Interview article

LGen Andrew Leslie

Protecting Our Soldiers
CHRIS MacLEAN  |  May 15, 2009

In an exclusive FrontLine interview, Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, the Chief of the Land Staff, discussed army training and the challenges he faces in preparing (and protecting) Canada’s soldiers for the many dangerous tasks that are asked of them.

(12 April 2008) Kandahar, Afghanistan – Lieutenant Colonel Dana Woodworth, Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team's (KPRT) Commanding officer (left) and General Guy Laroche, Joint Task Force Afghanistan Commanding Officer (second from left) greet General Andrew Leslie, Chief of land staff (second from right) and Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) Wayne Ford (Land staff CWO, right) upon their arrival at the KPRT. Canada is in Afghanistan at the request of the UN, which has reissued a call to the international community to support Afghanistanís democratically elected government. The aim of the UN-sanctioned NATO mission is to help build a stable, democratic and self-sufficient society in the country.    CF Photo: Cpl Simon Duchesne

It has been said that the best way to lose a counter-insurgency is to stop protecting the people, yet Canada faces criticism at home each time our sons and daughters are killed in that effort. Therefore, even in tough economic times, we in Canada must strive to understand and support the army’s need to get the right equipment and keep it maintained, with ­minimal red tape, so our soldiers can get on with the job of protecting the civilians of Afghanistan in this dangerous and unpredictable environment.

It is clear that counter-insurgency is a high priority for the army these days, and the Army Commander, LGen Leslie, is in Gagetown to observe such training first hand – heading over there as soon as this interview is concluded. When I ask about counter-insurgency plans in Afghanistan, he is quick to point out that the Expeditionary Forces Commander is in charge of the mission, although “the vast majority of soldiers come from the Army, are trained by the Army, are equipped by the Government of Canada based on the needs of the Army, and they come back to the Army when it’s finished, so we are certainly working hand in glove with the folk that are actually running the mission.”

The job of the Canadian Forces is to support the Afghan government as they deal with insurgencies. “I think the vast majority of senior officials realize that [...] a successful counter insurgency is not predicated solely on a military victory,” says Leslie. “So our efforts, nested within the efforts of NATO and our coalition partners, are aimed at supporting the Afghan government as they try to establish the rule of law, broad governance, principles, developmental priorities and security. But here is the flip side: in counter-insurgency theory, it’s all about security – but it’s not only about security.” In this context, the enforcement aspect of security (military forces, police forces, prison guards, border guards trying to control and establish the rule of law) must also include two other key factors: social security (which encompasses the institutions, human rights and governance); and financial/economic security (which links the allocation of resources, distribution of wealth, economic priorities, and harmonization of effort). Ideally, these three factors should combine to ensure adequate (and rising) standards of living.

LGen Leslie believes that NATO has come to realize that “among these three broad, coincident and parallel themes that comprise the overall security set solution, there’s more work to be done, there have been some gaps.” The NATO Secretary General, he says, was quite vocal recently “in pointing out that some of these weren’t contributing to mission success.”

The Army is not the only contributor to the mission in Afghanistan. “We are working hard with the other Canadian partners before we go overseas, to make sure that we’re speaking with one voice, that we have a common set of precepts and underpinnings of philosophies that allow us to achieve the desired results. Where it gets fascinating is when we get into the Kandahar province area because, though Canada has the lead there, from a NATO ISAF point of view, [we] realize that the Afghan people have the lead in the province of Kandahar, and our approach, at least in the way we train our soldiers, is [to find out what] the legitimate (elected or appointed) Afghan authorities want, and how can we help them achieve that. And that approach is being closely studied by others, and there are some quite favourable reviews.”

Counter-insurgency Training
Not so long ago, the Army’s efforts were focused on Cold War scenarios and catastrophic destruction, expecting to learn and refine those skill sets to achieve victory. Now, says the Commander of the Army, “we are looking at a fairly long period of continuous asymmetric warfare ... to deal with extremists who are quick to use terror, which is a tactic, to either get their point of view across, to disrupt, or destroy, or whatever their objective might be. They seek to cause instability in State structures. So when we’re training our soldiers – to get the job done and have as many of them as possible survive the experience – it’s a more complex, more disciplined, more focused endeavour than it was training for the Cold War.”

