Where's the Beef?
May 15, 2006

(Photo: MCpl Frank Hudec, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

In the mid-1980s, a popular television commercial ­featured a grey-haired, four-foot-two-inch little old lady slapping the counters of neighbourhood hamburger joints and loudly asking the question “Where’s the Beef?” She was looking for any place that provided hamburgers – with real meat –not just buns full of colourful condiments and leafy vegetables that looked good on advertising posters.

Those who are looking forward to a revitalized and rejuvenated Canadian Forces might also be starting to think about banging a few counters too.

Now, after two years and two federal budgets from two different governments, the advertisements look good, but the beef has yet to be delivered.

The current transformation of defence policy and strategic restructuring of the Canadian Forces is due almost entirely to the vision and drive of General Rick Hillier. His effort will prove to be historic in its breadth and speed. It goes beyond Claxton and Hellyer and, unlike those two earlier reorganizations, whose main aim was to control defence spending and streamline defence administration so life would be easier for the Minister, Hillier’s aim is to make military operations more effective. In this he may well be remembered as the first head of the Canadian military establishment, since British officers serving as General Officers Commanding the Canadian Militia in the late 19th century, who truly saw operational effectiveness as the aim when going to work every morning.

The transformation of the Canadian Forces (and I really don’t like the term ‘transformation,’ but it is handier than writing “lots of change that comes quickly and alters ways of doing things”) is moving forward generally as planned – so far. In addition to the novelty of its breadth and scope, the programme has also adopted a welcome and aggressive tolerance of risk and is not afraid to advance where and when it can, being willing to learn lessons when needed. There is a healthy tolerance of minor missteps along the way, with an intelligent alertness to big trouble. Such trouble is on the horizon, and could come from within and/or from outside the Canadian Forces.

Within the Canadian Forces, serious problems could erupt if the transformation programme gets out of synch, or out of control. There are many complicated balls in the air right now and they all need money and people. First and foremost are the extensive operations being conducted. They are clearly the top priority because they are costly in terms of ‘national blood and treasure’ and cannot be allowed to fail. Second is the growth of the Canadian Forces, an activity that many too narrowly see as simply a recruiting and training challenge, when it is really a strategic government force generation capacity issue. A third distinct challenge, not usually separated from the recruitment issue, is the overall training effort. Think about it. The challenge does not only exist in the training of masses of new recruits; the continual training and professional development of all Non-Commissioned Members and officers must proceed in parallel, or all that will have been achieved in five years is to have a bunch of new well-trained junior troops, whose leaders have not been available for their own professional training for five years. Fourth, equipment and infrastructure must continue to be supported and maintained, upgraded or replaced or new equipment procured. Fifth, the ‘vision thing’ – doctrine, force development and strategic planning must be nurtured and sustained if Canada’s military is to be at all relevant in the future. If this complicated effort is stalled, those additional newly trained troops, under those leaders who themselves might need five years of upgrading, will also be faced with old (still …) equipment and no effective way to fight.

The sixth ball in the air is money. The greater the defence budget, the easier it is to keep all the balls in the air. If the defence budget is too small, one or more of the other balls could be dropped. And here is the rub … the budget allocation is, and rightly so, a political decision that is made entirely outside the Canadian Forces.

Politics is the other context that has impact on General Hillier’s plans. There is another juggling act going on out here, but the balls are bigger. For those who habitually see the world from with the Canadian Forces perspective, it is worthwhile to examine what political influences are at play today.

First, the big thought that will shatter any false expectation that things are going to get a whole lot better for the Canadian Forces anytime soon is the fact that there are many who believe the government’s highest priority right now is to get re-elected with a majority. They point to the determined and disciplined government programme to clearly implement their five election priorities as soon as they can, solidify their support in the West, expand their support in Quebec, woo voters in the big cities, restore a realistic relationship with the US, all to set conditions for another election, in which they expect to win a majority. It can be argued that the election campaign has already begun.

What does this mean for National Defence generally, and the Canadian Forces in particular? Well, the first step is to recognize that Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor and his ‘Canada First’ defence strategy are not among the ­’fabulous five’ priorities of the current government. It matters not that they may be the sixth priority – or the 66th priority. They are not in the top five right now and therefore will not enjoy any large degree of attention this time around. The federal budget of May 2006 is confirmation of this fact – no large amounts of DND money for at least two years. With money only promised in future years, one might be tempted to bash a counter and ask, “Where’s the beef?”

There is more to this political circumstance. Not only will DND and CF transformation not get any real ‘beef’ right now, enthusiasm for going ahead with any initiative that might detract from implementation of any of the current five or future government priorities will not be allowed either. Internal DND/CF debates over ice-breakers, airlift or quick reaction troops in remote locations will remain internal. Until the next election the best that can be hoped for is an easily achieved, positive and affordable ‘big buy.’ An example might be the purchase and delivery of one large strategic airlift aircraft, with the promise of three or four more ‘in the future.’ There could be a similar purchase of one or two replacement aircraft for the old Hercs from an existing production line, with the stated intent to get ‘more.’ The Army might even get some of the new trucks it needs, if they come ‘off the shelf.’

Does all this sound too gloomy? Consider an article (Tories jockey for top spot on PM’s next priority list) by Allan Woods in the 26 May 06 edition of The Ottawa Citizen. It described how cabinet ministers will be making legislative pitches to the Prime Minister in hopes of winning government support for their packages when the next round of priorities is set for the fall session.

The article lists a number of popular contenders: the Environment Minister has a “made-in-Canada” plan to cut emissions and pollution; a report on the system of equalization payments is due this fall; Senate reform may enjoy enhanced attention; some think the remaining priorities might focus on winning support in Quebec, and in Canada’s urban areas where the Conservatives were shut out in the last election. The free flow of goods and people at the Canada-US border is another high-profile interest. The author quotes one insider saying that “first and foremost … things that we are identifying as gaps in policy… need to be addressed,” and went on to add, “but whatever you do, you look at the political side of it, like how it’s going to play in Toronto or in rural Canada.”

Woods’ last line finally mentions the defence issue, commenting that another inside source suggests a “large military spending initiative, likely transport aircraft,” might be imminent. Being largely an afterthought, this is hardly the profile needed to keep the ‘beef’ in Canadian Forces transformation.

All this boils down to the fact that, while we understand that the Canadian Forces are subordinate to political authority, they will, despite all the hype, ­continue to be constrained by politics, particularly over the rest of this year and some of next. The Conservative government will continue to develop political conditions for the next election, in order to win a majority. Minister O’Connor will try to convince his cabinet colleagues that they must at least deliver on defence commitments already made, while making the concurrent point that those commitments are not nearly enough to meet ­government policy intentions.

Amid all this, General Hillier will be allowed to continue with internal Canadian Forces transformation, keeping all the balls in the air as best he can with the people and money in hand. But until he actually gets the additional people and ‘real’ money, his juggling act becomes more difficult as time goes on, and effective transformation cannot be considered a sure thing. The earliest time he may see something more concrete than last May’s defence budget, is the federal and defence budget of Spring 2007. That will be the third budget to which General Hillier has looked forward with anticipation. Let us hope that when he steps up to the counter, he gets his ‘beef.’

Brigadier General (Retired) Jim Cox is a PhD Candidate in the War Studies programme at the Royal Military College of Canada. The views expressed here are his own and are not intended to reflect any opinion of the government of Canada.
© FrontLine Defence 2006