Canadian soldiers from the Royal 22nd Regiment working with soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA). A new report says Canada's commitment to training Afghan soldiers and police threatens to worsen a shortage of the mid-level officers and senior non-coms needed for the Canadian Forces' own training programs. Photograph by: (JOHN D MCHUGH/AFP/Getty Images) - source canada.com
November 28, 2011 By Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News
OTTAWA — Canada's new training mission in Afghanistan is putting the army's "long-term health" at risk because of the demands being placed on the force's small number of sergeants, captains and other mid-level leaders, a new defence department report indicates.
There are now 19,500 full-time soldiers in the Canadian army, 3,000 more than in 2004. The force shrank significantly through the 1990s and early 2000s because of deep budget cuts, but began expanding again with Canada's involvement in combat operations in Kandahar starting in 2005.
That growth, however, hasn't been without its own problems, says the departmental performance report, an annual, internally-produced publication that looks back at the department's work over the past year.
"While Regular Force expansion has resulted in the Army having the right number of personnel, they are not distributed through the necessary ranks," the report reads.
It goes on to note that the army is "heavy" in lower ranks like privates, corporals and lieutenants, but "light" when it comes to senior non-commissioned officers like sergeants as well as mid-level officers like captains and majors.
Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk recently highlighted the importance of trained NCOs and mid-level officers.
"I cannot go onto the street and hire a sergeant, hire a major, hire a colonel," he told the Commons' defence committee on Nov. 3. "If you want a sergeant with 10 years of experience, it takes 10 years."
According to the performance report, military officials had anticipated that the end of the combat mission in Kandahar this past July would free up much-needed sergeants, captains and majors for other tasks.
But the government has since committed Canada to helping train the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police to ensure those two institutions are ready to take responsibility for the country's security by 2014.
The performance report says the Canadian military personnel who will be responsible for this task "are the same ranks which are (in) short (supply) in the army and are required in the training establishments (in Canada) where they preserve the long-term health of the army."
Instead, "the army has been drawing heavily on the militia to fill these gaps."
The militia is the army's name for its 16,000-strong reserve force.
The role of the reserves has come under scrutiny in recent months after a senior general, Andrew Leslie, noted recently that the number serving in the Canadian Forces has grown in recent years by 23 per cent, or more than 6,600, because regular force personnel were needed in Afghanistan.
This growth outpaced the regular force, with many of the so-called "weekend warriors" taking up full-time positions in headquarters and administrative positions. Leslie recommended slashing the number of full-time reservists to 4,500 as part of an effort to find $1 billion in defence department savings.
The Conservatives blasted past Liberal governments for overcommitting Canada's military, but University of Calgary defence expert Rob Huebert said the Harper government is in danger of doing the same thing.
The sergeants, captains and majors are the "heart and soul" of the army, he said, and their heavy commitment to Afghanistan is worrying for the army's long-term viability.
"Because it's always full capacity in Afghanistan instead of coming back to Canada to do the training," he said, "ultimately you end up eating your own young, so to speak."
Huebert said the report also highlights the dangers that are on the horizon as the defence department works to find billions in savings over the next few years.