For General Walt Natynczyk, Chief of the Defence Staff, 2012 will be a year of transitions: adapting to changing mission requirements, the reality of new fiscal pressures as outlined by Strategic Review, the Deficit Reduction Action Plan and a pending federal budget, the review and possible adoption of Transformation recommendations, and a refresh of the Canada First Defence Strategy. He spoke with Vanguard about the impact of recent initiatives and some of the challenges currently facing the Canadian Forces.

Without unpacking the recommendations of each of these reports, this seems a lot to take an organization through.

The focus for the Canadian Forces and National Defence is on operational excellence. We have about 13,000 men and women deployed on operations, and we move forward with all of these transformational agendas cognizant of the fact that we have people in harm’s way. As we go through the various exercises we have to ensure that we enable their success. And that provides us a focus unlike any other organization, be it government or civilian. In each exercise – Transformation, Strategic Review or the DRAP – we have to find the efficiencies but at the same time we have to maintain that effectiveness.

You served as Chief of Transformation and had a role shaping the current command structure. Has it work as intended or have recent operations pinpointed areas that need to be improved?

The structure was set up so that we could handle concurrent operations in Afghanistan and the Olympics. To have the additional activities of Haiti and Libya be handled by the same structure, I think, is a credit to the structure. We set it up knowing what was going to come down the pipe. Now we are into a different situation post the combat mission in Afghanistan. And we’re cognizant of what we cannot predict. So we still need a robust command and control structure, but it must balance effectiveness with efficiency. That is why we are working through transformation on this again. We have created this very large and capable headquarters but we’re entering a period where we anticipate a lower operational tempo.

Is there a requirement for a cyber and/or space command within that structure?

This past year we established two positions: Director General, Space and Director General, Cyber and the mission of both is to determine what should be the right approach for us as an institution in dealing with those two evolving areas of operations. Once we have that, then I’ll go to government with some thoughts about it.

How does the recently adopted CF global engagement strategy help set your priorities?

The global engagement strategy was developed by our policy folks and Foreign Affairs and allows the minister, deputy minister and leaders of the CF to build upon our relationships with our international partners. Part of it comes from our operational success over the last while: our partners want more of Canada. Given that we have the Americas strategy, traditional relationships with NATO allies, a focus on the Arctic, and given that Canada is a major Pacific nation, we need to engage with all of our partners. The global engagement strategy has been very effective in focusing us with regard to those countries that wish to have a stronger relationship with Canada.

Related to that, you’ve shifted Canada Command’s responsibility to the broader western hemisphere. What kind of options does that now give you?

The probability of an expeditionary operation in the western hemisphere other than a humanitarian situation is quite low. It takes a lot of time to build relationships in the western hemisphere. Some of our relationships are really service to service – army to army, navy to navy, air force to air force – but with some of the smaller countries where they may not have a navy or an air force, Canada Command has the opportunity to fill that void and build the relationship. Also, in the western hemisphere so many security issues are linked from those countries back to Canada, and that is where Canada Command is the key conduit from my perspective, working with Public Safety or other departments. Canada Command has been that key element maintaining links across the whole-of-government, and now across the western hemisphere.

The western hemisphere strategy suggests a larger training role. Are you going to have a people problem? Are there a finite number of those quality trainers?

I don’t see any shortfall whatsoever. Many of the countries want quality training that we provide but it’s not mass training. As we learned in Afghanistan, what works is training the trainers and providing them the kind of expertise and experience that we have. I look to the privates and corporals who have rotated through Afghanistan, Libya, peacekeeping missions in the Middle East, and Haiti who are highly trained, professional and disciplined. It doesn’t require a warrant officer or a major to teach; it could be a corporal. That’s what we are learning again in Afghanistan. A corporal with four years of experience, with his primary leadership qualification course, is a great instructor. And that is what our partners would like to have.

Does greater engagement require new skills and competencies?

