Evidence of meeting #29 for National Defence in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was forces.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • James Fergusson  Director, Centre for Defence and Security Studies, University of Manitoba

11:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Bezan

Good morning, everyone. I call this meeting to order.

We're continuing with our study on readiness, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2).

Joining us today from the great University of Manitoba is Professor James Fergusson, who is the director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies.

We welcome you, Professor, to the committee, and we're looking forward to your opening comments.

11:05 a.m.

Dr. James Fergusson Director, Centre for Defence and Security Studies, University of Manitoba

Thank you, and thank you for the invitation.

Maintaining readiness is always a difficult and daunting task, not least because of the uncertainty surrounding future operational deployments in respect of location, conflict environment, new military technologies, and mission requirements and objectives. It becomes even more difficult when the armed forces face significant budget cuts, as the Canadian Forces do today.

The forces confront two demands on their resources. The first is maintaining and sustaining their day-to-day activities or existing commitments with respect to capabilities, personnel, training, and education. These are non-discretionary in nature, and thus represent a relatively fixed demand on resources. Moreover, these commitments, at least today, are overwhelmingly in non-combat roles.

The second is to ensure readiness to meet largely unforeseeable or unpredictable future commitments. These are discretionary in two senses. First, the CF lack the capacity to prepare fully for all and any future contingencies. Decisions must be made on what type of contingency to prepare for. Second, resources are a function of availability, once fixed demands are met.

Finally, readiness for the unforeseeable future should direct one's attention to the worst-case scenario—future combat missions. Maintaining ready, combat-capable forces is the core objective. The transition of combat-capable forces to non-combat roles or missions is not always an easy one. However, the costs of being unprepared for combat are much higher than the costs of being unprepared for non-combat functions.

As a function of the first demand on the Canadian Forces, and the extent to which these demands may grow or shrink over time, readiness investments are the obvious target for budget reductions. An ambitious capital acquisition program of the recent past and today compounds this. Historically, defence decision-makers facing budget cuts have initially targeted personnel, because people represent the largest spending item in a budget and it is the means to protect capital, which is about future readiness. Capital is the second target because it is about future investments and it is the means to protect immediate readiness.

Cutting personnel reduces the number available for readiness, relative to existing commitments. A likely target in this regard is to reduce reserve personnel in full-time positions who have backfilled key slots, especially within the training and education establishment as it relates to Afghanistan. While their elimination may provide some savings and protect regular force readiness, unless their positions are eliminated, reserves would have to be replaced by regular forces personnel. Moreover, eliminating these positions entirely will undermine future readiness, as they are key in communicating lessons learned from the operations to the next generation of personnel.

There is also the possibility of delaying capital acquisitions to protect immediate readiness investment. Whether it's the F-35 or the shipbuilding program, there are potential added costs in seeking to extend the life of current equipment. Moreover, there is a need to take into account these acquisitions, which are vital to existing fixed commitments and to readiness.

Given these considerations, and in the absence of any clear indication that defence decision-makers will cut regular force levels or delay acquisitions, readiness, especially in training, is likely to suffer. Here the burden may again be placed on the reserves, with the hope that future deployments can be undertaken by regular forces, with time available to train reserves for sustainment and backfill purposes. Of course, this will vary between the services.

There are no reserves, for example, available for the CF-18 fleet. Indeed, the issue of readiness relative to the type of available resources varies between the services. For example, both the air force and the navy, as a function of flexible, multi-role platforms, are less vulnerable than the army to different combat environments, assuming that sufficient resources can be invested in training for all the roles. Regardless, there is no service-wide solution to readiness.

Nonetheless, the forces consider two fundamental alternatives to ensuring readiness. The first is to designate specific units for combat readiness, the JTF model of special forces, for example. These may be conceptualized as first responders to the unforeseen future mission.These units would be focused not only on combat training but also on ensuring interoperability with allies. Potentially, if deployed overseas, time would be bought for training replacement or sustainment forces, under the assumption that additional operation-specific funding would be provided by the government. The remaining Canadian Forces would essentially be devoted to meeting day-to-day commitments. At the same time, other units may specialize in specific non-combat roles.

