Interview article

Gen Rick Hillier

"Fixing What’s Broke"
CHRIS MacLEAN  |  Jul 15, 2006

It’s been almost two years since I first met General Rick Hillier. He had recently returned from commanding ISAF in Afghanistan and was making an impassioned speech on his experiences there (he even used PowerPoint for his presentation, but mostly photos, if memory serves), impressing those of us gathered at the Royal Canadian Military Institute with the needs of the Afghan people and their hopes for a better future. He was convinced that Canadians could make a difference, and seemed to have set his sights on making sure it would happen.

He readily agreed to make time in his busy schedule for a future interview. Planning for our first edition of 2005, a November 2004 date was scheduled.

Sharing his vision during the interview, he laid out his goals very clearly (refreshingly unhindered by the trappings of position or political correctness):

  • his personal commitment to improving the situation in Afghanistan;
  • his goal for Canada to gain the recognition it deserves for the vital role the CF plays around the world;
  • his belief in Canada’s capacity for military leadership in multi-national settings;
  • his evaluation of the key requirements for the land forces (tactical lift capacity, heavy-lift helicopters, and direct / indirect fire pieces); and, of course,
  • his ever-present, bursting pride in the young men and women engaged in representing Canada and Canadian values while under very difficult circumstances.

I later had the expensive thrill of hollering “stop the presses!” – he was about to be named as Chief of the Defence Staff. Not wanting to delay deliveries, we simply made a quick addition to the FrontLine Brief, welcoming the new CDS. It was obvious that his vision would easily adapt from an Army-centric focus, to a CF-centric focus and thus, FrontLine was able to provide an in-depth look at the priorities driving our new CDS as he stepped into his new job.

Today, contrasted against the dismal backdrop of capability decay from the last two decades, it looks like he’s actually getting somewhere. July 2006 finds him as committed as ever, and in a good mood. “It’s a great time to be in the CF!” he heartily exclaims. And why not? After less than two years as CDS, he is actually getting his key shopping list filled and, with a strong group of leaders behind him, he has the enviable and re-energizing job of rebuilding the capability of the Canadian Forces (at long last). No time to rest, however, he is also tackling the immense challenge of increasing the capacity to ­utilize that new capability, by directing a massive recruiting campaign.

While it seemed that Hillier and the former Minister of National Defence, Bill Graham, made a good team, Graham did not have the kind of support behind him that the new Minister, Gordon O’Connor clearly enjoys. Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Afghanistan shortly after ­taking office, and has shown strong support of the rehabilitation requirements for Canadian Forces’ capability.

July 2006 – CF soldier holds up a rocket propelled grenade after searching a compound within the Zjarey district, in a joint Afghan National Army and Coalition security operation to remove the Taliban forces from the area. (Photo: MCpl Robert Bottrill, CF Combat Camera)

The Harper Government began, as the previous government had ended, by making budget promises. The difference being, rather than backloading the funding, four procurement decisions are set to proceed on 4 August 2006 (see June NEWS items on our Web site). Attesting to this government’s decisiveness, these new procurement announcements are aimed at finally shoring up depleted defence capabilities.

With the state of Canada’s defence procurement system still an unqualified mess, there is no shortage of controversy surrounding the Advance Contract Award Notice (ACAN) announce­­ments made in the final days of June. The Canadian Forces, however, hope the storm won’t last, so they can see key pieces of the transportation requirements falling into place before too long.

Vision & Revision
General Hillier’s vision of a year and a half ago may have broadened, but still includes the international focus. Of key importance, he reminds me again, is “getting the highest profile credibility and visibility by shaping our operations in such a way that we get a seat at the table to shape regions of populations. To do that, we are laying it out in the form of a defence capability plan.”

He acknowledges that the plan was reshaped to accommodate the new government’s objectives. “There are certain things they want to see in it, volume one of that plan has always been the transportation hub – air, land and sea. If you can’t get there, if you can’t sustain yourself while you are there, and if you can’t recover yourself – you can’t do your job. There’s no difference whether it is northern Canada, east coast, west coast or Afghanistan. If you can’t do those three things – get there, sustain yourself and recover yourself – you can’t do your job!”

