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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 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.”

We are pleased to note that some of our ideas, such as improved component transfer opportunities, were shared by the DND/CF leadership and are being implemented. We also note that other ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of training, such as the reintroduction of regimental depots, are being implemented and we applaud the CF’s efforts to make the training system better.

One of the ‘solutions’ to the severe personnel shortages is to use more and more reserve personnel.

A recent article lauds the Calgary Highlanders for ‘generating’ nearly 60 soldiers to serve with the next Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry battle group in Afghanistan.

A reserve unit is like the "goose" that lays the "golden eggs" of reserve soldiers who are sufficiently motivated and well enough trained to be suitable for voluntary overseas deployment. In order to produce these trained soldiers one needs qualified and experienced instructors. These instructors teach soldiers at their home reserve units, but perhaps more importantly they provide the great majority of the instructors at the Army's regional and national training centres, where thousands of reserve soldiers get various training courses each summer. However, in any given reserve unit, because of the many competing demands for a reserve soldier's time (job, family, education, etc) not all soldiers will be able to dedicate enough time over the years to rise to the status of instructor. On top of that, reserve service in Canada is fully voluntary: reserve soldiers can serve or not, as they see fit. They can also quit the reserve any time they like, such as if civilian job pressures become too great, or if reserve service is not sufficiently satisfying. Thus, these instructors are always in short supply.

Now, add on to this the fact that these instructors are also leaders: what the Army calls non-commissioned officers (NCOs) such as Master Corporals and Sergeants. NCOs are "the backbone of the Army" in most Western armies including Canada's. These NCOs are needed to lead the troops during training exercises, on operations overseas, and to run routine activities at home, in the unit – regular or reserve. If the Army accepts large numbers of these reserve NCOs as volunteers for overseas deployment (and given the current personnel state of the Regular Army it does just that) then they are taken away from the reserve training system for approximately a year.

During this year in question, the reserve training system has to continue to function. The reserve units need to constantly qualify new soldiers, and to improve the qualifications of those soldiers who have been in for a while. Importantly, it must train a new crop of these vital NCOs each year, and continue to upgrade the existing NCOs. If the NCOs needed to populate this training structure are not available, what happens? The amount of training has to be cut back. This results in a delay in qualifying people, an annual backlog of those needing qualifications, and a growing level of frustration amongst reserve soldiers who can't get the training they need and want.

In the worst case scenario, the shortage of trained reserve NCOs in the training system could contribute to a sort of "death spiral" in which, with fewer NCOs available annually as trainers, fewer new NCOs are trained and upgraded each year, with cumulative effect.

Solutions are difficult to develop. Using NCOs from the Regular Army is not a useful idea as they too are in short supply. In fact, for some time now, the Regular Army has had a hard time filling those NCO positions that are dedicated to training the Reserve Army. Keeping reserve NCOs back from deployment might seem like a good option, but the fact is that they are needed there too, especially to provide the leadership for the larger groups of reserve volunteers going on each deployment. Cutting back training, as explained above, is not an option: it just aggravates the problem over time. What might be a solution? Possibly, as a number of armies (including Canada) have historically done under the pressures of war: reduce the amount of time require to qualify an NCO so that more can be produced and thus put to work in the training system. There are some dangers inherent in accepting less experienced and less well-trained NCOs, but these might be acceptable risks.

Clearly one of the factors which allowed the Calgary Highlanders to produce such good results was excellent leadership. The article cited above focused on the commanding officer but Ruxted is sure that he would want to move a great deal of the credit onto the unit's cadre of NCOs. We note, however, that many more Highlanders had originally volunteered, but then declined the opportunity when they learned they could not serve in a formed subunit. Providing greater opportunities and challenges are the greatest motivators for people to join and soldiers to serve. While an entire reserve company formed from a single Reserve unit may be too ambitious for the short term, providing Reservists the opportunity to demonstrate the qualities of their unit on the large stage must also become part of our planner's calculations.

Another solution is to strengthen the leadership of all units – Navy, Army and Air Force, regular and reserve. Life is always more difficult for reserve force members many members are full time students; the leaders, by and large, have full time civilian careers. They take time away from friends and family to serve their country in their ‘free’ time. They are, as Churchill said, twice the citizen. Perhaps some innovative, imaginative ways to improve leadership training and reward good leadership (especially for reserve leaders) can be found.

Ironically some of the recent reforms to component transfers – changes which Ruxted supports – might exacerbate the reserve units’ leadership problems in the immediate term.

The Ruxted Group renews its call to Prime Minister Harper: A budget boost now now! The decade of darkness, about which General Hillier spoke in Feb 07, was, really, several (about four) decades of darkness –Canada’s military has been abused for most of the past 40 years. There is no other word but ‘abused’ to describe Conservative and Liberal defence policies and programmes since 1966. One of the results of these decades of darkness is that the military – all of the military, Navy, Army and Air Force, is inadequately equipped and, above all, critically short of people.

One of the biggest and best incentives to retain currently serving soldiers and to recruit recently released soldiers and new soldiers is money. The CF can spend a lot of new money quickly and effectively in the retention and recruiting business; the government should provide it, now. But money, alone, is not the answer – it has to be spent in ways which make ‘soldiering’ (for leaders and the rank and file alike) more satisfied with their service. Better pay and bonuses work when they are ‘recognition’ of good service rather than ‘bribes’ by a desperate employer. Budget increases, coupled with a policy to enable recruiting and retention is needed. Budget increases alone will not fix the looming reserve personnel generation problem. A new policy-budget ‘alignment’ is needed to ensure that the commanders charged with recruiting and retaining can spend the money in ways which are most broadly beneficial to the good soldiers Canada wants to recruit and needs to retain.

The alternative is that the Army will kill and eat the ‘goose’ which is, right now, laying the essential golden eggs.


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