In the Canadian approach, every soldier is trained to understand (to a better extent) “the local culture, the Afghan government’s priorities, their own Canadian commanders intentions, the consequences of opening fire and getting it wrong, the consequences of not knocking down a foe who’s about to detonate in front of a crowded market place, and that in turn leads to more and more of our soldiers operating, not in large groups under close supervision of senior officers, but in dispersed groups, with lots of terrain features between them and the central command authorities. We call that adaptive dispersed operations.”

According to LGen Leslie, the Army intends to “rely ever more heavily on the ­initiative, common sense, team work and training of its young soldiers who are out there doing world class work. Obviously I am slightly biased, but we have the best small army in the world, and we’ve got, now, the best training system in the world to get our men and women ready for operations such as Afghanistan. We have constant streams of international visitors coming to watch how we do it, and the result of the training, and also the unique quality of the young men and women who join our ranks is such that the international kudos that we’re getting for the work of the soldiers in areas such as Afghanistan is heart warming. But we’re not perfect, there are still some areas for improvement.”

For many, the term “army training” conjures up visions of young men and women climbing ropes and running through tires rather than a classroom setting. However, says Leslie, there is “a lot of classroom work.” The classrooms in Gagetown are very sophisticated, he says, with disbursed information technologies, modualized training systems and interactive ­systems. Cultural work is mostly done in classrooms with Afghan-Canadians who volunteer their time.

At least six months of hard training is completed before going overseas. The soldier will learn the tenets of the mission area – history and culture, social mores and attitudes, theory – before going to the field under very ­complex circumstances, to rehearse and train and react to the unexpected. “It’s very expensive training,” agrees Leslie, “but you know something, they’re worth it. Many different types of training are required for a force of roughly 3,000 that goes overseas: training in individual skill sets; small team; bigger team; and then large collective exercises – with or without live threats.”

Breaking it down, LGen Leslie believes it’s the “training, equipment and awareness that helps keep our soldiers alive on these missions. You might say that awareness comes out of training, but no matter how hard you train you can’t completely replicate the situational awareness that comes with experience.”

The Chief of the Army then talks of the benefits gleaned when Veterans, who have been in Afghanistan two or three times, get involved in the training venues and exercises. Their assistance is “invaluable,” he says, “in helping soldiers develop that sixth sense about what looks right under very ­complex social circumstances, and what doesn’t, such as where the foe steps out of a busy crowd to self-detonate.”

Dependable equipment is what binds the training and local awareness into an effective force. And it’s “one that we’re putting [...] a lot of emphasis on. Every type of equipment we have has three broad characteristics – fire power, mobility and protection. [We are] dealing with a foe who seeks to kill us as they try to get through us to the local populations, and the foe knows that killing us will result in headlines back in the home nation which will portray the human cost of the conflict as the tragedy that it is. They, the grizzled war lords among the foe are very quick to spend the lives of their young men to kill some of us. Thankfully we, the people of Canada and our allies, are very reluctant to spend the lives of our ­soldiers and are willing to do whatever it takes to keep as many of them alive as ­possible, while getting the job done.” Based on those two factors, the army, understandably, places “a lot of emphasis on the protection aspect.”

Why can’t we just have our soldiers fly from place to place? The answer goes back to the social aspect of security. LGen Leslie is very thankful for the “20 helicopters that are giving us great help in moving our soldiers and supplies around, but you still have to get out among the local folk with the Afghan National Army and investigate issues and show that their rule of law is being backed up by NATO, or in this case the Canadians, and [be ready to] destroy the enemy – when we can find them in conditions where ­collateral damage can be minimized.”

So how do we protect our young soldiers? “Our vehicles are getting heavier as we wrap them in more steel and armour because the foe attacks us under circumstances where we’re traveling on roads or responding to a call for help. We are most vulnerable when we’re going from point A to point B and we can’t always go by helicopter because, from the indigenous population’s point of view, all they would see is us flitting overhead. So our vehicles are getting heavier, wrapped in more steel and armour, which is very expensive but, once again, our soldiers are worth it.”