The problem here is the creation of at least a two-tiered armed force—some units combat-capable, others not. In some cases, this already exists as a function of specialized tasks and platforms within the services. Nonetheless, a tiered armed force raises issues for morale, retention, and recruitment.

Alternatively, the CF can continue to rotate units on a regular basis for combat training and readiness purposes. While this assures some degree of readiness breadth across the forces, it provides limits on the depth of readiness.

There is also the option of eliminating existing capabilities and thereby reducing the types of combat the forces can undertake. This, of course, has significant political implications for governments. Capabilities alone should not determine political commitments. Moreover, the capital acquisition program over the last decade and into the future greatly limits what capabilities might be discarded. In this sense, the forces are trapped by past decisions. Lost capabilities are also very difficult to re-acquire if the future does not conform to expectations. Even so, a close evaluation of existing capabilities is needed.

In conclusion, readiness will suffer in the immediate wake of forthcoming budget cuts, but all is not bleak. The operational experience of the Canadian Forces over the past decade and more ensures that readiness can be managed, at least for the immediate future.

The forces possess extensive combat experience stemming most recently from Afghanistan and Libya. The key is the retention of personnel with this experience and the transmission of this experience through training and education to the next generation. As long as the immediate future conforms to these experiences in terms of future operational commitments, then readiness is clearly manageable.

The danger, however, is that future unexpected operational commitments will not conform to past experiences. The CF may be ready to fight the wrong war. The lesson here is the Canadian Forces, like most western armed forces, being unprepared for the dramatic shift from deterrent operations and peacekeeping in the Cold War to war fighting and peace support operations over the last two decades. Except for the reality that overseas operations will remain “come as you are” and that the spectrum of possible operations can be discerned or identified, no one can predict the specific types of operations and conflict or combat environments the CF may face.

As noted earlier, the CF cannot be ready for every and any contingency across the spectrum of operations. At best, ensuring basic combat skills and a balance between immediate readiness driven by past experiences and future readiness for unpredictable environments is essential. This is the real readiness challenge.

Thank you.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Bezan

Thank you, Professor. We appreciate those opening comments.

We're going to kick off our seven-minute rounds with Mr. Christopherson.

11:10 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson Hamilton Centre, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you very much, Mr. Fergusson. That was a very thoughtful presentation.

I want to start where you ended, talking about future unpredictable challenges. One of our challenges has been getting the cart in front of the horse in terms of readiness. Readiness means so many different things to different people, and everyone who comes in has their own idea of that. But one of the things I think we're clearly coming to is that the readiness component of what you need to be ready for comes before you can determine whether you're ready to meet that. First of all, I'll ask if you agree with that.

Secondly, on future unpredictable challenges—of course this is the difficult part, because nobody can look with 100% clarity into the future—what are your thoughts on some of the areas where Defence should be planning, based on most likely outcomes, given current scenarios?

I'd like your thoughts on those two things to start, Professor.

11:10 a.m.

Director, Centre for Defence and Security Studies, University of Manitoba

Dr. James Fergusson

I agree. When I first drafted this, of the many drafts I went through, trying to get my head around all of the different ways you can cut at readiness, the question always came to me as, “Readiness for what? What do we want to be ready for?”

That has to be decided and defined. If you put it in the context of future environments, it becomes clearly complicated. That's why, in my view, one should look at not any attempt to specify specific combat environments or any military environments where armed forces may or can play a significant role, whether it's constabulary missions or combat missions, but rather to identify in the generic or the abstract what kinds of missions we are talking about. That leads me, as I mentioned in my presentation, to the emphasis on combat as the most extreme environment where the Canadian Forces may be deployed.

