On Thursday, the Chief of the Defense Staff (CDS), General Wayne Eyre, tacitly acknowledged what most members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have known for a long time: the military is in dire straits and unable to meet its current commitments. in the current state. While it is easy enough to point fingers at the state of depletion of its core capabilities like planes and ships, evidence of the crisis is evident everywhere. Just last week, it was revealed that 4,500 members and their families were on a waiting list for basic accommodation, a basic necessity in the lives of many staff.
In most other countries it would have been a major scandal with the resignation of political leaders. Yet he barely made any waves in the press. Although CDS Eyre has presented a plan to remedy the situation, there are serious doubts about its ability to achieve this result, partly because the problem is so serious and partly because it does not have the necessary tools. to do it.
Many factors explain how the CAF reached this inflection point. Although COVID has been a major issue for retention, many of these trends predate the pandemic. A key element is related to funding. Too little money has simply been spent on the ministry since the end of the Cold War, and it has now caught up with the military.
Recruitment is one such area and a major source of the personnel issues currently facing the military. Moreover, the department’s procedures and functions became particularly problematic and had a detrimental impact on the lives of its soldiers. This is not a new challenge, as finding the balance to sustain the CAF in peacetime and wartime has been a struggle since the 1950s.
However, many soldiers feel that their administration has become turgid and unresponsive to their needs – it can sometimes be difficult to obtain basic documents, it is almost impossible to obtain housing and the cost of relocation, an unfortunate reality for many members, is far too high. Further, many aspects of cultural reform have been poorly implemented, despite the critical nature of this effort given the systemic issues surrounding sexual harassment. But this has alienated members and risks further damaging already low morale. Large segments of staff are disenchanted and no longer want to continue in their role. They simply cannot continue to sacrifice their own welfare or that of their family and have instead “voted with their feet” and left the forces.
The capital base of the armed forces, from physical installations to planes, ships, vehicles, etc., is particularly problematic. Everywhere you look, CAF is collapsing due to severe underinvestment. Moreover, the basic tools that soldiers need to carry out their mission are simply falling apart.
For example, the Royal Canadian Navy’s frigates — 12 ships that make up the vast majority of the navy’s ability to protect the country — are in a dilapidated state. The fleet is now approximately over twenty-five years old and beginning to show its age after years of hard deployments around the world. Seven of the ships are currently in yards undergoing refits or repairs, two of which mean fewer deployments available for crews. Unable to serve too long in their assigned systems, many sailors become disillusioned and leave the service. This is a problem experienced by many members of the CAF and not just limited to the Navy.
While some people see too few deployments, others are often over-committed. Due to staff shortages, a small number of key specialists are used unsustainably. Some people spend six months or more away from home, only to be sent back for another deployment six months later. In some of these roles, such as aircraft maintainers or sensor technicians, understaffing reached 50% of authorized strength. These specialists burn out and leave the service, leaving fewer people to shoulder the burden and exacerbating the “spiral of death”. Eventually, there will be no one available to fill these critical positions.
Political representatives continually claim how they support forces and point the finger at policies and programs that claim to show just that. But that cannot hide the simple reality that CAF members face on a daily basis. The 2017 white paper Solid, secure and committed was supposed to remedy these problems, but the situation is fundamentally worse today than before. The money has not materialized, and even the recent announcement of an injection of $5 billion over the next six years represents only a 2% increase in the force’s budget per year. None of this money is earmarked for areas that will improve the situation of serving members. The staff are simply disenchanted with the whole situation, believing that the government does not really care about their institution.
This is not the first instance of a similar living memory crisis, however. In the mid-1990s, the CAF faced similar organizational pressures, albeit for different reasons. It had been suffering a withdrawal since the end of the Cold War, even as it simultaneously undertook unsustainable missions in places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Haiti. National Defense leaders tried to implement an operational pause in 1996. Despite their best efforts, soldiers were still sent on additional missions, such as Canada’s support of the Stabilization Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was only in the 2000s that the situation stabilized temporarily, thanks to a large injection of funding and support in the middle of the decade.
A similar situation could undo General Eyre’s plans. Given the ongoing war in Ukraine and growing tensions in the Western Pacific around Taiwan, it’s easy to see a situation where the CAF could be called upon to send more troops around the world. This week he announced the deployment of 40 combat engineers to Poland to train Ukrainian soldiers, and it is easy to see the deployment of more soldiers in the future.
In other words, there are no easy answers to this problem. What is needed, however, is strong leadership from the government to address this situation. Unfortunately, given this government’s seven years of experience in the defense file, that seems unlikely. In fact, rebuilding the army will be a costly undertaking, given the perilous state of the CAF. Moreover, rather than proscribing solutions that are completely out of step with military culture, any reform must focus on the needs of the military in order to deal with them effectively. Pouring money into this existing system will be very inefficient and may even be counterproductive in the end.
All of this suggests that the CAF, and the government as a whole, may require a more fundamental change in the way foreign policy is guided, administered and funded. Today’s orthodoxy is clearly not working, and unless Canada makes a major change, the current situation will only get worse, to the point where we could become truly helpless. And it’s in no one’s interest.