2004 to 2010, spending on the Canadian Forces’ command and support “tail” has grown four times as fast as spending on the deployable fighting “tooth.” So during a period of strong public support for Canada’s military, while the army was fighting a deadly and challenging war in Kandahar, headquarters staff grew four times as fast as the fighting force did.

That’s the philosophy behind the final act in Leslie’s 30-year military career: a blunt, ambitious “Report on Transformation” that advocates reassigning thousands of personnel and billions of dollars worth of spending from administrative and support roles to the battlefield.

Even before Defence Minister Peter MacKay made the report public last week, more than a month after Leslie delivered it, the report’s bold recommendations were sparking controversy throughout official Ottawa. “You try to implement that report as it is and you destroy the Canadian military,” Rick Hillier, the former chief of the defence staff, told CTV. “You simply can’t take that many people out of command and control functions.”

“He is certainly entitled to his opinions,” Leslie replied blandly. He’s encouraged that MacKay finally made the report public, after Hillier gave that incendiary interview, so Canadians can judge its merits for themselves.

To Leslie, the arguments for transformation are self-evident. The Canadian Forces are coming off seven years of relative plenty. Paul Martin made substantial support for the military part of his broader attempt to brand himself as a different kind of Liberal from Jean Chrétien. For his own political reasons, and because Kandahar turned into a deadlier fight than anyone expected, Stephen Harper has accelerated that trend of increased financial and rhetorical support. But now the feds are more eager to get big post-stimulus budget deficits under control, and not even the Forces can count on ready money.

But the challenges facing the Forces are not getting any easier just because money is getting tighter. New tasks requiring new capabilities are multiplying, from cyberwar to an enhanced special forces to developing defences against nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

“Where are these people going to come from? Do we go to the government and say, ‘Please sir, may I have some more?’ ” says Leslie. “A legitimate question from the government might be, ‘And you’ve got how many people in Ottawa? And you want more?’ ”

Beyond the raw numbers, there’s also a long-term cultural change in the evolution of modern military forces that should encourage Canada to give more autonomy to its front-line troops, Leslie argues.

“In days gone by, there was and perhaps is a belief that the most highly skilled practitioners of the art of war ended up in headquarters,” he says. The classic industrial warfare of the first half of the 20th century called for young men with limited educations and rudimentary equipment to be shipped in bulk to distant battlefields, where they would execute plans developed at HQ.

That model is gone forever. Today’s enlisted man, compared to his predecessors two generations ago, is superbly educated and wired to the teeth with communications equipment, computer power and weaponry his grandfather could never imagine. And it cost a mint to get him to that point.

“It’s no longer the fact that you can recruit a battalion on Monday, train them for a couple of months, kick them out the door and wish them luck,” Leslie said. “So as our soldiers get smarter; as they get better; as they get better equipment; as their reach extends, their ability to respond, to move quickly; you can’t start to treat that team as if it’s a 50 per cent, 60 per cent or 70 per cent effort.”

Leslie is not overly optimistic about his report’s chances of being implemented. Hillier’s outburst was only the loudest reflection of a change-averse culture at the upper echelons of the Canadian Forces. In his report, Leslie mentions a “grimly amusing” session he had with military leaders in Ottawa last December.

He laid out his ideas for moving resources from desks to ship decks, flight crews and battle groups. “Almost everybody in the room had the same reaction,” he recalls now. “ ‘Andy, we support transformation, the idea of becoming more efficient, of investing in the front-line troops. But don’t touch my stuff.’ ”

The public reaction to the final report has, Hillier excepted, been gentler. Walt Natynczyk, Hillier’s successor as chief of defence staff, said: “The mission we gave him was to look at innovative ways that we could improve our efficiency without giving up our operational effectiveness and Andy Leslie’s report has done exactly that. Some of the stuff that Andy has put in the report, we’re already starting.”

Peter MacKay has been less effusive. In a prepared statement, he said only that Leslie’s report “will inform our approach to the Government’s Deficit Reduction Action Plan, the results of which will be presented in Budget 2012.”

