From the Tower: Trimming the Military Tail
Jan 15, 2013

First a little vignette:1
The brigade commander finished presenting his concept of operations for the upcoming attack on the enemy to his subordinate commanders. He seemed inspired. It was a grand plan with the requisite all-arms cooperation and coordination. An armour-heavy battle group would lead the advance. Infantry and combat engineers would break in. Gunners would ‘prepare’ the objective, and air support would interdict enemy reinforcements. It would be a wonderful battle. Full of expectant glory, the brigade commander turned to his G4, who would now provide the logistic and administrative details. The young logistics Major stepped forward, feet firmly planted on the ground and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the commander has told you what he wants to do. Now I’m going to tell you what he can do.”

Today’s government, like most before it, is ignoring the lessons of history, which teach us that, in the business of military force projection, ‘tail’ invariably determines what ‘teeth’ can do. As a gargoyle, I would not be projected over the Hill if it were not for my considerable tail being embedded in the Peace Tower. The pursuit of less tail in favour of more teeth represents a naïve, overly-simplistic and wrong-headed view of power projection. Teeth with inadequate tail are just dentures in a weak body.

Recall that during the Chief of Defence Staff change of command on 29 October 2012, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, none too subtly, “The Forces must be restructured to ensure administrative burdens are reduced and resources freed up for the front line. The Canada First Defence Strategy must continue to advance, and as I’ve said before, with the constant search for more teeth and less tail.”

Let me challenge the logic that more teeth is preferable to less tail. To begin, we might consider ‘teeth’ to be the operational elements of the CF – ­maritime task groups, operational air squadrons, army battle groups and special operations task forces – who operate at the ‘sharp end.’ Tail is found ‘behind’ the sharp end.

There are generally three kinds of tail. First, there is logistics – the art of acquiring, storing, moving and maintaining commodities such as ammunition, food and equipment throughout the battle sphere. Administration is another form of tail that provides for the efficient management of pay, benefits, training, medical treatment and career development. The third form of tail – and the one that might be legitimately targeted – is bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is unlike logistics and administration because its very nature is to constrain, restrain, discourage and negate initiative. Logistics and administration push things. Bureaucracy inhibits things.

Throughout military history, fighting troops have always required logistic and administrative back-up. Various military histories claim that the quantity of REMFs (Rear Echelon Mother F_) required to support a single front-line soldier has grown over time. Some say that, in the Second World War, every soldier engaged with the enemy required about four further back to support him. Today, some claim that every combat soldier needs more than seven in support. So what?

The truth is that in today’s complex operational environments the exact ratio of frontline soldiers to support troops is at best inexact, if not entirely uncountable.

What constituted ‘tail’ in Afghanistan? Warships are much more technologically sophisticated than tanks, so who knows how many support either one all the way ‘back’? Fighter jets are flown by one pilot (for now). How many support people does a pilot require to stay in the air? How many do infantry platoons need? Frankly, those who critique the front/rear ratio simply don’t know what they are talking about.

The fact is, much like the nonsensical notion that there is an ideal percentage of our GDP that should be spent on defence, the concept of a tooth to tail ratio is irrelevant.

There is no empirical evidence that more teeth and less tail is a good thing. Even in the current context of a constrained budget, there is no proof that cutting tail is a smart way to cut costs or save money. In fact, the pursuit of less tail and more teeth can be downright dangerous.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to show that lack of tail is a pathological condition that erodes capability, diminishes capacity, aggravates risk and impairs resilience. It reduces our national capacity for military power projection and thereby presents a risk to the national security of Canada.

Even Mother Nature believes in more, not less, tail. Tree roots spread out underground about twice as far as the extended canopy to support and nourish a tree. Most of an iceberg remains submerged below the surface of the water, giving it stability and strength. Without a considerable torso to hold vital internal organs, humans would not be able to use their limbs.

In society at large, there would be no Canadian state without institutional tail, no government without parliament (at least in theory), no trials without courthouses, and no professional productivity without schools.

The theoretical construct of national power itself is almost entirely tail. Elements of national power must be exploited to eventually produce useable instruments of national power. Along the way, however, necessary capabilities – the product of trained personnel, appropriate equipment and an effective doctrine to use that equipment – must be developed. Capabilities must then be nurtured and readied in quantity to generate meaningful capacity – the extent to which capability can be applied for effect. Not only does Canada need the capability of fighter aircraft, it needs the capacity to apply that capability to multiple targets over an appropriate time frame, as often as might be required. The Toronto Maple Leafs are capable of playing good hockey, but do they have the capacity to play good hockey over three periods, twice a week for the entire hockey season? Tail not only generates individual teeth (capabilities), it generates the mouth (capacity).

But we’re not finished yet. Before military teeth can bite, they must be guided by a government defence policy (hey, wait a minute …!). Then they need a real military strategy, followed by campaign planning, leading to deployment and then, finally, employment and engagement. This last step is where ‘teeth’ actually chew something. All the preceding steps are ‘tail.’

Does Mr. Harper really think he can do all he wants to do militarily, at home and abroad, with a diminished tail? He should consult a good young logistics Major.

Hudson, on The Hill
© FrontLine Defence 2013