We train for general-purpose combat capability. And when you train to that level of intensity, you ensure all of the leaders have the skill sets, the discipline, the training to do anything across the spectrum of conflict. As we proved in Afghanistan, we can prosecute combat operations and at the same time, with a more gentle touch, conduct training. From my perspective, we have it about right.

I take your point, but on knowledge transfer are there management issues around demographics and the changing of people?

I’m pretty pleased with the lessons learned process, which is highly honed as a result of our experience in Afghanistan and Libya. Ensuring that lessons learned are applied saves lives. Key was how quickly you go from observing a change, assessing it, determining a solution, and then apply it. It is now part of our culture to apply those lessons learned and change behaviour.

At the tactical level, that lessons learned process has changed significantly and appears to work well, but you’ve struggled at the strategic level. Do you feel you now have a better handle on that?

I think it is always more challenging at a national strategic level because the further you are from the sound of the guns the less everyone understands. When you are close up to the sound of the guns you need to change, you need to adapt, you need to be agile because it is life or death. As you move back from the tactical theatre to the operational and then the strategic, there is always inertia that grows. And yet you do need to change and transform to enable success at the front. Things change for one of two reasons: evolution and crisis. Evolutionary change is really hard because you are trying to get everyone into the same space and understanding of the problem. In a crisis it’s easy – everyone understands the same problem. What you’ve described is the result of that evolutionary change. At the same time, you need to exercise and demonstrate strong leadership to change the path. It goes right back to the original purpose and focus of the CF, which is to enable operational success.

There are a number of initiatives underway related to the Reserves. What are your top priorities to insure the health of the Reserves?

The partial mobilization of the force really came from Reserves who were deployed, but also from Reserves who went onto full-time duty in order to back fill many of the positions left vacant as people went onto operational deployment. Back in 2006, I think we had 4500 reservists on full-time duty and last December we were at 11,000. Many of those were pulled up off the armory floors, from the naval divisions, from the various squadrons, so part of the effort now through the Strategic Review and other exercises is to ensure that we are investing in those Reserve units again, to make sure that the purpose of full-time reservists is to train reservists; because of mobilization those key people were pulled away. We need to leverage their experience, to make sure those lessons are passed on and knowledge is transferred to those coming through the front door.

An interview with General Walt Natynczyk.

You’ve been visible at a number of events related to military and veteran health. Given that some battle injuries only manifest themselves years later, and given how many members of the CF participated in Afghanistan in particular, how big a problem do we have?

I think it is a significant issue. Keep in mind that everyone is different, that our chemistry is so different and the stresses of our operations affect us all differently, that our family circumstances are different and we know that the role of family is absolutely fundamental to a person’s ability to deal with stress and recover from an operational stress injury or post-traumatic stress. It’s a very complex network. I was first faced with this back in Bosnia in ‘98-‘99 when I had some cases that had really started from previous events in places like Rwanda and Somalia and later manifested themselves in Bosnia.

It does come back to the individual, though. Everyone on an operation has had a different operation. We can’t categorize people. Even if they were in Afghanistan, there were different places in Afghanistan subjected to different conflicts, different circumstances. So understanding each and every one is tough to do. I’m so pleased that our medical folks, working with our allies and the best international specialists, have accelerated the transformation of our medical system over the past few years. It’s not perfect. I’ve got to say that right up front. But I’ve said this to the leadership of the Canadian Forces: we’ll all be judged by how well we care for our wounded, our ill and our injured. I want to make sure we do the very best we can, recognizing that no solution is ever perfect unless we can get that person back up to where they were before the injury, whether that injury be a physical or mental wound.

Outside your door I saw the quote from Sun Tzu: “Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys. Look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.” What does it mean to you?

We have a tremendous profession of arms, but with our principles of duty, integrity, loyalty and courage, we ask tremendous things of our men and women. Having served with other nations’ militaries, I think we have the best force in the world. But we have to ensure they are always set up for mission success. They go into operations with the confidence that they have the very best probability of achieving their mission and doing so while mitigating the risks so they can come home safely. So it is about respecting them and always keeping in mind who they are as human beings.