Leslie is not naive. He’s been hired by an Ottawa firm whose name he won’t reveal, pending a formal announcement. It’s the first private-sector job of his adult life. His staff studied previous attempts to transform the military, as far back as 1964. None was fully implemented.

But the first year of a majority government may be the best time to make bold moves, he says. “And if we don’t do something along these lines, then battalions will be disbanded, ships will be tied up and aircraft will continue to be grounded while headquarters continues to grow.”


Too many bureaucrats, not enough troops

  1. This should bring more scrutiny of Hillier’s time as CDS and CLS. In both jobs he pushed for more HQs and senior positions while degrading the ability to rapidly deploy. As CLS he kept understrength units around to keep command slots open. As CDS he tried to mirror the US system which lead to a massive surge in HQ staff with no improvement in deployable combat troops or ships.

    Of course he also gave the advice that lead to the Kandahar fiasco which went a long way to bringng the campaign to the verge of failure and cost us over $20 billion and hundreds of casualties.

    Hillier did more damage to the CF’s cost effectiveness than any other CDS and he should go down as the worst we’ve ever had.

    • Indeed

    • Au contraire. He was the best in many a moon. He pushed for what was needed wherever he was.  When he was CDS it was the woeful state of direction from Ottawa.  When he was in Afghanistan it was what was needed at that point.

      • Who gave Martin the military advice that sent a single battle group without helicopters to pacify Kandahar? Who told Martin that the CF would be able to deploy a second unit on a peace keeping mission while pacifying Kandahar?

    • This comment is simply a personal smear against General Hillier.  The fact is that during Hillier’s time as CDS, the Canadian Forces, particularly the Canadian Army, if not Canada, was engaged in a war.

      The operational command system set up by Hillier was intended to deal with the operating environment to allow the CF to contend with that war.  Certainly, it was not the perfect organizational structure, but it did the job amidst the fog of uncertainty of a wartime environment.  It was better to use this operational command structure then allow military and civilian bureaucrats at the supposed strategic HQ (i.e. NDHQ) to engage in minituae.  The system was not simply copied from the US – most nations including the UK, Australia and even New Zealand adopted similar military organizations because it was demonstrably the most effective approach to conducting command and control of operations.

      I have seen appalling waste of human military and civilian resources at NDHQ and a more streamlined command and control approach should be implemented now that our major role in Afghanistan has ended.  During the 1990s, many necessary administrative functions were arbitrarily cut that affected the provision of effective support to the troops in the field.  “Transformation” is not as simple an issue as some may suggest.  Reform yes, but not simply to satisfy political agendas. The end result must be more effective and efficient Canadian Forces.

      • Given the state of disarray in the UK MOD using it as an example probably isn’t wise. There is no proof that the Hillier model made commanding operations easier- the previous system commanded more deployed troops in more locations with fewer HQ staff. Hillier’s system led to duplication that Leslie’s recommendations seek to end. It seems that we added at least three times as many people to HQs than were deployed.

  2. So the columnist’s point is that Canada is expending too much money in bureaucracy rather than in properly equipping troops? Wow, then, this is only about resources being misappropriate? I thought Mcleans used to make a proper research, did not swallow the entire piece at once, and did not support war at all. What a shame!

    • “not support war at all”? What a shame? You’re a shame! Go fight the West alongside your fellow djihadist comrades, where at least you can be a “martyr”, instead of bashing those you wouldn’t dare stand in front of. Learn to spell, too.

      • The point is that Canadian troops aren’t fighting for protecting our country, nor for democracy, nor for defending or helping Afghan or Libyan people. They expose their lives and other people’s lives because the government and mining/oil corporations send them down there to get access to natural resources and get contracts for rebuilding and cleaning up the mess. Besides, the soldier mentality is criminal: he/she knows they can kill other human beings and get away with that, much more, to be honored and awarded for that, and even be called a hero. That’s social sickness, and you’re a proof of that.

        • Rubbish

  3. Bloated Armed Forces budget mostly goes to pay for paper pushers

    Canadian consumers running out of credit …

  4. And as usual the people who will be negatively affected are expected to implement the changes — is it likely that excess generals, colonels and ADMs will decide to lay themselves off?  It’s about as likely as having Steve and the boys begin to act logically when evaluating their tough on crime legislation.

