Monday, July 7, 2014

Mitigating Risk, Public Relations Edition

In the course of many conversations with Canadian military officers for the NATO book and its successor (under review now), a frequent theme was risk.  How to deal with uncertainty?  In the past, the emphasis was on avoiding risks, but for a military to do that, it means staying at home or staying behind the wire.  That is, not going out beyond the base. 

Of course, that is deceptive because staying within a base does not eliminate risk either.  It might mean having less situational awareness due to the lack of patrolling.  It might mean not actually accomplishing the mission's objectives, so that the mission itself may fail. 

The best example of this was that Bill Clinton told his generals not to lose any lives in Bosnia, which for much time meant that the US forces in IFOR and then SFOR did not follow up on some key tasks.... namely the pursuit of PIFWCs--persons indicted for war crimes.  Chasing these folks down might lead to confrontations and perhaps even violence.  So, the US at first did not pursue them.  But this endangered the mission because the people of Bosnia perceived themselves to be at risk as long as the war criminals were free and also perceived the international community to be less than credible.

The new generation of Canadian officers focused less on avoiding risk and more on mitigating risk.  That is, taking stock of the various possible challenges and then trying to deal with the potential dangers that may arise, focusing on most likely and then moving to less likely.

Why do I raise this now?  Because I was struck by an interview with the head of the Canadian army today, Lt.General Marquis Hainse.  I interviewed General Hainse a few years ago because he had served in Afghanistan in a key NATO post.  His conversation with me then reflected much less risk mitigation than the interview in today's Citizen.

Asked about cuts to the budget, Hainse is clearly engaged in two sorts of risk mitigation exercises--how to reduce the army's budget without undermining its ability to do stuff; and how to talk about it without getting too much fire from the government.  Regarding the former:
"it’s about managing the risks. We have an older fleet [of trucks], an aging fleet, that we couldn’t just keep up in terms of maintaining. So we made a decision. And for that period of time, we’re going to assume a bit of risk in taking off some of the burden of that maintenance. There are enough trucks around to be able to still do our part in reacting to a domestic operation."
Note this suggests something about his focus and what might be riskier in this fiscal climate--international operations. As Hainse faces the tough decisions, he is probably factoring into his calculations the unlikelihood that the Canadian army will be deployed into a significant combat operation anytime in the near future.

His risk mitigation when it comes to the government is played in another quote:
Q. What do you think of the government’s requirement that the military not cut personnel to save money?
A. It’s about capabilities. What is it that the army needs to have to be able to answer the need? And once we answer that question and we agree what capabilities we need, then the rest flows out of this.
This is a non-answer, I am sorry to say.  The government has restricted the military from cutting the numbers of active and reservist personnel.  The magic numbers are for symbolic purposes and are not based on what capabilities Canada needs.  There has been no adjustment of the numbers after Canada ended its most significant combat operation since Korea.  Canada needed a larger army during the war to sustain operations, but with no new operations in sight, the military could get smaller.  This is what happens to most democratic militaries in peacetime.  Take a look at the U.S., which is making significant cuts to its army and to the Marines now after increasing their size when the Americans were fighting two (plus) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, this interview reflects not just the effort by Hainse and his officers to manage the risks the army faces due to having less money but also the risks of talking about such stuff when the government prizes message management above all else. 

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