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.