Two years ago, recruitment and retention were the two issues most on the mind of Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie. Not enough recruits were signing up and too many of his best were retiring. Today, as he prepares to transition after four years as Chief of the Land Staff (CLS) into the Chief of Transformation, Leslie is in an enviable position. In the past year, he has seen the army grow by 15 percent – over 3000 additional regular force soldiers – forcing him to slow the pace of recruitment or risk a significant bottleneck in infantry training. And attrition, once running at 12 to 13 percent, has dropped to just seven percent. He has also presided over the addition of an array of new equipment that allowed the army to respond to the recent earthquake in Haiti in a manner that would have been previously impossible. With boxes containing mementoes scattered throughout his office, reflected on “four magnificent, tough, rewarding, tragic, difficult, emotional years” with editors Robert Beaudoin and Chris Thatcher.
What for you were some of the critical lessons learned as CLS?
We have established one of the most effective and efficient lessons learned centres of any army in the world. We have teams deployed in Afghanistan. Based on recent experiences overseas or domestically, we have teams that study what my senior generals and I do to help us do it better and smarter. At the end of every tragic event, and unfortunately there have been far too many, they study what happened, what mitigation there could have been – was it an equipment issue? was it a tactics issue? – and we try and incorporate those lessons as quickly as we can.
Our culture has changed. We are a lot more ruthless with each other in terms of speaking truth to power. We listen a great deal to our soldiers because they are the ones actually carrying the fight. There’s a lot of dialogue between myself, the army sergeant major and all of our deploying troops, and the soldiers are not the least bit shy. If they don’t like something, they let me know. They’ve got amazingly good ideas. They are the best and brightest our generation has to offer. They are also confident; they know they are good.
Are there personal lessons you’ll take away?
Up until I became the army commander, I’d spent 26 years in and around the army. My predecessor, LGen Marc Caron, said, “You won’t believe how busy it’s going to be.” I’d been the deputy commander, whose primary role is to deal with the Ottawa issues. Now I really believe him. The intensity and pace have been frenetic. Despite having observed Marc and the great work he did, I was still surprised how often I was on the road with the soldiers and the huge range of issues I had to deal with, especially the impact of casualties and the intensity with which all of us focus on making sure they are honoured and the wounded are cared for. I was also surprised by the attention Canadians give to their army. I think it is almost unprecedented, since perhaps the Korean or Second World War.
How much do you think the way the leadership has changed has had an impact on that?
I think the army is in great hands. If you look at the next generation of warrants and sergeant-majors, they are all combat veterans, they have all deployed on a multiplicity of operations. They are focused, they’re tough, and they’re smart. They are proud of what they do. The young lieutenant-colonels and colonels have grown up within a whole-of-government construct and are used to dealing with Foreign Affairs and CIDA and the other government and non-government partners around town. They are at ease communicating with Canadians. The army’s future is bright because it rests in their hands. The leadership level has now allowed the army to do what it’s had to do over the last while.
Is your successor going to face a challenge keeping them engage once the driver of Afghanistan is removed?
I think the immediate focus will be on bringing the thousands of soldiers home, the tens of thousands of tons of equipment, the hundreds and hundreds of vehicles, re-synchronizing the training program, figuring out what vehicles have to be fixed and sent where, and getting ready for whatever else the government wants us to do – that will consume a great deal of his energy. Having said that, the army, both regular and reserve, is bigger than it was. As we’ve shown with Haiti, if you want a light battalion to go somewhere tomorrow, you’ve got it. We can produce it literally overnight, which we could not do four years ago.
You had a significant hand in writing the counterinsurgency (COIN) manual, which is now being updated. Are there some specific lessons learned in current operations that should be incorporated?
All the credit for the first COIN manual goes to those academics and combat veterans who brought their experiences back to the doctrinal people in Kingston. It is pretty good and it has a variety of new approaches in it, but over the last 12 to 18 months we’ve learned hundreds of new lessons, new ideas, new philosophies. There is now more focus on the complexities of the whole-of-government or whole-of-coalition issue; wherever we’re involved next, it will be within a coalition. Some ideas have been outstanding and have been proven to work; others need tweaking. Over the past 12 months our American colleagues and others have read what’s been written, have seen how it has been applied on the ground, and really like what they see: the model village idea; getting out and living among the population and away from those massive bases and the forward operating bases; not fighting among the people but actually protecting the people and allowing local governance to flourish; focusing on training the Afghan security elements. The best of the kandaks (Afghan battalions) are very good.
How has the relationship between the army and industry changed over the last four years?
Canadian industry is paying a great deal of attention to the army today because the government has indicated it is willing to give the soldiers what they need to better protect them and to allow them to get the job done. Unlike in the past where it took 12-15 years from a good idea to actually signing a contract, we’ve done things in months. Because this process has been expedited, with everyone around town all pulling on the same end of the rope, industry now realizes that if we say we need it, we mean it, and the government is behind it. Instead of working in two silos that never interact until we get to the negotiating table, there is a lot more collaboration. We’re incorporating ideas during the design process instead of waiting until after delivery.
Here’s the other thing: I keep my finger on the pulse of those industries that support the army: they get it. They realize that the kit they are producing is going to be tested in battle, that it is life-saving stuff, and those are their fellow citizens, in some cases their sons and daughters. So they have a huge interest in our success.
What will be the scope of your mandate as Chief of Transformation? Will you have the authority to direct changes to the structure of the CF? Are there specific areas you have been asked to address?
The terms of reference still haven’t been defined. In the main, that’s my fault because I’m focused on handing over the army to LGen Peter Devlin. There will be lots of debate and there should be. My role will be to help the Chief of the Defence Staff. The CDS has already mentioned that he’d like to reduce CF overhead. To use a term from The Wealthy Barber, he’d like for us to pay ourselves first: get people out of static headquarters and support functions, and put them back aboard ships, on the flight line, and in battalions and regiments or training institutions. In terms of executive authority, it is a team approach. So the service chiefs, with the CDS and the Vice Chief and all the other key players, should have a say. I see my role as chief cheerleader. I’m there to help those involved to think through options.
Some of the complaints about the first phase of transformation were the withdrawal of some of the best and brightest from field units and the blurring of the lines between force generation and force deployment responsibilities. Are these things you will be addressing?
There’s no doubt that the operational commands and all the other overhead growth has contributed to effectiveness. But at some point you’ve got to balance effectiveness and efficiency. In terms of the best and brightest, we’ve got a bunch of combat veterans who have their own ideas and most of them are damn good ones. So there should be debate, there should be input across the spectrum of the chain of command.
There has been a blurring of the lines. There is some duplication in force generation. There is not necessarily duplication in force deployment in terms of geography, but you could take a look at everyone who is a force employer and say, we have a variety of people who do relatively similar things, and group them together. I will help the CDS in shaping the discussion. There’s no one silver bullet that will solve the tensions that exist between the growth of support and overhead and putting a priority on the field force. It’s really a continuing evolution, and you’ve got to think through the second and third order consequences pretty carefully. We must ensure that four or five years after we finish this next stage of transformation, that we don’t look back and say we made a mistake. I have a completely open mind and we, as an organization, have to think broadly.
One of the concerns prior to transformation was the lack of joint training? Has that been addressed?
At the beginning of the year, we were considering a large joint exercise. And then Haiti happened. Within hours we had our first aircraft on the tarmac in Port-au-Prince, we had a ship full of soldiers and humanitarian supplies deployed, and of course our air force opened Jacmel. Within days we had thousands of people there helping save lives in a joint construct. The challenge is how to institutionalize this. We want more of that.
An interview with LGen Andrew Leslie