Then, of course, that relates to the second question. What are combat environments going to look like in the future? These are extremely difficult to predict. The general view, if you come from my field of academic study on this, is that we're looking at two opposite environments.

One is an environment of the continuation of the past two decades, with failed and failing states, internal conflicts, and civil wars—the events in Syria today, for example. All of the past experiences that began with Somalia and the collapse of the former republic of Yugoslavia will continue.

Here the forces, of course, look at this environment of insurgency/counter-insurgency, and some elements of the forces playing roles in the field at the same time in the realm of nation building. You look particularly at the experience of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan—in which they were fighting a counter-insurgency operation, winning hearts and minds, which of course required different types of capabilities, and training forces—and the investments that went in, particularly here at home in preparing forces as they rotated overseas.

That's an environment in which, because we have a lot of experience, it's not difficult for Canada to continue. That's what I meant by the immediate future conforming to past experiences. If that's where we're headed—and I'm not convinced we are headed in that direction—then I think that's relatively manageable. You have that bulk of people, as long as you can retain them and have enough resources to keep them trained and to pass this on to the next generation of forces that are moving through the pipeline.

The problem, of course, is that when you look at the world we face, two things in particular come up.

One is—and I'm sure the committee has already heard this from other people—the growing attention to potential returns of great power conflicts, focused primarily on the growing American obsession with China. Great power conflicts are conflicts that have nuclear weapons directly in the background, which may lead to a return to issues we are more familiar with from the Cold War of deterrent-type forces, where attention will be moved away from failed and failing states. They'll still be there, as they were in the Cold War, but governments by and large ignored them or saw them through the lens of the Cold War rivalry. That type of environment is a different one for the Canadian Forces to be prepared for because they haven't been doing that for a long time. No one knows how that will play out.

Again, when you have limited resources, it's very hard to try to spread yourself thin to invest in trying to do both or all of them.

In the midst of all this—as we've seen very small outlines of in the case of Afghanistan in the ability, for example, of the Taliban to use social media and other aspects, which is a bit surprising given our assumptions about the nature of the Taliban and the nature of Afghan society and their experiences—is how these operations will become much more technologically complicated for the Canadian Forces, an insurgency/counter-insurgency operation of the future where everyone can imagine it to be. As we should have learned from Afghanistan, we can never imagine them.

You might ask me—and people did a decade or so ago—where the forces were going after Bosnia. I said we were going to Africa. Well, we haven't really gone there yet, but we might. We might go back to the Middle East. It's very hard to know.

It's in these environments that you have forces you're going to face, irregular forces but equipped with more and more sophisticated technologies, into the areas of cyber warfare and the ability to use off-the-shelf jamming equipment and spoofing equipment to undermine western technological experiences. So you have that mix as well, which requires not just a fundamental....

If you think of counter-insurgency traditionally as boots on the ground, patrolling, traditional types of counter-insurgency missions, into ones that would be much more complicated, how do you train for all of this? How do you train, particularly when you can't train for them all? You just can't. Even if there were no budget cuts, the forces couldn't train for all of it. We've never been able to.

That's where you get into the realm of what I'd call hard choices. In the history of the Canadian Forces, National Defence and governments—regardless of their stripe—have been reluctant to make choices and just let time figure itself out.

11:15 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson Hamilton Centre, ON

I'm sorry, I'm going to interrupt. I have time for maybe one quick question.

11:15 a.m.

Director, Centre for Defence and Security Studies, University of Manitoba

Dr. James Fergusson

I'm sorry, I tend to wander on.

11:15 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson Hamilton Centre, ON

No, that's great. I would have interrupted earlier if you weren't very relevant to the question and the issue.

I have one quick question. You made reference to the fact that we're all expecting budget cuts to Defence in the upcoming federal budget. What are your thoughts on the potential danger of cutting Defence in the absence of knowing what it is we want to be ready for?

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Bezan

Dr. Fergusson, I would ask that you respond very briefly, since Mr. Christopherson's time has expired.

11:15 a.m.

