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Retired Gen. Rick Hillier, chair of the COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task force, responds to a question during a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on Dec. 11, 2020.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

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

Too often, Canada’s struggle against the pandemic has been described in war-like terms – and frankly, that’s not a good thing.

I served in the military for more than 33 years and also taught and conducted military planning. I worry that popularizing warfare terminology in the public sphere ignores the fact that all of war’s acronym-heavy jargon has very specific meaning. Planning for a crisis – or, harder still, having to plan in the throes of a crisis – requires clear explanations about when, how and why any plans will be undertaken. If those issues get confused, then time – that most precious and irrevocable commodity of all – will go to waste.

But if wastage is the biggest concern, and it can be avoided with operational clarity, then Ontario’s Vaccine Distribution Task Force – led by retired general Rick Hillier, who was advised by a quietly appointed secretariat of former high-ranking officers with ties to the man who served as chief of the defence staff from 2005 to 2008 – is deserving of criticism.

In November, 2020, Premier Doug Ford announced the creation of the task force, declaring that “we need military precision.” But its operation got off to a rough start, running into difficulties getting vaccines out to distribution centres and clinics. Then things were further derailed when a vaccination halt was called for two days during the holiday season. Eventually, the former chief of the defence staff had to apologize: “We shouldn’t [have] made that decision. I take responsibility for that,” he said, looking chastened. He and his cohort of military experts ended their work in March, leaving their mess for the public sector to pick up.

But to avoid that situation, he and his secretariat should have looked first at the constraints and restraints they were under, before sorting out their priorities into a sequenced plan. They should have got guidance on both of these issues from the Ontario government and should have gone back to them with the proposed plan of action before putting anything into effect. These are the most basic of principles governing the design of military operations. What happened instead suggests poor communications at best – a major overstep of authority at worst.

One retired military member who served on the secretariat resorted to a bizarre explanation to justify the team’s actions: “Doctors are awesome at doctoring – they don’t think strategic-planning wise,” he said. “Infectious-disease specialists are awesome at infections – they do not do strategic planning or strategic implementation.”

The problem with this narrative is that the task force should also not have been working at the strategic level. That is the sole purview of the Ontario government. They were supposed to be designing a plan of action, not shaping new government policy.

As it turned out, the former military officers were not so “awesome” at their part of the job, and their mistakes became costly in terms of credibility for the Ford government, public confidence in their social services and, most importantly, time, which resulted in unnecessary deaths.

It also appears that secretariat members were selected on the basis that “what you do when you’re in command is you surround yourself with people who are ultracompetent and who are ultraloyal,” according to Bernard Derible, a former lieutenant-colonel and task force adviser. A responsible leader would value having people who can speak truth to power.

As part of their work, military planners assess the “worst-case scenario” of any situation and the critical vulnerabilities that our side must protect. In a way, the worst-case scenario is playing out now, given how the rapid spread of the Delta variant is further overwhelming our exhausted health care workers, who comprise our weakest point and critical vulnerability. With attrition at levels too high to replenish, and slowing vaccination rates threatening to put herd immunity out of reach, we risk being in real trouble.

Every major conflict requires continuing calculations of a given operation’s strengths and weaknesses, to take advantage of our strengths and limit the exposure of our weaknesses to the enemy. Right now, we are still struggling to win the so-called “war” against COVID-19 because the virus has demonstrated it is better at change and movement than we are. The vaccine rollout was a difficult operation, to be sure – but based on their experience, the former military officials in charge of executing it should have known better.

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