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opinion

Ken Hansen is an independent defence and security analyst who retired from the Royal Canadian Navy in 2009 in the rank of commander.

The Titanic is sinking.

That was the sense from October comments by General Wayne Eyre, the Chief of the Defence Staff for the Canadian Armed Forces, in which he estimated that the force was short-staffed by about 10,000 members, and sought to add 5,000 more to their ranks. To achieve this, he called for a “whole-of-society effort” for the military while it attempts to solve its recruitment and staffing problems. “We need to rebuild the Armed Forces, we need to get the numbers back up,” he said, “and we’ve got to do it with a sense of urgency and priority because it is affecting our ability to respond around the world.”

These problems are indeed serious. During my time in the personnel branch, between 1990 and 1993, we worked on the assumption that annual attrition of 3 per cent was “normal,” and that our recruitment and training systems had the capacity to take in enough new people to meet the demand created by this normal attrition. But we faced a 5-per-cent shortage at that time, which meant some jobs would have to go vacant for at least a year or longer. So today’s numbers – nearly 15 per cent short of the CAF’s authorized strength of 68,000 – seem downright catastrophic.

But if the Canadian Armed Forces are headed for a Titanic collapse, then Gen. Eyre’s call for support sounds like a first-class passenger asking the third-class passengers already in the water to help bail out their lifeboat, so they can avoid getting their feet wet.

Support for our troops is certainly necessary, but it doesn’t deal with the fundamental problem: The Canadian Armed Forces no longer reflect the principles and values of the Canadian populace, or of a modern Canadian work force. If this is not addressed, any reform will only amount to a shuffling of the deck chairs.

Military leaders like to say that “people are our most valuable resource,” and yet this most precious commodity has been steadily leaving for years. This is a reflection of CAF members’ sense that they are not valued; indeed, while leaders talk about the value of their people, they just as often talk about “the primacy of operations”: the idea that the missions assigned by the Canadian government come first – and thus, people come second. This is the contradiction at the heart of another popular military phrase, “mission first, people always.” This was felt in the ranks after Corporal Lionel Desmond’s 2017 murder-suicide after dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder; the ensuing inquiry left CAF members feeling that they might be callously discarded if they became seen as unfit for duty, and dumped onto the health care system.

Successful modern businesses understand that employees want to feel valued. They also understand that, if they want to access a higher quantity and quality of talent, they need to become an employer that people actually want to work for. This thinking should drive military reform.

To start, the CAF should substantially increase members’ pay. No profession is as uniquely demanding, in physical and psychological terms, as military service; wages should reflect that. There should also be continuous service-time-based increments in pay in every rank and in every level of technical competence; right now, these pay raises are currently only given within the first few years in a new rank. The lack of recognition through incentive levels is a major source of dissatisfaction in the ranks.

The military promotion process has a similar problem. Advancement evaluations are largely based on individual performance and qualifications, and at the mid-rank level, success is judged by how one commands an operation. But these approaches don’t incentivize people-focused and team-oriented leadership. Promotions and other rewards should be given to members who are effective at motivating and directing an efficient team that can overcome challenges.

And just as work-life balance is an important consideration in a modern workplace, military leaders should recognize that deployment time is not the equivalent of working from a different office: It is a high-demand period that requires meaningful rest afterward. Post-deployment time off should be equal to the time of deployment, as is the policy in the Danish navy (and elsewhere in offshore industries). This has helped keep Danish enlistment high, and attrition low.

Real reform in how we think about military work could even allow for unionization, which could create some institutional pushback against leadership’s insatiable demand for deployment. While that may seem unusual, the Netherlands Armed Forces has allowed members to form and join unions since the 1960s, and about 80 per cent of its personnel is a member of a trade union. This has brought a degree of stability to personnel demands.

The military recruitment crisis also has trickle-down consequences. The CAF has had to draw skilled and experienced people from the staffs of headquarters, military schools, units further down in the readiness pipeline, and the reserve forces, weakening those organizations. Our reserves, in particular, have had to step up in recent operations: Reservists comprised 20 per cent to 30 per cent of the overall forces Canada deployed in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, but made up more than half of the Army’s overall strength by the end of it all.

Marching in lines, stamping feet on parade grounds and keeping with traditional uniforms – these should also be done away with. These rituals are simply not relevant to the citizens who must make up the force of the future; they reflect the reality that Canada’s military is stuck in the past.

Nobody wants to work in an old, tired organization that draws its culture and values from a museum; people want to be part of an agile organization that rewards modern values. The Canadian Armed Forces needs to abandon its sternward perspective on legacy force structure and missions – or it won’t be able to bail out the sinking ship.

Editor’s note: (Dec. 5, 2022): An earlier version of this piece implied that Gen. Wayne Eyre directly likened the Canadian Armed Forces to the Titanic. Rather, that was an interpretation of the opinion writer.