The Minister of National Defence and senior military officers have said a lot in the past few weeks about reassigning people to ease the very real shortage of combat soldiers for Afghanistan. Predictably these messages have been misinterpreted and distorted in a media frenzy created, in part by comments by 'experts' with only part of the story. Most recently, General Hillier has tried to set the record straight in a daily newspaper article.
If there is a critical shortage of infantry soldiers, and if soldiers should not serve more than one tour in Afghanistan, then reassignment might be an appropriate short term fix. But the media’s focus should not be on temporary reassignment because shortages in Afghanistan are not the real problem. Shortages (and reassignments) are a symptom of a much greater problem.
The real problem is that there are too few people in Canada’s operational naval, land and air forces. Those shortages, and the consequential frequent tours in combat zones, are just as prevalent in the service support trades as they are in the combat arms. Most of these shortages are the result of wounds inflicted by the Government of Canada on the Canadian Forces; the Force Reduction Program, the transfer of manpower from the field force to headquarters, and ongoing retention problems are the root of this.
Even as we continue to fight in Afghanistan, the highest priority task facing the Minister and the defence staff must be to add many thousands of sailors, soldiers and air force personnel to the ranks of the regular and reserve forces.
There is an old adage which says that if you really want to get out of a hole you must, first, stop digging. If the Government of Canada really wants to solve the military personnel crisis then it needs, first, to stop losing people.
Retention must be priority number one.
Before recruiting any new, untrained personnel, it is vital to stop the bleeding of good, trained but highly frustrated people who leave the armed forces after too few years of service. This would lessen the strain on the recruiting and training systems; it also makes sound economic sense.
There are many ways to improve retention, including:
1. Improving Career Satisfaction
Career satisfaction is critical in retaining quality personnel within the Canadian Forces and one way of achieving this is to provide more career paths options. One such career option involves offering retraining for experienced combat arms people so that they can be employed in the desirable (especially for second career prospects) support trades – leaving room in the combat arms for young, eager recruits, fresh from ‘civvie street.’ Such a system exists, but there is room to exploit it further.
2. Providing More Career Paths
More career paths can be offered within existing occupational structures. Recently the average infantryman lost the option to train and be employed as a mortar man, a pioneer, or an anti-tank gunner. These jobs were transferred to artillery and engineers, or were significantly reduced in numbers. Returning these to the infantry would return this job option and increase satisfaction within the battalions.
3. Simplify Component Transfers
Another career option to retain soldiers we already have is to simplify the component transfer process so that good people in the reserves can move more easily into the regular force, and vice versa.
4. Offering Bonuses
Other retention ideas include signing and resigning bonuses – especially for the combat arms and hard sea trades. The Canadian Forces have used bonuses for pilots, dentists and engineering officers, so why not for the men and women who close with and fight the enemy? Money is a fine motivator, especially if used in conjunction with Quality of Life and Op Tempo adjustments; sailors and soldiers have families to feed, too.
A key component of retention involves the careful reintegration of battle hardened combat soldiers back into the day-to-day routine of peacetime garrison life. Leaders need to help these soldiers, who reached a new personal pinnacle in battle, to adapt to a familiar but suddenly uncomfortable routine. They also need to help the routine adapt to the soldiers. As it did in 1919 and 1946 and after other missions, the Canadian Forces must make itself comfortable with and for the seasoned combat soldiers (and sailors and fliers and support personnel, too) who are its very heart and soul. This may mean that new ways need to be found to maintain and enhance eternal military virtues and standards. Reintegration is not a new problem but, thanks to years of relative peace it is unfamiliar.
RECRUITING AND TRAINING
After they spend time, money and effort on retention, including retraining and reintegration, the leadership must sort out the recruiting and training mess – it is not a system. Too many people wait far too long to be fed through the recruiting mill. Ruxted agrees that it takes time to do security checks and physical tests and examinations. No one wants standards lowered. More resources – contracted resources if necessary – must be applied to the process.
Too many members spend far too long in ‘Personnel Awaiting Training’ units, waiting for the training 'system’ courses they need to make them ready for service in ships at sea or battle groups overseas. Too many schools wait too long for the personnel 'system’ to get bright young non-commissioned officers to join the instructional staff. Too many soldiers, some of whom have demonstrated outstanding courage and leadership in combat, are waiting too long for the ‘system’ to provide leadership training and promote them. Such problems are largely systemic.
It may be highly desirable that soldiers serve no more than one tour in any combat operation, in the same rank, but that should not be the driving force behind force generation.
Generating a solid corps of experienced leaders for the Canadian Forces must be one of the vital long term goals for the defence staff. Generating leaders may require, for example, that a corporal to do another combat tour when promoted to sergeant, as that good soldier will likely want to do.
Maintaining morale, a factor which, commendably, concerns Minister O’Connor, is vital too. Yet, it is just one consideration. DND must not continue to drive out good sailors and soldiers because of frustration and burn-out, bearing in mind that families also suffer alongside military members. The Ruxted Group understands the dilemma but is convinced that the real problems can be solved with a bit of imagination and will.
The root problem is shortages. The shortages are everywhere. Shortages are the reason some soldiers are required to serve multiple tours in combat operations - in Afghanistan now, and wherever else next. Shortages are why the recruiting and training systems fail to put enough new, trained people into ships and units. Shortages are the reason the Canadian Forces has a serious retention problem - which exacerbates problems created by the shortages.
Fortunately, there are mid and long term solutions. Some may require ministerial action to secure cabinet approval for budget changes. Suffice to say most solutions are well within the purview of Minister O’Connor, General Hillier and a few other people in their entourage in NDHQ.
The Ruxted Group affirms that the Canadian Forces needs several thousands more people. A good start to reaching the personnel target is to retain the good people who leave earlier than should be the case. Many of those people can be enticed to stay with some changes to military pay, personnel and training policies.
The Ruxted Group believes enough has been said about reassignment and more needs to be said about first retention and then recruiting.
The Ruxted Group on : The Goose That Lays The Golden Eggs
The Goose That Lays The Golden Eggs A few months ago The Ruxted Group spoke out, towards the DND/CF leadership, on the issues of recruiting, retraining and above all retention. We said, “The real problem is that there are too few people in Canada’s o