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Douglas E. Delaney: The chalkboard  battlefield

by Douglas E. Delaney (feat. CDFAI)

National Post  

February 5, 2013

In an essay series commissioned by the Strategic Studies Working Group — a partnership between the Canadian International Council and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute — five expert authors opine on the challenges facing The Canadian Forces. In today’s first instalment, Douglas E. Delaney looks at the future of Canada’s army.

Canadian Army Commander Lieutenant-General P. Devlin and his staff have taken a sensible approach to future planning. Understanding that their forces could be called on to conduct a wide range of operations, from security duties in support of an Olympic-type event to conventional operations as part of a coalition to disarm an aggressor state, they have made informed projections on the future operating environment. They see a world in which both states and non-state actors will be agents of conflict. They see a world in which ethnic identities, regional power struggles, access to resources, religious fundamentalism, organized crime, demographic change and pandemics will be causes of instability. They see an environment in which they will conduct operations with naval, air and allied forces and in conjunction with multiple government agencies. They see a battlespace crowded with combatants, non-governmental organizations, asymmetric threats, media and non-combatants of different cultures. To operate in this complex and unpredictable environment, they conclude, an army must be balanced and flexible.

The Canadian army of the future, therefore, will be medium-weight, modular and capable of dialing up or down, depending on the mission. The army has that now — with its three brigade groups, each comprised of three infantry battalions, an armoured regiment, an artillery regiment, a service battalion and a combat engineer regiment. If the government needs mechanized battle groups to fight conventional foes, the army can build them by attaching tanks, engineers, service-support assets and artillery support to light armoured vehicle-equipped infantry battalions. If the government needs lighter battle groups for a cease-fire-monitoring mission, the army can generate them based on the light infantry battalions, with a tailored complement of supporting arms and services. But the army will have to evolve if it is to retain similar balance and flexibility into the future.

This will require investments in equipment and adjustments to how the army does business. Army planners continually compare current capabilities with the demands of the future security environment to identify gaps that need filling. For example, because the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is expected to persist, they are up-armouring the light armoured vehicle fleet. The army is also investing in better sensors, networks and communications equipment because it believes it must be quicker to gather information, make decisions and act. It wants the capability of conducting simultaneous-but-dispersed operations (often both combat and stability operations at once) in pursuit of a single aim, or operations in which the entire force is doing one thing. And it wants to be capable of dispersing and aggregating faster than adversaries can react.

This manner of doing business will demand much of army leaders. To start, they will need to become used to decentralized decision-making by 2025. Decision cycles are much tighter when lieutenants determine what best to do, and do it, than decision cycles in which they have to seek the approval of majors and lieutenant-colonels before acting.

This will require a level of subordinate trust that has not come easily to an army used to top-down decisions, minute-to-minute monitoring of operations by higher headquarters, and a no-fault approach to leadership. It will also require agile-minded officers to make sense of an operating environment that will demand more of them than their service schools and staff colleges can teach them.

Advanced education for commanders is the best insurance policy against the complexities and imponderables of 2025. American generals David Petreus and H.R. McMaster encountered unanticipated circumstances in Iraq, but they were able to draw on their army training and what they had gained in graduate school to craft and execute solutions to complex problems.

In the Canadian Forces, however, time out for graduate school can be a career killer, which makes no sense. Time with troops is important — yes. Time on active duty is important — yes again. But two-to-three years developing a commander’s mind is not time wasted, not in a 30-plus-year career. The two years Petreus spent pursuing a PhD at Princeton don’t appear to have made him less of a soldier, whatever his personal failings.

The Canadian Army’s best and brightest ought to have similar opportunities. It won’t do to build a state-of-the-art army and not invest fully in commanders who can make it work.

National Post

A professor of History at the Royal Military College, LCol (ret.) Douglas Delaney has written a biography of General Bert Hoffmeister and a study of Canadian corps commanders in the Second World War.


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