October 15, 2004

English on army reform

A correspondent pointed me at a thought-provoking piece on army reform here.

His solution is a short-service army. Up to 50,000 men and women would volunteer for an 18-month stint -- six months for training, one year serving overseas.

English may have a point that the military structure in this country is ossified and overpaid, but I really think he's running against the flow of history on this one.

Fifty thousand people a year is about one-sixth of the total number of male 18 year-olds in this country... the idea you could ever get that kind of national mobilization again in the absence of a world war is incredible at best. (Women are unlikely to ever enrol in a tenth the number men do, Quebecers have a centuries-long disinterest, and remember that the Forces doesn't accept landed immigrants, either, so your recruiting pool, English-Canadian male citizens, would be even more oversubscribed than that, perhaps one in three.) The assumption, of course, is that young people will work for considerably less than the $48,000 a trained full-time corporal would make... perhaps a takeaway for their year-and-a-half of $35,000? Sure, university tuition is expensive, but would many Canadians send a son to Kabul for that? Given that the military can't recruit to fill its open spots now, its hard to see the national groundswell of support that would produce the numbers English needs.

(Getting young people to work for cheap is touted as a cost-saver in web work, too. It can certainly be a great way of getting surge capacity for web development, but in my experience you can't rely on it to support core functions. Yes, we probably need to reduce the average age and rank of the military, but it's hard to see how this gets us there.)

This site has advocated short-service before, as a way of living within our means. But it was advocated here as a means of stopping the coming rot, and saving something from the ongoing collapse in support for defence spending among Canadians. I wisely didn't put a number on it at the time, but I'd have said we could probably afford about 9,000 full-timers and 30,000 reservists of all ages, with less of a distinction than English makes between "short-servicers" and reservists generally (you would end up deploying overseas units of both, along with a reg force cadre). This is basically what Finland does now. Using this system, Canada could probably sustain commitments of c. 1,500 lightly armed non-professionals for low-intensity/ UN-type duty, within what we're spending now for the military overall.

The key decision to make is not where the soldiers come from, but rather to decide, once and for all, to abandon medium-intensity ops (we abandoned high-intensity by default over a decade ago). Once you accept our soldiers shouldn't ever have to fight, much, there are a number of ways, including short-service, that you could drum up the manpower to show the flag more efficiently.

Now if you still want a pretense of medium-intensity capability in another decade, follow English's logic to its end (that Canadian soldiers are too expensive) and form a Canadian Foreign Legion to benefit from those developing world labour rates. Sometimes it really is more cost-effective to outsource.

Posted by BruceR at 12:48 PM