26 June 2006 – Halifax, NS – Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Rick Hillier, chats with Cpl Veronica Arsenault on board HMCS St. John’s after the announcement from the Minister of Defence for the new supply ships for the Canadian Armed Forces. (Photo: Cpl Rod Ducet, Formation Imaging Services, Halifax)

“The second part of our program: replacing what was most rusted and rotted out. I don’t have to walk you through the C-130 saga about us being a world leader with the number of hours on an airframe. We’ve now grounded two and have a third one that has about 30 hours left in it. That becomes, right now, our achilles heel, and fixing the airlift piece was a ­fundamental thing we had to do.”

“The saga of our two remaining supply ships is also very well known. They are old, they’re costly to run and to maintain, plus they require a significantly larger crew than modern ships, and that of course becomes very expensive. We had to make sure we maintained that capability because otherwise the maritime forces simply can’t move independently around our own coasts, let alone around the world.”

“In addition to those capabilities, in the dynamic that we now face, trucks are the backbone of everything you do once you come on shore. We have now had the medium fleet for some 20-odd years – I actually remember when we brought them in, we used them hard, we abused them in some cases, because that’s the nature of our business – they rusted out and they rotted out, and we broke them!

30 Mar 2006 – A joint Canadian and Romanian convoy was attacked by a suicide car bomber while delivering supplies to a remote outpost in Gumbad, approximately 70 km north of Kandahar City. Once the convoy was moved to a secure location, the injured Canadian was evacuated to a hospital at the coalition base at Kandahar Airfield. The soldier suffered minor injuries. (Photo: Sgt Carole Morissette)

“In that same program, part of what we are after is an armoured truck, given the dynamic of the operating environments around the world – it doesn’t ­matter where you are, whether you are in Africa, southwest Asia, or Pacific Rim areas where you potentially could have failed or failing states. The risks are different, and they are significant. Simply up-armouring a truck is not sufficient because you can’t get the right levels of protection. You need to start with a vehicle that is designed as an armoured truck.”

Heavy-lift Helicopters
Post-cold war finances forced the offload of Canada’s big Chinooks to the Dutch. But a key operational requirement is again heavy-lift helicopters. “Over the last two years, particularly in Afghanistan, the need for a big workhorse helicopter has become overwhelming,” says Hillier. “If you can’t lift at least a platoon, or if you can’t lift that new howitzer (we bought the M777 – our basic indirect fire gun, the best one in the world – it is also the lightest we can get at that caliber), if you can’t lift that, with a gun crew and a basic load of ammo, and if you can’t do it from a high altitude (which is tough on a helicopter), in hot temperatures (because those things make it very difficult to lift off a load), and if you can’t do it day and night, and if you can’t lift it about 100km once you’ve got it up – it’s useless to us!” he exclaims with a shrug.

General Hillier is in a hurry. The CF has endured decades of reductions and are now scraping the bottom of the barrel: “we would like to get them as quickly as possible... that will be a powerful boost.”

Knowing the government is finally committed to filling the basic capability needs that have been identified, the CDS is looking past the political turbulence to consider the challenge that begins once Public Works (PWGSC) identifies the winning aircraft. His priority will focus first on “how quickly we could get delivery of that aircraft, or advanced copies of it, loaners of it or something, and train our crews so that we would have a deployable capability for operations.” After that, he’ll try to find a way to “accelerate” delivery (and if anyone can...).

Capacity, Recruitment & Training
The CDS is convinced that he has enough personnel at the moment to ­handle the new equipment. “Let’s use the aircraft as an example. As soon as we know we have the contract for the strategic and tactical aircraft, we are going to take some hard decisions and shut down a bunch of the older C-130’s.

Then we’ll put all the assets of maintainers, spare parts, time, energy and effort into the remaining ones, and can focus the rest of those crews into getting ready for that new aircraft. Instead of having aircraft that are available 25-35% of the time, the new aircraft will have availability rates of possibly +90% for a smaller fleet – therefore less people, less repair and spare parts required. The operating costs go down slightly and your capacity, flexibility and ability to move things around the world goes up dramatically. That in itself will give us an ability to get more bang out of it and to be able to use it more effectively on short notice than any ability that we have right now.”

Understandably, having fewer aircraft yet greater availability will take less of a toll on crews and maintainers. In addition to those advantages from the tactical aircraft, it is expected that maintenance for the ­strategic air lifter will be contracted – and with only four being purchased, it wouldn’t make financial sense for Canada to train maintainers and warehouse spare parts.

