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A reservist in Afghanistan: Without 'augmentees,' the land forces could not readily do the job. (Joe Bryksa)
A reservist in Afghanistan: Without 'augmentees,' the land forces could not readily do the job. (Joe Bryksa)

J.L. Granatstein

No life like it: shrinking numbers, increasing strain Add to ...

For a G8 nation's military, the Canadian Forces are tiny. With only 65,000 regulars in the army, navy and air force, it's all we can do to sustain and maintain 2,800 men and women in Afghanistan.

But if the regular forces are small, the reserves are minuscule. Only 27,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen are in place to back up the full-time personnel, with 9 per cent of them in the air force, 13 per cent in the navy and the rest in the land forces. These citizen soldiers hold day jobs in the civilian work force but give one or two nights a week, as well as one to three full-time weeks a year, usually in the summer, to practise their military trade. Many reservists are students seeking money for college or university tuition.

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That long-time pattern for the reserve's role has changed dramatically in the past few years. The regulars are so short of personnel to meet the naval, air and land force deployments that have occurred since 9/11 that reservists are increasingly going on full-time service. There are more than 11,600 reservist officers and non-commissioned members working full time in the regular force, at 85 per cent of a regular's pay. They make up 20 per cent of the Canadian Forces' strength, and many of them work on contract and have zero connection to their old reserve unit.

Every rotation to Afghanistan, for example, includes 15 per cent to 25 per cent reservists, all of whom go through as much as seven months of training before deploying to Kandahar for six-to nine-month tours. That training brings every reservist up to the regular force standard. Moreover, some reservists are specialists, working, for example, on civil-military co-operation or on psychological operations; indeed, the Canadian Forces have no capabilities in these areas except those provided by reservists.

But most are infantry reservists who come from militia regiments around the country and who volunteer for an Afghan posting. The land force infantry's nine battalions are all seriously under strength, and some warrant officers have already been to Kandahar three or four times, with yet another rotation staring them in the face. Without militia "augmentees," the land forces could not readily do the job.

The navy faces a similar problem. With only 4,000 reservists, some in training, the navy must find crews for 10 Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels of the Kingston class, and that requires 1,250 full-time reservists. That means there are only two part-time trained reservists for each one on full-time service.

When the Olympics take place in Vancouver and Whistler in February, the number of reservists on full-time duty will increase to more than 14,500. In other words, more than half of the reserve forces will be on duty 24/7, exactly the same as regular troops.

So what's wrong with this? Consider the land force reserve with its 21,000 soldiers. Every year, about 20 per cent of that number leave the military for other opportunities or because they decide reserve service is not for them. Basic training is being given to 3,500 soldiers, and that requires officers and warrants to conduct the training. In all, there are only 12,000 reserve soldiers the land forces consider to be effectively trained, and the Afghan commitment is taking 10 per cent of them each year.

The result? Militia regiments have gone from training as units to being the providers of augmentees for regular units. The tempo of training has slowed; the pace of turning out men and women who can fill a slot in an Afghan-bound regular unit has stepped up dramatically.

The question now is whether the reserve forces will survive until the Afghan commitment ends in 2011. Reservists who work with regulars are learning valuable military skills, but will they return to the slower pace of training in the regimental armoury? Will they join the regular force? Will they leave the military? No one has the answers, though there's reason for concern.

But let's be clear: The cause of the strain is a shortage of personnel. The land forces are very close to meeting their yearly recruitment goals; the navy is in the midst of a recruiting campaign. But the regular force is at or just above its ceiling of 65,000, and the reserves are within 10 per cent of their ceiling of 30,000. Neither figure is truly sufficient, and until the government gives the Department of National Defence the funds to substantially increase the Canadian Forces' numbers, the strain on the country's soldiers, sailors and air personnel can only increase.

With luck and dedication, the strain won't break the military. But luck and dedication are not guaranteed forever, especially in times of budget deficits and recession.

J.L. Granatstein is a historian and senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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