Trimming The Sails
According to Canadian Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Rick Hillier, in a 25 July 07 interview with CBC, some of the Tories' 2006 election promises may no longer be necessary.
Should the government adopt General Hillier's advice, the opposition and the media will likely trot out the same tired complaints about broken promises when they actually should be thankful to the government for managing the nation's defences in a sound manner.
Over 18 months ago, The Ruxted Group strongly advised politicians to avoid playing politics with the defence program. Of course, that proved to be an impossible request and we then asked Prime Minister Harper to go slow and continue the rebuilding process initiated by General Hillier under Prime Minister Martin and former Defence Minister Graham.
Thanks to some good government decisions - 10,000+ new, permanent force, sailors, soldiers and aviators plus new equipment for them to use – the rebuilding process is well under way. Unfortunately, some promises made by the Conservatives during the last election could unjustifiably interfere with that rebuilding process. General Hillier has also advised the government that some internal restructuring decisions – the creation of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR), for example – have obviated the immediate need for some of the Conservatives' election promises. It should not come as a surprise that regardless of the validity or desirability of some parts of the defence plan submitted by the Conservative Party to voters during the last election, there are actually other more relevant, pressing requirements that govern and guide the rebuilding process.
It is possible - even probable - that Minister O'Connor and many Conservatives believe that election promises must be kept, even those that are unpopular or ill advised. This may be politically desirable but impractical to implement in the face of the contradiction that occurs when election promises collide with Gen. Hillier's informed, professional advice.
There is little doubt that there are numerous items on the equipment or capability deficiency list that require attention as part of the rebuilding process; however, the process of absorbing new personnel and equipment already on the order books must be well settled before moving forward with new units with new roles and missions.
For the first time, Canadians are understanding that communicating with the wider military community and other stakeholders is a duty that a responsible CDS can leverage to the advantage of the military, and therefore should be embraced by any CDS and certainly no one should discourage him from doing so. Recently General Hillier was accused by the media and the opposition of appearing to contradict Minister O'Connor's stated expectations on how soon the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police might be ready to replace ISAF (Canadian) troops in the combat role in Kandahar. In our view, General Hillier has acted decisively by delivering a powerful message on many levels by setting the expectation that government's chief military advisor should and must be consulted by the government on matters impacting the military to any degree. In this regard, this is old news in that General Hillier has always offered the government his best advice, the only new element being that fact that he has publicly acknowledged that he has offered both advice and now a professional public opinion. Canadians are entitled to know that advice has been rendered, and certainly the CDS has a right to make it known that he has done so. Things have changed since the days when the Chief of the General Staff would chug across the country on a train, stopping every now and again to address a large parade of soldiers and telling them what he was telling the government of the day. Those addresses were public, even if the media took little note; there was nothing secret said and the generals were not breaching cabinet confidences. Gen. Hillier is doing the same thing in a different, modern, media savvy way. He is explaining to the military community - and to Canadians at large - that the Minister's immediate, political goal may be very hard to reach and that the defence staff is making a plan in case the government shifts its goals. That is vital information the military community needs to hear, for it reinforces and clarifies intentions behind the orders and actions which make their way down the chain of command and control from Ottawa. That other Canadians receive the same reinforcement and clarity is a bonus provided by General Hillier's chosen medium of communication.
General Hillier's public statements indicate that the Conservative government may choose to reconsider more election promises relating to defence issues. This would probably be acceptable to Canadians if they could see that the government recognizes that a true strategic vision for the future development of the Canadian Armed Forces requires active and thoughtful consideration of the professional advice offered by the CDS, which is drawn from the combined brain power of the military leadership as a whole.
Most Canadian politicians want what is best for Canada- they may disagree on the details but most understand that the Canadian Armed Forces is a vital and necessary national institution. To succeed, it needs to be efficient and effective in the tasks those same politicians will assign. We continue to ask politicians, whether 'on the hustings' or in Parliament to treat the nation's defences with care and respect.