Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Risk Management, Stiff Upper Lip, and the CF

In the recent controversy over the HMCS Chicoutimi, various politicians have made some pretty ill-informed comments. While this will surprise no one, they should be excused, because all but a couple have had their nearest brushes with death in service to their country on Nintendo. This is not to minimize personal tragedies that any one of them may have suffered.

Today in Question Period, the Deputy Prime Minister (Anne McLellan) and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence (Keith Martin) practiced the parliamentary art-form of never answering a question. It started with a question from Stephen Harper about whether Canada knew that the Brits were offering us the Upholder-class boats on a "buyer beware" basis. Anne McLellan, as is her habit, completely ignored the question and gave a stock Liberal answer. Stephen Harper followed with a question about a documented $54 million reduction in the submarine programme funding, that affected personnel training. Once again, Ms. McLellan made reference to the boats being ready, but ignored the question about crew training. Several other questions for Keith Martin about training being short-changed were met with similar non-answers.

Keith Martin did say that the Liberal government is committed to giving the CF the tools to do the job. What complete bovine scatology! He also said that no one in the CF is sent out into harm's way nor do they have their lives put at risk. Excuse me, Dr. Martin, but that is exactly what they do for a living.

They do it well and they do it proudly and, for the most part, they do it safely. What McLellan, Martin, etal don't understand is that the operations of the CF entail continuous risk assessment and risk management. Every time an individual soldier, sailor or airman performs a task, he or she is assessing the risk attached and is making a decision to proceed or not. Every time a commander assigns a mission, risk assessment and risk management are a critical part of the decision process. In peacetime, acceptable risk is much lower than in wartime, but there is always risk. All three elements of the CF have exceptional safety records, albeit with the occasional and inevitable lapse.

Besides having good equipment that is well supported, the most essential element in reducing risk is training. It is also the element that is easily allowed to slip. Training and training requirements have slipped in all three elements to an alarming level. Stocks of weapons and ammunition for qualification and training have slipped to well below critical levels. Qualification requirements don't necessarily entail hitting anything (except, eventually, the world); merely be able to drop it, fire it or throw it a (very) few times. Flying hours, sailing days and field training (especially large units) have been slashed to the point that low "quality of work" is adversely affecting our cherished "quality of life" mantra. There is simply no buffer left where experience gained through training can help to ensure survival as missions get more and more complex and dangerous. Risk management is now done on a razor's edge.

A commander can respond to reduced training availability by taking the full steam ahead approach, or by reducing the intensity of activity and, with it, the risk. Any peacetime commander would take the latter approach. Has it affected our operational readiness and combat capability? You bet it has, and the folks at the pointy end will tell you that freely. They still take great and well-deserved pride in what they do and how they do it. They are dying to do more and, regrettably, there may be the occasional pun in that statement. You won't hear them complain in public, because they are loyal to the Service, and that is the way it should be. That loyalty does have limits, though, and the real indicator is how many are expressing their views with their feet. Commanders at all levels must also exercise discretion in expressing what they truly feel, and I know enough of them to know that there is a lot of restrained disgust out there.

It is this stiff upper lip approach that is, at once, the CF's greatest strength and one of its greatest handicaps. Failure is not in their dictionary and people will go to extraordinary lengths to get the job done. When they perform one of their regular miracles, it allows politicians to bask in the glow and pretend that government was part of the mission's success. It also allows government to pretend that all is well and that the CF is being properly looked after. What a load of crap! Every success of the CF for the past forty years has been in spite of the disgraceful negligence and dereliction of successive governments. Will it ever change? Not unless the government is changed.

Let me put the punctuation on government attitude with an observation from an MP during Question Period the other day. When Conservative Defence Critic, Gordon O'Connor, rose to ask a question shortly after the death of Lt. Saunders was announced, the President of the Treasury Board, Reg Alcock, started laughing. I would suggest to the Honourable Member that he may want to hike off to Halifax tomorrow for Lt Saunders' funeral. I'm sure that he will find the part where Mrs. Saunders accepts the flag from her husband's coffin particularly amusing.


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