The decision to buy the Leopard tanks a few years ago is still controversial. In ­retrospect, was it a good decision? Some ten years ago, at the tail end of the Cold War, the question of Canada’s international role was being considered. It was believed that Canada would be a peace keeping, peace making or limited combat force in a multinational context. It was also assumed, says Leslie, that most targets would be other vehicles (light armoured vehicles, small tanks), so the “decision was made to invest about a billion dollars into an eight-wheeled, lightly armoured vehicle with a big gun – the mobile gun system – so they could stand back and shoot at things a thousand, two thousand meters away.”

Things changed. “We are now dealing with a foe who is actively seeking to hurt us as they hide among the local populations – which makes it really tough for us to identify them before they attack us – and they’re using improvised explosive devices which require slabs of steel and masks to protect us from the effects of these weapons. So for the same cost as the mobile gun system, the Government of Canada, bless them, made the decision to stop [that project].” They chose instead to buy main battle tanks. “That was a government, I would argue an Army, responding to changes in the international content in a very rapid and coherent fashion,” he says.

“The tanks that we have, the Leopard IIs and the older Leopard Is, are saving lives. [Many] have suffered IED or bomb strikes, and though we’ve lost a lot of those machines or they’ve been damaged, thankfully the fatalities among the tank crews have been very low. If they had been in any other vehicle that we possess, the number of fatalities for Canada would have been far higher,” believes General Leslie.

At the moment of truth, “when our young infantry are about to breach the walls of a compound where there’s a nest of the foe, if you don’t have such weapon systems, you have [limited] choices. You can drop a bomb or send in your infantry unprotected. In both cases casualties occur. When you chuck a lot of bombs around, you don’t have other options such as doing a tank infantry assault or using indirect fire such as artillery, which are by definition smaller than 1,000 or 2,000 pound bombs. When you chuck bombs around, the chance of collateral damage among the local population is quite high. On the other end of the scale, if you send in infantry unprotected, the chances of your young infantry men and women being shot by a fanatic who’s holed up in a basement of these mud-walled fortresses is quite high. So I am a firm believer in the value of [...] tanks in a counter insurgency – the main role of those tanks is protection. And they do a good job. And though there might be some controversy, point one, the Government of Canada, and I’ll say it again, bless them, moved swiftly to acquire the heavy armour that we needed to keep their soldiers alive.”

Being able to maintain those tanks has been the subject of recent controversy. For instance, Canada has dragged out the process of hiring a company to refurbish the 20 tanks that the German government lent us. When asked about this, General Leslie says “I think things are moving, but we still have a requirement to the hundred main battle tanks that we bought from the Netherlands. That requirement – to bring them up to war fighting standard so that we can put them into the fray – is not happening as quickly as I had hoped.”

As for other vehicle fleets, the mainstay of the Canadian Army is clearly the Light Armoured Vehicle. Leslie enthusiastically describes the LAV as “a brilliant vehicle.” Designed and built in southern Ontario by General Dynamics Land Systems, the Canadian Army was the first to purchase it, over a decade ago. “It has been used hard and the army would like to see those vehicles upgraded because they’re at their mid life. They need more armour, they need more fire control systems, fire suppression systems, shock frame seating for the single most important thing in the vehicle which are the soldiers, and then we can keep on using them for the next 15 or 20 years. I would very much like to see, as would the entire Army, the LAV upgrade project done as soon as possible – keeping in mind that it also provides jobs for Canadians.”

Trucks are still a high priority, acknowledges LGen Leslie, “but if I had to make a choice between the next phase of trucks or getting the LAVs upgraded, I would go with the LAVs – but it doesn’t work that way because these are parallel tracks.”

The first phase of truck replacements – commercial-off-the-shelf ruggedized military trucks (for use mainly in Canada) – was announced by Minister MacKay in January. That contract was won by Navistar Defense, the first deliveries to start this summer.

“We’re still working through the details of seeking approval for the 2nd and 3rd tranches,” notes Leslie. “We’re looking at the armoured trucks that could go overseas, keeping in mind we have an emergency buy of enough armoured heavy trucks, I think, to get us through the Afghan mission to 2011. The third tranche – which is more than a couple of years out – is the replacement of all the heavy trucks that we use in Canada.”

