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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Canada’s Ragged Reserves have too few vehicles, little ammo and now...no radios

By: Christie Blatchford

Now, it’s radios that Canadian reserve units are expected to do without, probably until the summer of 2017.

The army recently took away the old radios because it’s replacing them, Postmedia sources say, but with the usual staggering incompetence, failed to synch the clawback with the acquisition of the new ones.

Ergo, no radios until July of next year.

Without radios, soldiers on training or exercise in the field won’t be able to communicate with one another, which rather defeats the ostensible goal of having part-time soldiers who are as well-trained as full-time or regular soldiers.

CBC: Thunder Bay Reservists during an Exercise in 2015
Mind you, that may matter less than it should because there are fewer and fewer such courses and exercises available to reserve soldiers anyway — even though such things are a draw and mean a paycheque for young men and women off from school for the summer.

As well, many units have fewer vehicles available to them because they’re either rusting out or unserviceable — or because mechanics can’t be trained because regulations decree that they can only trained by regular-force members and there aren’t enough of those around.

Most cruel is that the reserves are being deliberately starved and the culprit starving them is, as usual, the bureaucracy of the regular (or full-time) army itself

In other words, for Canada’s beleaguered militia — the 117 reserve units, many of them among the country’s oldest and most storied regiments, based in 130 cities and towns across the country — it is in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, deja vu all over again.

Most cruel is that the reserves are being deliberately starved and the culprit starving them is, as usual, the bureaucracy of the regular (or full-time) army itself.

But if the situation is dire, as reserve leaders say, it is also familiar.

The gutting of the militia is an old, familiar story. It always happens the same way.

First, reserve units have their quotas cut.

This last happened in 2010, when Brigadier-General John Collin, then the commander of Joint Task Force Central Area (this means Ontario) held a series of town hall meetings at which he said the army was looking to chop 5,000 reservists.

That’s pretty much what they’ve done.

As federal Auditor-General Michael Ferguson said in a spring report on the state of the army reserve, units have lost about 1,000 soldiers a year for several years, and instead of the 21,000 reservists the army purported to fund in its budget of last year, there were only 13,944.

Then, since recruiting is always laughably slow (last I looked, it took an average 180 days to enrol a soldier for a part-time job), the bodies coming in the door don’t begin to fill the holes left by those who are going out even by way of normal attrition.

Eventually, some of the regiments either run out of bullets (seriously, that happened once, years ago) or courses to send their soldiers on or leaders to run them, and someone like me writes about it, at which point, government and regular army folks who control the purse strings for the reserves deny or minimize the crisis, swear there’s nothing to see here, and move on.

And while governments have been more or less inept or uninterested, the problem is not one created by politicians; rather, by craven officials in the regular army who see any increase in militia size or power as a threat and who even get away with ignoring the will of the government of the day.

The previous Conservative government, for instance, promised to increase the reserves by 10,000, reneged on that promise, then slashed reserve pay budgets and made things worse. Then-defence minister Peter MacKay ordered his department to develop policies to stop militia paycheques being used for other purposes, but never got an answer, let alone a result.

As the military scholar Jack English wrote in a scathing report several years ago, for the military, compliance with government orders has come to be seen as a voluntary matter.

Ten years ago, the Canadian army, in the form of Task Force Orion in Kandahar — the core regiment the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, but with plenty of reservists too — was on the ground in Afghanistan.

That wonderfully nimble battle group, headed by then-Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope, was punching way above its weight and about to suffer some of its most significant losses.

And a century ago, on July 1, in the village of Beaumont-Hamel, France, 700 members of the First Newfoundland Regiment were being slaughtered in the first phase of the Battle of the Somme.

Yet with these two historic events on the military calendar, one modern and one from the First World War, the biggest mission on the Canadian Forces’ radar today is Op Honour, the purported “fight” against harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour in the military.

How very sad that this army — under-led, over-managed and risk-averse as it is — may just be up for that fearsome task.

cblatchford@postmedia.com