 OK, the new tactical aircraft will free up some aircraft personnel, is recruiting for other areas going as well as hoped? “Yes,” he responds, “except in one part.” Only a small portion of Canada’s 33 million population is being recruited. The older generation is neither interested nor sought out.
However, traditionally “only small numbers of the female population arrive at recruiting centres, and many of the ­various ethnic communities (such as the First Nations; the Inuit; Asian, Seik, and Muslim Canadians, etc.) are not well represented – and that is not good enough. I am not satisfied that we have gotten the complete spectrum of our demographics.”

Close to 50% of the population is the right age and fitness level, and under Hillier’s direction, the CF is reaching out to that young demographic at big events such as the Pacific National Exhibition, the Canadian National Exhibi­tion, the Grey Cup, the Grand Prix in Montreal, the Nova Scotia Tattoo, Carnivale de Québec, and the Calgary Stampede.

“When I was in Calgary last weekend, young soldiers, sailors and airmen and women were seeing an average of 400,000 people over the first two days, and will see a million and a half people over the next ten days.”

Sounds great, but numbers like those will also cause problems, and there have been many complaints of delays in the past. Simplifying the recruiting process is one obvious solution that is being implemented as quickly as possible. “Our goal is to enroll 30% of applicants within the first week. The next 50% we enroll within a month, and the remaining 20-25% we have to walk through very carefully to be sure there is a match.”

The CF is taking steps to reduce waiting times for individual training – another backlog. Previously, basic training courses were all run from a single location: St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, in Quebec. New plans have courses set in Gagetown, Quebec City and Borden – doubling the capacity.

Technical trade education was also a limiter in the past, but new ground is being broken there. General Hillier sees advantages in contracting colleges across the country to train the technical trades people. “If you want to teach somebody how to do a circuitry board or all those pieces, we don’t have to do that – that’s the problem we want to offload.” The CF would still handle the basic military training first, but core technical training can be done by community colleges. The idea “builds on a very successful footprint that we have experimented with in Newfoundland, at the North Atlantic College, Memorial University’s subsidiary college. We have 200 sailors on a 2-year course and that’s where all their maritime education and on-the-job training and acclimatization is done, preparing them for employment in their trades. We are not there yet, we are just starting down this process in a huge way, but the North Atlantic College is a powerful example of this cooperation.”

12 May 2006 – 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron vehicles and personnel arrive at 17 Wing’s Mission Support Sqn (MSS). In June, the MSS was tasked to Camp Mirage in the Arabian Gulf region in support of Task Force Afghanistan. (Photo by WO Serge Peters, Air Public Affairs)

Canada Command
Another change underway is the new command structure and the concept of considering Canada as an operational ­theatre. “We have one commander for Canada who is up and operating since 1 February. One commander for international operations, and everybody else is supported to those individuals – and that includes all the assets of air land and sea working for them. We are still maturing that, we will be three, four or five years from now. And I will tell you, quite frankly, I believe that internationally, given the intensity of operations in Afghanistan and smaller operations in other parts of the world, we would have not been ready to ensure ­success without this new command structure. So, we have done that and is it right? No not at all, we certainly have a lot of work to do on it!

“We have started to increase the special forces piece and build a CANSOFCOM (Canadian Special Operating Forces Com­mand) that gives us enhanced capability.” The tier 1 special forces (JTF2) will be kept intentionally small and elite. The Canadian Special Operations Regi­ment, or tier 2, is expected to graduate approximately 250 next month. “We hope to have them operationally ready for deployments wherever we need them by December.” The third component of an integrated CF capability is the Standing Contingency Force. This group will incorporate all three capabilities, land, air and navy. Its first exercise, set for November, off the east coast, is “getting great support from the Americans and the Brits to help us learn some lessons to define how far forward we want to go ahead here.”

Getting Back on Track
All of those things are important to the big picture, but conversation quickly returns to the revitalized transportation piece which is clearly energizing his team these days. Without it, the situation is bleak, put Canadian troops in much greater danger.

“Part of transformation is giving the right capabilities to those pieces to be able to do their job,” says General Hillier, “and we talked about the right people coming in, but we also briefly mentioned the right capabilities being given, and that spine of transportation is a key part of the transformation – especially the heavy lift helicopter – to give us the capabilities day and night for all that we need to do in that three block war situation.”

