Tag Archives: Canadian Armed Forces

True North?

So Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have a new ad out.  Canadian politicians since the days of John G. Diefenbaker have been loving the north.  John Turner, Jean Chretien, Stephen Harper all love the north.   It’s expected that Justin Trudeau loves the north as well… and wants to make it better!  That’s it.  

As a voter, I want to hear how.  What is the big strategy.  There is some political room for him to maneveur as Harper has really accomplished nothing as part of his northern agenda.  The Department of National Defence can’t even procure rifles for the Rangers (who arguably don’t need replacements for their bolt action rifles that work really well in the winter).  Plans for a deepwater port?  Umm that has gone nowhere.  

Instead of just matching Harper’s unfulfilled and broken promises with real ideas, Trudeau just floated out some cliches and feel good statements.  In other words, not much has changed.

Our Soiled, Sorry Public Life

Excellent op-ed by Andrew Cohen

As part of their severance, those who serve 20 years or more are offered a last move, at government expense, after they retire. Soldiers are asked to live in many places; the policy recognizes that the house you occupy at the end of your career may not be where you want to remain.

Leslie served 35 years at home and abroad and moved 18 times. When he left the military in 2011, he wanted to simplify things. He moved from a bigger house to a small one, in the same neighbourhood. The move cost some $72,000, of which the real estate fees could have come to perhaps $60,000. The rest went to packing and moving.

All expenses were covered by government.

So, what’s wrong here? What’s the offence? A distinguished soldier does his duty, retires honourably and sells his house. The bills are settled by the government, because that’s the arrangement.

But that’s not really the story, is it? The story here has less to do with General Leslie than Citizen Leslie, or perhaps, in the future, Minister Leslie. It’s about politics.

While Rob Nicholson asks his officials to explain this long-standing government policy — one he could have changed but hasn’t — here are a few questions for him.

Why is Andrew Leslie the first veteran to come under this kind of public scrutiny? Is $72,000 egregious? If so, what is the average figure for moves involving such neighbourhoods?

And how is it that Leslie’s expenses found their way to CTV News, which first reported this on the weekend? Is there a breach of privacy in your department, Minister? Your office suggested the document was acquired under the Access to Information Act, but CTV did not.

We know what is going on here. Andy Leslie is a Liberal. His father was a Liberal. His service notwithstanding, that displeases the government. Tell us, Minister Nicholson, would you have ordered an inquiry if Leslie had been running as a Conservative? Would your question have been as sharp, your anger as hot?

Could it be that Leslie’s expenses would never have found their way into the media at all? And could it be that the Conservatives wanted Leslie to join them, when they learned that he was going to the Liberals? Let us see this for what it is: a drive-by smear.

Argue, if you want, that after years of dislocation and adjustment, that Leslie and his wife had no right to move to a smaller house. Make it another great moral failing of another public servant, as we like to do these days in a country filled with accountants of envy.

If you do, though, remember that soldiers spend their lives disrupting their families, often with little notice and at great cost. Ask yourself why soldiers are committing suicide. Ask yourself about divorce, domestic violence, addiction and other consequences of military life.

As we disparage a decorated general, seeing scandal that isn’t there, consider the greater affront of a government that tolerates a minister, Julian Fantino, who insults veterans as he cuts their services. Now there’s gratitude.

Then ask yourself why Andrew Leslie and other good people would even contemplate entering our soiled, sorry public life.

After Cold Lake soldier caught busking to make ends meet, viability of military pay in booming ‘little Fort McMurray’ called into question

Lower ranked soldiers struggle to pay rent in Cold Lake

“A lot of oil patch people will call Cold Lake ‘little Fort McMurray,’” said the town’s mayor, Craig Copeland.

“Rent in Cold Lake has gone up from five years ago. You used to be able to get a two-bedroom apartment around $1,000 to $1,200 a month and now, because of the latest boom in the oil patch, in the last year and a half or so … rent has really shot up. Now two-bedroom apartments, good ones, are going for between $1,800 to $2,200.”

About a decade ago, the military stopped subsidizing its on-base housing. Instead, they began to charge the local market rate for rents. In order to maintain a “nationally consistent process,” the military calculates the rents in Ottawa using Canadian Mortgage Housing Corporation data.

That process isn’t forgiving to soldiers who live in remote towns struck by oil wealth.

“A normal person would look at this story, see a house built in the ‘50s and ask ‘Why in the world are you charging market rate rents for these people? They work for you? Why do we need to gouge them on the rent?’” said the mayor.

Fearing backlash, few soldiers were willing to speak candidly about the situation. Christine, a soldier’s wife with three young children, said even spouses are too concerned to complain publicly.

“We get crap living conditions,” she said. “Every year my husband gets a raise and our rent goes up. It doesn’t matter.”

After almost two years on the base, she said her husband’s paycheque of about $58,000 is not covering basic expenses.