Director, Centre for Defence and Security Studies, University of Manitoba

Dr. James Fergusson

The answer is that whether or not you cut Defence is not the issue here. Even if you don't, it doesn't mean you can have the resources and you will invest them in what's coming in the future.

I think the budget cuts issue is independent of the readiness, except in the sense that it will make it more difficult because of where the cuts will have to come.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Bezan

Thank you.

Mr. Opitz, you have the floor.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Ted Opitz Etobicoke Centre, ON

Thank you, Chair.

Welcome, Doctor. Thank you very much for being here today. I agree with a lot of what you're saying. It's wonderful.

I just want to talk about the common army training scenario, which I'm sure you're aware of. Three of us at the table have served in the past in combat arms—Madam Moore, Mr. Chisu, and I. The common army training scenario is one of those scenarios where we trained first of all for Afghanistan—mission-specific training—for the last 10 years.

That was geared towards a particular theatre of operation. But the common army training scenario when I was at LFCA as a staff officer was used quite a bit as a scenario that could fit almost anywhere or anything. You could tailor those training objectives within that, which would at least try to accommodate being ready for almost anything that comes up, whether it's nation building, a peacekeeping exercise, or a war fighting exercise.

I'd like you to comment on that in a minute.

You also talked about readiness being a component of education, and being an educator you're familiar, of course, with the Canadian Forces College and the Canadian Defence Academy and so forth.

What are your comments on the common army training scenario in the field and military education? This body has been to CFC and other places to see that.

Could you comment on those?

11:20 a.m.

Director, Centre for Defence and Security Studies, University of Manitoba

Dr. James Fergusson

I don't know a great deal about the specifics of combat army training. My expertise is more in the aerospace world in that sense.

To see the transferability of a training scenario that centres upon counter-insurgence operations from the Afghan experience, on the assumption that then this is transferable to other potential future combat environments, is dangerous, because I'm not convinced. For one thing, the lesson of military operations, historical military operations, not just for the forces but for most western armies, is this sense that we can train with an understanding based upon past experiences.

I will give you the most prominent example. From the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War, allied armies were trained to expect a repeat of World War II in a nuclear environment. There were a lot of people, a lot of academics, who argued very strongly that given their very structure, allied armies would not be able to manage this in a nuclear environment, and that it would require a dramatic restructuring of the forces, which never took place.

It cannot help because of the limited duration of training you get.... In my view, with experience as a teacher, if you will, an educator, the students will simply integrate the dominant model and they will not be very good at trying to understand how this will spread out, at the difference between, for example, operating in a combat environment of a neutral population, to a pro population, to a hostile population, to one with no population—I mean, historically people flee armies. And you just can't do it. The danger is we've been trapped in past experiences. That's what I would concern myself with.

As regards the question of education, I think the education side is the most vulnerable right now because it's really about the future, educating the enlisted personnel, but most importantly educating the officers, the young officers, who in five to ten years will increasingly be taking up command positions. There's a tendency that will exist to try to squeeze that, because this has always been a bit problematic with the forces, which values operational experience over educational experience, and I don't think that has greatly changed in terms of just the way militaries think about themselves. The need to maintain, do everything they can, to keep those forces immediately ready for the unexpected, based upon past experience, will lead them to push or to squeeze these down the road. That may work for a short period of time, and you might hope that things will get better and we'll be able to restore these, but it's losing those capabilities, or those being seriously damaged in the immediate future, like losing a capability, a fighter jet capability—they're hard to restore and they take time and investment. I think the forces have to be very careful about where they try to look because, as I said, I think that's the most vulnerable.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Ted Opitz Etobicoke Centre, ON

I would say, just on the common army training scenario, that I think we've learned in spades not to fight the last war. The value of this particular program is it does allow planners to look ahead and add a new dimension of things that are trending for the future. So that is fantastic.

11:20 a.m.

Director, Centre for Defence and Security Studies, University of Manitoba

Dr. James Fergusson

Technology helps.