After nearly a decade of Canadian military commitment to war, counterinsurgency and stability operations in Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere, in 2010 the Canadian government initiated a shift in its national security and economic policies that ultimately would lead to a significant contraction in defence funding.
One of the first steps the government took was to order the Department of National Defence to undertake an internal audit of its recent organizational behaviour. Specifically, the Canadian Forces Transformation Team, then under the direction of Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, was ordered to identify areas where DND “could reduce overhead and improve efficiency and effectiveness, (in order) to allow reinvestment from within for future operational capability despite constrained resources.”
For Lt.-Gen. Leslie and his team, however, finding a perfect solution to the problem they faced was impossible. Already battered by a global recession, changing defence and economic policies, government deficit fighting measures and an impending departmental strategic review, difficult choices would have to be made.
Despite longstanding claims that ways exist to cut defence spending in a manner that makes the Canadian Forces ‘leaner and meaner’, history has always proved otherwise. In military planning, leaner almost always means weaker.
The 43 recommendations of the Leslie Report to shrink the ‘tail’ in order to grow the ‘teeth’ of the defence establishment constituted an attempt to make the best of dire circumstances. In the absence of new defence funding, Leslie’s team certainly knew that it was only a matter of time before even those areas protected from immediate government cuts — such as regular force personnel and certain capital equipment projects — would begin to atrophy as well.
The recommendations put forth in Lt.-Gen. Leslie’s Report on Transformation, released to the public last fall, surely appeared draconian to most and, predictably, invited immediate criticism from both stakeholders and the wider public. Among the more high-profile critics of the Leslie Report was the former Chief of Defence Staff, Rick Hillier, who declared during an interview with Don Martin on CTV News that, “If you tried to implement that report as it is, you would destroy the Canadian Forces.”
Such criticism hit hard, of course, but beyond the rhetoric was perhaps a greater concern: that in the absence of war, all Canadian military efficiency studies generally come to pass.
Perhaps they should. The establishment of the military’s transformation team as a semi-permanent fixture within NDHQ during the last several years constituted a very pragmatic move by DND. The value of the team’s work, such as the Report on Transformation 2011, should never be understated or misunderstood. The relatively minor investment in this honest broker outside of the chain of command has paid a dividend far beyond its cost, and its existence also constantly reminds government and the public that there no longer exists a culture of the ‘fox guarding the henhouse’ within DND/CF.
Given its mandate, therefore, one should have expected the Leslie report to be bold if not controversial. That it delivered exactly that reflects well on the professionalism of its team.
With this in mind, any future analyses of the recommendations put forth in the Report on Transformation 2011 must place it within the context of the environment in which it was commissioned. It’s important to note that the increases in defence personnel and budgets that were targeted for trimming by the report were not misguided wastes of public funds, but rather the measured result of a period of heightened Canadian security activity in the wake of 9/11.
At one time in 2010, for example, the CF was simultaneously carrying out five of the six core missions laid out by the government in the Canada First Defence Strategy. Along with combat operations in Afghanistan, the Canadian Forces responded to a sudden humanitarian crisis in Haiti, supported government security initiatives for the 2010 Winter Olympics, maintained its preparations for a response to a terrorist attack, and carried on its daily maritime aerial surveillance and search-and-rescue operations.
By the same token, when such periods of heightened activity eventually calmed down, it became reasonable to expect that — especially given a difficult economic environment — overall defence spending would fall.
With the nature of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan now changing from full participation in frontline combat to training and support for the Afghan army and other military and civilian stabilization initiatives; with its participation in Libya’s civil war nearing its final conclusion; and with the immediate domestic requirements for the security of large scale events such as the Olympics now behind us, the report is more than likely to have a strong influence on departmental strategy and force restructuring in the immediate future.
And the longer we enjoy peace and struggle with fiscal austerity, the more likely it is that the recommendations in the Leslie report will come to pass.
Andrew Godefroy is a Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute; the article above is drawn from his November 2012 CDFAI Research Paper, “The Ghost of General Otter: Putting the Canadian Forces Report on Transformation 2011 in Context”
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