“Our paycheques do not pay our day-to-day living. We were very lucky in the sense that when we came here, we had money saved up, but that’s all dwindled and we’ve been pulling out of our house-savings fund,” she said.

“There are no extra-curricular activities for the kids, we didn’t have birthday parties for the kids this year, we can’t afford it. Our quality of life is shot,” she said.

The mayor estimates 30% of the employees at CFB Cold Lake — many of them young soldiers with young families — have taken second jobs, like delivering pizzas.

A July report on economic conditions at the base from the Canadian Forces Ombudsman found 35% of one unit had taken on second jobs.

“It was to make ends meet,” said Alain Gauthier, the director-general of operations at the Ombudsman’s office.

In 2012, the ombudsman held four town hall meetings. He heard from military families who couldn’t pay Internet or phone bills, were dipping into their RRSPs and selling their belongings to cover the skyrocketing costs of rent and goods and services.

The report found that the average rent for a three-bedroom home on the base, $1,032, was about double the cost of identical accommodations in Quebec and Nova Scotia.

To add insult to injury, of the 854 homes on the base, almost 97% of them were listed in either poor or fair condition. The report noted that most of the homes have asbestos in the insulation, and many have problems with the electrical outlets and water lines.

So let me get this straight.  Soldiers in the Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Air Force can be ordered to give up their lives defending our way of life and for the privilege of doing that, they have to live in substandard housing AND take on part time jobs for the right to do so?

The end result?

Unsurprisingly, Cold Lake is registering high release rates as highly skilled soldiers find better-paying work in the labour-starved oil patch right next door.

According to the ombudsman, the release rate in Cold Lake is double the national average. Highly skilled military personnel are leaving their jobs at an alarming rate.

Christine said she had had that very conversation with her husband this week. If it means another three to four years of living in Cold Lake, she said, her family will leave the military.

“We can’t physically survive another three to four years here. We’re getting closer to debt every month and we don’t have snowmobiles or second vehicles. We don’t have anything,” she said.

I am pretty sure this isn’t just a Canadian problem.  Former General Norman Swatzkoff walked about U.S. soldiers in Europe having to use food banks to feed their families (especially when their wives could not work off the base) and substandard military housing has been a problem for years for most armed forces.  Yet it is disappointing that when you see the money that goes into weapons programs that we can’t figure out how to feed our troops and fairly compensate them based on their posting.  On top of that, Canadian soldiers can be punished for having too much debt or declaring bankruptcy.  Putting them into that situation where debt and having to live off of saving is unacceptable.

For the record, I also agree with those voices in the story that say that the soldier should be disciplined for using his helmet and mention himself being in the service while busking.  Mentioning his military service and using military equipment showed very poor judgement.

The sad state of the Canadian Navy

It’s almost embarrassing

Canada’s navy isn’t exactly a juggernaut. According to Michael Hennessy, a professor of naval history at the Royal Military College in Kingston, the Canadian navy has 33 commissioned vessels but only 14 fighting ships.

“The ships Canada sent during the first Gulf War were immediately relegated to patrolling as far away from Iraq as possible so they didn’t get in harm’s way,” he said. “They are old.”

In 2008, the government promised to invest $490 billion in new equipment and upgrades, including new icebreakers and Arctic patrol ships.

Two years later, plans were announced to replace aging Canadian navy and coast guard vessels — including nine new ships at a cost of $194 million.

Hennessy said it’s unclear when new navy and coast guard vessels might be ready because formal contracts and design plans have not been finalized.

It is possible the new ships could be replaced by cheaper radar installations or a program that would give Canada underwater listening capabilities.

Still, the Canadian government appears determined to have an on-the-water presence in the North, particularly when countries are redefining international borders.

We are more or less saved by our logistics ships

By the 1980s, a decade after the decommissioning of HMCS Bonaventure, the last of Canada’s three aircraft carriers, Canada’s navy was in shambles. During a naval review for the defence minister in 1983, more than half the ships on display broke down.

“Going to sea in wartime would be suicidal,” said a Canadian admiral, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While the Canadian navy has been pared to about 9,000 personnel, down from 90,000 in the 1960s, several analysts said it is still valued by its allies.

“The Canadian navy is one of only a handful that can really operate around the globe,” Zimmerman said. “We have these logistical supply ships which are incredibly old but allow us to operate anywhere. We can deploy off the coast of Sudan in support of anti-terrorist operations, off the coast of Pakistan to help with disaster relief or off the coast of Libya if need be.”

That being said, both the British and US Navies are going through a tough time as well.  At least we aren’t alone in being shadows of our former selves.  That being said, the Harper plan to rebuild it will pay off and let’s be honest, there isn’t the kind of threats that exist right now that require a strong Canadian naval presence.

The Gamble

While at the cabin this week I finished off Chris Czajkowski’s book, Cabin at Singing River, Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, and Thomas Rick’s The Gamble. It was a good day to spend with three of my favorite authors on some pretty diverse topics.

Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble Here are some thoughts that I had while reading The Gamble, some of them may be more inflammatory than others.

  • Where was the U.S. media on reporting some of the murders and rape of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers?  Part of what makes a democracy work is a rigorous and independent press and either the media in Iraq failed miserably or the controls placed upon them by the Pentagon made it impossible for them to do their jobs.  From what I remember, the deteriorating security of Iraq made it very dangerous for media during 2005 and 2006 to leave the Green Zone which would have lead to very poor reporting.
  • The book talks a lot about General David Petraeus (with good reason) but are you telling me that he was the only American general who understood that they were waging a counter insurgency, especially after the American failure in Vietnam?  It was a little unreal to read that it was Petraeus that brought all of the military historians together for discussions at Fort Leavensworth about how to fight a counter insurgency war.  The book describes a rather disorganized and poorly lead general staff that is really slow to learn from it’s mistakes and adapt to new realities.  As I type this statement, I realize it’s not the first time I have thought this and I think back to Len Deighton’s excellent book, Blood, Sweat and Folly where he describes both Germany, Italy, and England in the first couple of years of World War II seemingly both wanting to lose WWII.  So maybe the American generals are just following in the proud traditions of generals for centuries.
  • Leopard II tank Watching some media reports the last couple of weeks about the Canadian efforts in Kandahar sound a lot like Fiasco and the early part of Fiasco.  Canadian troops riding around on Leopard tanks while heading back to their base at night doesn’t sound like a counter insurgency campaign.  It’s times like this where I would love to hear Scott Taylor’s insights on how the Canadian military strategy is working there.  (he has some good thoughts here).  This paper states that Canada has taken a combative rather than a counter insurgency role in Afghanistan.
  • I am always amazed by the U.S. Army’s leadership to learn from best practices from other units.  Here was Petraeus leading the 101st Airborne Division and having a lot of success with insurgents by not using tanks and artillery while you have other units suffering increasing casualties while using heavy equipment.  Once locked into a strategy, American commanders only seemed to be capable of escalating their strategy.
  • Why does America (and other countries) promote generals who were not successful.  As Lt. Col. Paul Yingling says "A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."

So I am left with the idea that despite a very highly educated general corps, institutions like West Point, the Command and General Staff College, the National Defense University, National War College, U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, and the War College, which have all increased the professionalism in the military but I also wonder if it has contributed to an over reliance on what they know about past wars rather than adapting to present ones.  Of course another issue is that like a lot of institutions that demand conformity, free thinking is probably bad for your career in the Army and other services so by the time one was able to make a difference in strategy and tactics, perhaps the ability to do so has been lost.

The book also left with the uncomfortable question of what would happen if someone else had been promoted in Petraeus’ place to Fort Leavensworth and instead of re-evaluating and reimagining what needed to be done in Iraq, they had stayed the course of withdrawing and handling the conflict with big weapons and increased violence. 

This was kind of an open ended post.  Leave me your thoughts in the comments below.

Without body, Semrau case open and shut

Some friends of mine are close friends with Rob Semrau and so I post this with reluctance but I think Scott Taylor makes some excellent points on why this case needs to be tried.

That said, there is a reason the military maintains its own justice system and that is to enforce a strict code of discipline on its members in an environment that inverts natural justice by its very existence. All religions preach a version of the commandment "Thou shalt not kill," yet that is exactly what our soldiers are trained and equipped to do. Hence the need for a separate judicial and moral yardstick that regulates and limits the use of lethal force on a battlefield.

As barbaric as warfare is, belligerents still aspire to play by such rule books as the Geneva Convention. Canada is a signatory to that convention and under its terms agreed to administer medical care to prisoners of war. It expressly forbids the execution of enemy wounded.

Many of those who support Semrau in the public debate point out, and correctly so, that the enemy we face in Afghanistan are illegal combatants that do not subscribe to the tenets of the Geneva Convention and, therefore, are not entitled to its protection. In the other camp are those who argue that the entire purpose for our intervention in Afghanistan would be defeated if we threw away our own principles by fighting like the Taliban.

If, in order to defeat the ruthless Taliban, we must become equally ruthless, what have we achieved in the long term?

If those soldiers who questioned Semrau’s action to the military police had strong enough misgivings about the incident to believe it required review, then the military justice system was correct to initiate proceedings.

This will be a precedent-setting case. It will be the first time in Canadian history that a soldier is charged with murder on a battlefield.

Keep in mind that, even under the most extreme circumstances, Canadian physicians are prohibited by law from ending a patient’s suffering. They can allow them to expire but cannot assist in the expedition of the death, so it will be interesting to see how the military court rules on this case.

While the gesture may have been a sincere act of humanity, there is nothing in Canada’s Criminal Code or military justice system which allows military personnel to play God in any circumstance.

Of course, without a body, or the identification of the victim to connect the accused to the crime, this should be a relatively easy case for Semrau’s defence lawyers.