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

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.”