Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Hillier's dilemma

General Rick Hillier managed to anger more than a few people with his "Decade of Darkness" speech. Indeed, he was wrong to truncate the truth. It was more like a quarter century of darkness and, if he was going to speak out that way, he should have painted the whole picture.

The government which preceded the "Decade of Darkness", that of Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives, perpetrated as much as what followed in the Chretien years. Prior to that, Pierre Trudeau had to be pounded into understanding that if he allowed any further rust-out of the armed forces that even minor peacekeeping missions would be difficult to manage and support.

The Mulroney Conservatives inherited major equipment modernization and upgrades from the Trudeau Liberals. Beyond that, eight years of mismanagement and a forces-wide pay freeze were the hallmark events of that government.

Hillier's heinous crime, if he felt so compelled to lay blame for the condition of the armed forces, was to limit it to just the Chretien era. Beyond that, and this is what galls most people, he failed to acknowledge that the Paul Martin Liberals had restored funding to the Canadian Forces and had promised significant growth with a view to re-equipping and modernizing the CF over the next five years. The Harper Conservatives inherited that program - not the one that preceded it. Hillier was being less than honest by not pointing that out.

Notwithstanding all of that, Hillier is not a Harper appointee. He was selected and appointed by Paul Martin. And, no matter how you view it, Hillier has always been outspoken. Martin was well aware that Hillier would fight tooth and nail to get what he needed for an effective armed forces. In his first speech as Chief of Defence Staff he spoke directly to Martin and his government.
In this country, we could probably not give enough resources to the men and women to do all the things that we ask them to do. But we can give them too little, and that is what we are now doing. Remember them in your budgets.
If Paul Martin was surprised by that statement, he didn't show it. In fact, this was the guy Paul Martin wanted at the head of the Canadian Forces. A general who wasn't afraid to defend his own troops and, more than just an advocate, someone who would fight to mold the Canadian Forces into a modern, multi-role, expeditionary combat capable service.

Hillier probably would have been happy with a Paul Martin Liberal government.

Last week's "Decade of Darkness" speech certainly appeared to be over the line. But then, Hillier has never been known for selecting his words well. (Outwardly calling the Taliban, the enemy his forces would be required to face, "murderers and scumbags" was unprofessional at the least and dangerously stupid at most. It demonstrated a clear lack of respect for an enemy he had not properly assessed. Failure to respect the enemy is a soldier's folly.) In that, it may be that Hillier has been badly misinterpreted. While everyone viewed that speech as a jab at the previous Liberal regime (and a certain amount of that can never be denied), he could quite easily have been speaking directly to his current political masters. Something along the lines of "You have to do more for the CF if you want the CF to do more for you. You get what you give."

Hillier is in a fight with the man who is ostensibly his superior, Minister of National Defence, Gordon O'Connor.
So, how serious is the bad blood?

Well, sources say O'Connor has prohibited Hillier from talking to the Prime Minister's Office without his permission, something Liberals insist is a new way of doing business between supreme leaders.

By most accounts, there was a very acrimonious showdown last month when O'Connor rolled out a six-page attachment to the mandate letter that diverted soldiers to protect Arctic sovereignty and put them in position around a dozen cities as emergency responders.

It's a prohibitively costly exercise that will lay claim to thousands of already scarce troops who are needed on international fronts, particularly with the Taliban on the rise. The way some military brass see it, a domestic priority is admirable, but those soldiers just train for eventualities that may never come.

Still, O'Connor is adamant that his Canada First defence policy is critical and has infuriated the brass by demanding Hillier plan for the questionable deployment of a rapid-reaction battalion to Goose Bay, N.L., and the relocation of the Joint Task Force 2 to Trenton, Ont., which seems more to do with electioneering than legitimate military manoeuvres.

It all came to a head a few weeks ago when a top-level military meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper was scrubbed at the last minute because officials felt no consensus was possible.

Two things emerge. Hillier quite likely had a far better relationship with his Liberal defence minister, Bill Graham, than he has with O'Connor.

O'Connor, once Hillier's superior officer in the army, has laid out several plans with which Hillier disagrees and on which he has not been consulted. There have been several occasions where Hillier has butted heads with O'Connor, but the first was undoubtedly the question of strategic airlift. The Harperites, O'Connor included, have some kind of overwhelming urge to build a permanent and expensive strategic airlift component into the CF. Hillier wanted no part of that if it meant paying for it with a loss of tactical air mobility.

The current fight is over domestic operations and plans to make major changes to domestic defence structure and disbursal of resources, troops and capability. Hillier has made it clear that it cannot be done with what exists now, nor can it be done within the envelope of the forecast increases provided by the last Conservative budget.

It will take a lot more money and a lot more troops than what the Conservatives are offering. The CF is emerging, after all, from a decade of darkness, which the Conservative/Alliance/Reform opposition of the day acknowledged as a fiscal necessity, and the legacy of those fiscal restraints has caused considerable damage. Hillier is telling O'Connor and Harper what he needs to correct the problem and if they are not prepared to provide the massive additional funds and a significant increase in personnel then they had better stop asking for things Hillier is unable to provide.

The second thing which surfaces is that O'Connor is attempting to play general. O'Connor retired from the CF as a brigadier general. That is a notable achievement, but he never did attain the level he had hoped for. Hillier, once O'Connor's subordinate, did achieve the top job and while we'll never hear it, O'Connor is probably somewhat rankled over that. And then there's a little thing called Peter Principle. O'Connor advanced into the most junior of the general officer ranks and did not move beyond that for some reason. That is not to say his competence as a BGen was in question, but he was obviously not considered suitable for further promotion. By taking over the political defence file he is probably in over his head by being elevated to his own level of incompetence. He is supposed to be managing a department; Hillier runs the armed forces.

Something of the fight that is going on was made evident when the navy had to announce that they would not be able to carry out a scheduled sovereignty patrol. The Maritime Commander would have reported the navy's financial condition to Hillier. Understand that Hillier, as CDS would never want any part of the CF to have to stand-down for lack of money. But the navy held firm and at a point where O'Connor clearly did not provide the funds necessary to keep the navy at a proper operational tempo, Hillier let the flotilla commander release the information to the media. O'Connor was forced to acquiesce and come up with additional funding. The navy then followed up with the next announcement that would see them pull out of major international exercises. Hillier would have been fully aware of that. It was also a sign that at the department level, not the force level, funds were being manipulated and moved against the wishes of the Chief of Defence Staff.

So, while Hillier certainly spoke in such a way that it could be interpreted as a Conservative Party prop, I have certain doubts. Once the whole picture is in place, I see Hillier talking to his current political boss.

And it's not a pleasant conversation.

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