During the CADSI Army Outlook earlier this spring, General Leslie made numerous suggestions to industry on building into their proposals and business plans the potential of added jobs for Canadians. I wondered if he finds Industrial Regional Benefits to be a stumbling block to getting the kit he needs. “The intent of my comments,” he explains, “was to make it really clear to all those folk, that if something can be built in Canada, set up your program such that it can happen. If you look at the economic conditions facing Canada, and the growing number of unemployed, it just makes sense to get industry – when they put in proposals to the Armed Forces and to the Government – to emphasize how many jobs they will be creating in Canada instead of acting essentially as a front office for a piece of capability that may not provide those jobs. But now let’s talk about IRBs. So long as the IRBs can be tracked and can be explained in the context of who’s getting what jobs, when and where, IRBs are actually contributing directly to the employment of Canadians and increasing our industrial capacity to better support some of the sophisticated equipment that we need. These are not exclusionary ideas, they’re inclusive.”

If we can provide industry with the right incentives to build in Canada, and create those jobs, will it be easier to get funding for capital projects that are currently beyond the Army’s reach? “Yes,” says Leslie, “keeping in mind that Army needs are logically different than those of the Air Force and the Navy. The Navy wants to have built, and quite rightly, fairly large, enormously complicated ships, of which they want a modest number, 15 or so. The Air Force has a hideously complicated aircraft which, once again, the numbers are quite modest and the technological skill sets to build those aircraft are such that it often makes sense to use economies of scale – so if there’s a production run of aircraft A internationally, you’re going to save a gazillion dollars by buying the tail end of that production line and ensuring that there’s IRBs to match every penny that you spend on whoever owns the licence for that machine. In the Army’s case, we want hundreds if not thousands of relatively much simpler technological platforms – and the patent, design or licence may be international. Having it built, assembled and collated here in Canada and employing thousands of Canadians – and by the way, setting up a line that I then can use five or six years from now to refurbish or reset the equipment – is great, and I think imminently achieveable.”

Resetting the Army
There has been a lot of talk (on both sides of our border) of how the Canadian Army will be able to rebuild itself after Afghan­istan. The Commander of the Army has a plan. “I can only speak for the Army,” he says, “but with the Government of Canada’s Canada First Defence Strategy, the assurance of honest but long term sustainable funding, and modest increases every year (after the big jumps to get us to our base line of just under 20 billion), we can actually, within that envelope, get it done. We need the ability to actually move programs through the system and get ­contracts signed to deliver capability. And the faster we can do that, the more capability will be available for the Government of Canada to choose, so it has options as to where it may wish to send their Army post-2011.”

The second point, he says, is that “most of the Army’s equipment needs, grosso modo, are automotive in nature. There are trucks to be repaired, there are LAVs to be upgraded, armoured patrol vehicles to be assembled, tanks to be worked on – there are certain skill sets needed to do those things and skilled workers in the automotive sector.

“And thirdly it’s a question of the management activities and who gets what priority in terms of money for spare bits and that’s what my colleagues and I are trying to sort out over the next little while.”

Northern Presence
On the domestic front, the Army recently established the Arctic Warfare Training Centre. Over the last 25 years or so, the numbers of advanced winter warfare qualified soldiers in the entire Army had dwindled to possibly a dozen or less. “We were told, quite rightly, ‘pay attention, we’re serious about the north,’ and we got the message loud and clear. We are pushing through as many courses as we can, we have started to send more and more soldiers up North, working hand in glove with the Rangers who are now under Army command, which is significant. This allows my Army team to equip them, to get them more closely integrated with regular and reserve soldiers, we’re spending more time up North, not a lot yet, but it’s significant across the entire Army.

“I’ve asked that four Reserve units, one for each of the geographic areas (because we have an area command structure), turn itself into an arctic battalion group, and they’re starting to do that now. These four battalion-sized organizations will, and are in the process of setting their folk on advanced warfare training, exercise in the North, work with the Rangers, work with the northern communities. And that cycle will accelerate – hopefully faster than the ice is melting.”
Chris MacLean is Editor-in-Chief of FrontLine Defence magazine.
© 2009 FrontLine Defence