Has all of this caused internal transformation to go off the rails somewhat? “I am comfortable with where we are, and I make no excuses for occasionally having slowed in some areas in the shorter term. We’ve been busy! What we have done so far is typically just the tip of the iceberg, the acquisition part we have announced and are pushing hard, and then another layer beyond it and another layer beyond that. Developing the entire defence capability plan, conducting operations here at home, all the routine business, renewing the NORAD piece, and conducting operations around the world and particularly in Afghanistan with the start-up of a new phase of that mission. All of this has been somewhat intense.”

With all of these very major changes that are in process, combined with the volatility on the world stage, does the Canadian Forces have the capacity to respond to additional demands that the Government might put forward?

“As part of our business we have said that our structure is going to be able to support and sustain, internationally, two land-centric lines of operation,” explains the CDS. “Afghanistan in this case, is the lead operation, and then a second line of operation, not quite as large, based around a task force though. Two lines of operation while at the same time be able to put out and maintain a maritime line of operations. Each of those supported by the air, land and sea elements necessary to do it as one Canadian Forces line of operations.”

The CF is classified as a third responder – they are only called in to emergencies when other responders have exhausted their own resources or when there is a need for the particular capabilities of the military. “At home, our commitment is broad based. One priority is for tightening response time, starting with counter terrorism and nuclear, chemical or biological defence support. We are trying to reshape so that if a crisis occurs (including natural disasters or fires that get out of control) and the provinces request help, we can respond more quickly. Our response in Canada is always at least one brigade with units across the country on notice to move with the forward company on 8-hrs notice to move, and the rest of the unit at 24-hrs to move.

“For predictable operations, such as the Vancouver Olympics 2010 or a G8 summit, like was run at Kananaskis, essentially we have the entire capacity of the Canadian Forces here. If we know six, 12 or 18 months in advance, we can shape ourselves to use everything.”

Packing all of this reform into the environment of a busy operational tempo would normally require either a lot of time or a very large staff – Hillier has neither, but one suspects that he is the ­catalyst on many fronts. I’m sure his wife would have a different response if I’d asked her – but his answer to the question, ‘are you being ­personally overstretched?’ was emphatic and ­predictable. “No I am not, actually I feel good.” [I can’t help visualizing that great Monty Python scene: “I’m not dead yet!”]. “I work hard, no doubt the days are long, and the weeks are brutal.” It’s plain to see, however, that he’s still as dedicated to shining a spotlight on the value that is the Canadian Forces, and he’s not about to slow the pace.

“Admiral Bruce MacLean, who is now retired as you know, was in the office here one day and we were chatting about how, a decade ago, everything we were asking was related in some way to reducing the Canadian Forces, stopping doing things, getting rid of things, closing things, constraining things or conserving things. It had the most negative impact on morale and spirit and the psychological effect on people that you could imagine. And all who went through that, remember it with dread – a decade of darkness.

“Now, we’re asking a lot of people for long days, a whole lot of nights, a whole lot of weekends, a lot of time away from home, a lot of commitment and sacrifice – all to rebuild the Canadian Forces’ basic capabilities and build a new CF that is ­relevant for the next 25 years. Everybody is working hard – not any harder than they were back in the mid-nineties, but they are working now with a spring in their step. And I do believe this, because I get feedback every single day, they are standing taller with renewed pride in wearing that uniform and pride at being a soldier, sailor or airman or airwoman. That is a renewed feeling around the Canadian Forces, and I stated that to the Senate Committee on Security and Defence in June. It is obvious, it is tangible, and it is visible. Are we working hard? Yes. Is that the norm? Yes, it is. Did we work hard before? Yes. What is the difference now? That was the decade of darkness, and this is the decade of opportunity! That is the reason I am doing it. There is opportunity here to actually shape the Canadian Forces into something we have wanted all our careers and lives, because we believe that kind of thing can help make Canada a better place to live.

“Folks are prouder to be in the Canadian Forces than I have ever seen in my career. Yes, they are proud to be in the Air Force, they are proud to be a sailor, they are proud to be a soldier, but they also realize they are part of a greater team, the Canadian Forces. That is a powerful thing to do and as a result they are willing to put the effort out and believe in what the effect will be.”

General Hillier is very encouraged by the incredible progress so far. His vision, articulated to FrontLine in late 2004, is still intact and on track.
“Canadians will see,” he says, “that as we rebuild the basic core ­elements of the Canadian Forces, we will become more relevant, more effective, more responsive and something of which they can be proud. We are well engaged in that task, and it is worthy of our efforts.”

Chris MacLean is the Editor of FrontLine.
© FrontLine Defence 2006