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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.

Earlier this year, Gen. Wayne Eyre, the Chief of the Defence Staff, told the media that about one in 10 positions in the Canadian Armed Forces sits empty, with potential consequences for readiness. And last month, taking his boss’s lead, Vice-Adm. Angus Topshee, the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, went public about the navy’s “critical state” in a remarkable and blunt YouTube message on the RCN’s official account.

“Many occupations [are] experiencing shortages at 20 per cent and higher,” he said, adding that a marine technician “leaves us every two days.” The pain is keenly felt in the mid-ranks: the naval communicator and combat information operator trades are 40 per cent short at the master seaman rank, and naval engineering technicians are short 40 per cent at the supervisor and administrator level. Vice-Adm. Topshee, who I know and for whom I have a great deal of respect, is in a difficult situation.

But he says this high bleed rate will be solved by increased recruitment. The Canadian Forces recruitment system has failed to meet the navy’s targets for more than 10 years, he says; to help get the ball rolling, a “naval experience program” will offer Canadians who have no knowledge of the sailor’s life a one-year, all-expenses-paid and salaried insight to what it is like to focus on the maritime world. What the candidates are most likely to learn is how cranky sailors can become when a new priority-one task is dumped on them by the “big admiral” when they are already covering off vacant jobs while doing their own.

This is not the right prescription for the Navy’s problem.

To be fair, much of the issue is beyond its control. One challenge lies in the public view of Canada’s military, which has soured since the war in Afghanistan. Even though the navy had little direct involvement, the flow of recruits coming in the doors of recruiting offices has slowed to a trickle.

Another issue stems from the RCN’s cyclical readiness policy, which requires it to sustain at high readiness at about one-quarter of the total force, to cut costs and reduce strain on the forces by “load levelling.” While one quarter was deployed somewhere in the world, the next quarter would be training to replace the deployed quarter; another would be doing deep material overhaul and repair; the last quarter would be resting after deployment. Each stage was intended to be six months long.

It was not a bad idea, so long as there was stability around human resources and material readiness. But there wasn’t, and sailors wound up being jumped forward in the cycle to make up for vacancies that emerged. Moreover, commanding officers for deploying units started assembling star teams using staff from the other three-quarters of the force, no matter which phase they were at – largely in the pursuit of a promotion for the CO.

Then there are the culture problems, which even those of us working in the personnel branch in the 1980s could see. The RCN has historically been focused on sending ships on operations – summed up by its motto, “Ready, Aye, Ready” – and to that end, it has typically had a 50-50 sea-to-shore personnel ratio; today, that ratio is 52-48, when 40-60 is more ideal. The navy should aim to increase onshore work to improve morale by allowing naval members to spend more time with their family; more onshore jobs would also provide more roster depth to account for potential unexpected events at sea, while creating more opportunities for value-added activities, such as in engineering and work exchanges with allied countries.

Most crucially, though, much training occurs onshore. But working as a recruiter or trainer has typically been seen as a bottom-of-the-barrel job; anything that took someone away from the waterfront was a career-killer. The departures of more experienced, midranking officers also make it harder to offer the training that’s needed. So when Vice-Adm. Topshee says that the navy has not received the needed number of new recruits, the truth is that the navy likely could not have trained them all, even if it did.

Increased recruitment, then, is not the answer – realistically, it will take more than a decade to generate midranking officers’ and sailors’ replacements. Instead, the navy needs to offer substantial retention (or re-enrolment) bonuses, significantly improve the sea-to-shore work ratio, and prove, as Vice-Adm. Topshee said in the video, that “people are the heart and soul of our naval force.”

A navy without sailors is just so much grey floating junk. People have to come first, but until now, the leadership has been focused on operations and shipbuilding. And if the cost of living continues to exceed salaries, if commanders continue to put their personal ambitions first, and if billions are spent on weapon systems instead of on sailor welfare, the navy will waste away. Grim remarks alone, in the media or on YouTube, won’t change that.

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