The Canadian Armed Forces is preparing to bend the rule that says all its members must be fit and ready for deployment as the military looks to hire the best people in an era where cyberspace is a battlefield and where lifestyle choices must sometimes be accommodated.
General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, has the job of implementing the government's new plan to boost military spending by more than $30-billion over the next decade.
The plan calls for the number of military personnel to increase by 5,000, and requires that, by 2026, women hold one of every four jobs in the Forces. And, in a move that was previously unthinkable, it urges measures be adopted to allow some members of the Canadian Armed Forces who no longer meet the universality of service rule – the requirement that all personnel be fit for deployment anywhere at any time – to continue to serve on a case-by-case basis.
"We need a modern set of working human-resource principles and rule sets that allow for some variance in a career, because everybody is a little bit different," Gen. Vance said recently during a wide-ranging interview about military recruitment and retention.
Nearly two years after he became the country's top soldier, Gen. Vance appears comfortable and relaxed sitting on the couch of his office at defence headquarters and greeting a succession of journalists lined up by his communications team to get details of the multiyear plan. Human-resource issues are a huge part of that – something he said he welcomes. On his desk is a sign that says "The Buck Stops Here." Cliché perhaps, but also fitting.
Soldiers can become unsuitable for deployment due to illness or injury. Many have found themselves unhappily discharged after being permanently disabled, either physically or psychologically, and have pleaded with the military for this sort of accommodation.
But Gen. Vance is thinking beyond those whose wounds have left them unable to do their jobs. He wants to find a way to keep the young female pilot who does not want to be deployed during the years she is raising her children, or the computer expert whose ties to his community make it impossible for him to consider being shipped out.
"Maybe we need to make units in the Armed Forces that allow for people to say 'I am going to be cyber, I am not ever going to deploy, my work is in cyberspace,. I can be networked, I can be given direction, as long as it's in an environment that's safe,'" said Gen. Vance. "As long as you're loyal to the Armed Forces, you've gone through sufficient training to make you loyal to the Armed Forces, why can't that be your job?"
If the rules around military employment are "cut and dried and inflexible, you may not be drawing all the best individuality of people," the general said. Allowing some variance from the traditional military path "should appeal to a wider range of people," he said, "diverse men and women with skill sets I can mine to get the very best talent out of Canada and get them into the Forces without any loss of combat capability. In fact, we will be more capable."
All of this is in the imagination phase. At the moment, the universality of service rule is in effect. And Gen. Vance does not intend to abandon it completely. To do so, he said, would affect the military's operational capacity.
But "imagine a very bright and intelligent infantry soldier who loses a limb," he said. "Well, we've already sunk cost into that person, if you want to take the crass business view. So, if we can, why not retrain them on a case-by-case basis and let them complete their career, at least to a horizon of when they are pensionable or whatever suits them."
That might mean creating different classes of full-time members and reservists, he said.
Those who can be deployed would be unrestricted and would advance through the ranks as soldiers, sailors and aviators traditionally do. Those who cannot be deployed would be restricted from advancement into leadership positions, but could still get pay increases as they develop their skills and experience.
The general has had plenty of "people" issues to occupy him. Some, such as sexual assault, suicide, the effects of the antimalarial drug mefloquine, and post-traumatic stress syndrome, have repeatedly been in the news and may have created a perception among the kind of people he would like to recruit that the military is not a great place to work.
Gen. Vance said he has tried to counter that by being open about the issues and addressing them head on. On sexual assault, for instance, he introduced what is known as Operation Honour, which made it clear that inappropriate sexual behaviour would not be tolerated.
"I have to attract women to the Armed Forces and show them that we are changing, we have changed a great deal already," he said. "But, more importantly, by them being in the military, they can help change it."
He must also increase the size of the force at a time when the population is aging, soldiers are retiring, and young Canadians have a wide choice of career options.
"The military has been for a long time, and should be, a place where people went because it was excellent," Gen. Vance said. "People went into the military for refuge. They found purpose and strength and a calling. I want that to happen without interference."