    • Too true. You need an independent house cleaner to to the job properly.  Sometimes a consulting firm can do the dirty better.  But the word must come from the PM and Treasury Board.

      • Consultants! They are the elephants in the King’s Cheese story!

         After we bring in too many cats, dogs etc. to get rid of the mice who’ve been eating the king’s cheese, we’ll need the mice back to get rid of the elephants!

        • Au Contraire.  You need an outsider to headhunt properly. Even big private firms know that. You can’t trust the bosses because the size of the org bloats their status too. What is really needed is the headhunters and the political will to back them up. The weak link is the CDS  and the MND. The PM must wield a sharp scythe. The bloating is not subject to reduction by standards because there are none in this kind of exercise. Been there and done it but the T shirt is old and moth eaten.

  5. CF’s is only one part of the problem. Every ministry is bloated by bureaucracy. And it’s not just in Ottawa – government offices  across this country are over staffed with supervisors, supervising supervisors till only a few overworked staff do actual work. 

    I know this is a cultural trend that is difficult to change but it is very frustrating to deal with any government department and frustrating that we have to pay for so many drones in the system. 

    • We train enough permanent officers in RMC and the universities to handle the junior officer requirements. But then they all want meaningful careers i.e promotion. The number needed at the top is small. What is needed is a fair warning that individuals who were required as junior officers but  not to be promoted will be told so and encouraged to either stay at that rank forever, or say goodbye and find another career.   For quite some time these guys and women were encouraged to think career.  The blog is right – too many officers and senior NCOs not enough rifle ordinary pongos, pigeons and fish heads to do the work.   It is very discouraging to be told you are a future leader and find out that it’s make-work.  Clean the stables! 

  6. About time.

  7. Why do we even have a standing army?  Bulk up the coast guard and the reserves with a smaller tactical response force.  I know we want to lay with the big boys – but why?

    • You have to be kidding to ask such a stupid question.  1. The Coast Guard is not a military organization. It would have to be massively reorganized and re-equpped like the US Coastguard.  Their guys and gals are paramilitary, ours are largely just civil servants. 2. S**t happens you need all three services working in cooperation to give a meaningful contribution to its containment, and yes, it’s the medium size guys ‘playing with the big boys’ that makes it meaningful and more or less apolitical.    

  8. There are some questions that should be asked… what is the split over the three forces, given 20,000 attached to the Navy?  What is the operational support ratio: i.e how many support bodies are required to keep one man in the field (on the deck?  in the cockpit)?  How do those numbers stack up besides comparably sized and tasked countries (say, Germany)?  What does 1,500 boots on the ground in Afghanistan really mean – 1,500 troops?  3,000?  No, at least 4,500 – the number there, the number there on the last tour, and the number there next tour.  How many trainers are required to sustain and grow the forces?
    It’s really easy to target Ottawa and the HQ staff, especially when you are on the outside and either don’t have or don’t want the data to inform the targeting.  But Leslie does have it and we would all be better served if the article, and the comments, were based on the detailed recommendations rather than, apparently, the first two lines of the executive summary.

  9. This is not news to anyone who has ever served. This is just the same old ,tired debate. We have too few are the pointy end and too many at the blunt end. This is systemic of DND and has been for decades. I doubt that anyone that works for a living ,has any faith that anything will change. Even Gen. Leslie has no faith in reforms, as he bails out from military service on a golden parachute to civy street.

  10. Good for General Leslie! I think Leslie’s report is honest and should be supported; like so many of our corporations, the Canadian Forces seems a tad too top heavy.
    I recall hearing PM Harper talking of creating an Arctic Base, one that Canada sorely needs…well, he did until he was elected. Now, he doesn’t think it feasible! Canada MUST have our military presence in the north to project our Canadian sovereignty and they need to be up there all the year ’round not just on missions or exercises in good weather! We also need a military base in the north to have a SARS presence up there as the recent tragedy at Resolute Bay, Nunavut proved. If the arctic is indeed to remain Canadian territory, then we’d better get bloody serious about firming up our claim to it. The international community will recognise our arctic sovereignty if we commit to install a base up there to defend it.