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The new chief


The Canadian Armed Forces got a new leader in July.
General Jonathan Vance takes charge of a military at war

                                                                 By Adam Day

The new Chief 1
General Jonathan Vance
Adam Day

On Aug. 24, 2015, Legion Magazine Staff Writer Adam Day went to National Defence headquarters in Ottawa to interview the new Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, for a profile in the November/December 2015 issue. For those interested in hearing CDS Vance expand on some of the issues raised in the profile, what follows is a transcript of the interview:

Legion Magazine: Afghanistan is the longest war that Canada has fought and it had a huge impact on the forces. So now that it’s done, what do you think the lingering impact of Afghanistan is? What is the legacy of that conflict?

Vance: I would answer in a few different areas. I guess one has to look first at the impact on Afghanistan. We were there to try and do our part of the coalition effort and I think the impact today, and the ongoing legacy, is that the coalition effort offered Afghanistan the chance to recover from a period of warfare. Even though it looked like more warfare, the operations were designed to try and help the government extend into the provinces and defeat the insurgency by providing government services and making people feel that they’re part of a country. I think our efforts in Kandahar Province helped that.

Imagine if we hadn’t done what we did? Imagine if we didn’t go? How would Afghanistan be today? That’s not necessarily the best way to argue a point but nonetheless it does place it in some sort of contrast. How would Afghanistan have evolved had we not done what we did? From a first principles perspective, we’ve had a transition of power from the Karzai government to a new government. That government is trying. It’s doing its best.

So the legacy is that we can go to places in the world, adopt leading edge methodologies, tactics, techniques and procedures to try and alter the environment such that we achieve the objectives of the government of Canada.

And I’ll tell you, one of the things that we have learned is that there are lots of actors who try and prevent you from doing that. That’s just the environment you’re in—there’s an enemy that’s trying to defeat you. And I think one of the things that always comes home to me is that despite the honourable objectives we have, if you have an active enemy, they’re going to try to defeat you and you have to try to win. I know that sounds like motherhood but sometimes we can convince ourselves that once we come up with the plans, “Who’s going to get in the way of this?” Well, there are people who try and get in the way and they can become very sophisticated. They can bring efforts to bear that find weakness or find any way to advance their objectives.

So we had to fight hard, very hard, and not only in the kinetic battle space. We also had to bring together a whole-of-government approach, a comprehensive approach. This was the first chance for us to practice in a real material way the comprehensive approach, whole of government. It was in our doctrine before. We knew it, particularly from the perspective of operations in Canada. We’re often in support of other government departments or even peacekeeping operations, where you’re the military element of a wider peace-building, nation-building effort. This was the first time that we had to bring it all together.

And it’s interesting that counter-insurgency warfare is the kind of warfare, it’s almost like a perfect storm because the military effort has to touch on so many things. It’s not just a matter of breaking things and achieving physical objectives, which is complex enough, but to tie it into a larger whole, of multiple governments around the world pledging multiple millions of dollars to try and bring Afghanistan along, help the nation heal itself and get on with things. I think Afghanistan is better because we were there, and has a chance now. I’m proud of the fact that the [Afghan] government is wrestling with the things they have to wrestle with. That’s good.

Afghanistan also reacquainted us in a real visceral way with the notion that the military is able to bring to bear in operations some things, but not all things. Conflict resolution, the “win,” if you will, isn’t just done by the military alone and it never has been, but until you experience it and internalize it, it may not seem as real to you. Here, right now, it’s very real to all of us. There’s no point in running military operations doing great combat team attacks without there being a wider tying together of the ultimate political solutions which need to accrue as part of all this, and that’s really important. It has reacquainted us, right down to the lowest tactical level, with the fact that warfare is about more than war, than about the fight. It’s about getting to an end state and when the end state is very difficult to achieve, and can only be achieved outside of the military realm, it really brings it home to you. Everybody understands that conflict is a big thing and the military plays a role, a very important role sometimes, but our effects can be sometimes very temporary. You know, you can create a defended, secure situation free of enemy fire for a little while and that situation needs to be taken advantage of by those who would service the people who you’re trying to help.

And the legacy inside the armed forces is that we are changed as a result. We are changed because we’ve been to war. That unlimited liability, where you’re in the midst of an active enemy that’s trying to hurt you, trying to kill you, trying to thwart your efforts—humans hunting you—that changes you. I think we’ve adapted and as a result have a level of seriousness now. It does change us and it has changed us as an institution. I think we’re an institution that has been reacquainted with war, reacquainted with the ultimate sacrifice, reacquainted with the notion that not everybody’s going to come home no matter how hard you try and no matter how well trained you are, things go wrong. And that adds an element of seriousness and it’s a sobering thing.

We also have a whole generation of expert combat leaders, leaders who realize that the state of their troops, the state of their equipment, their attitude, their mentality, their physical fitness—all of that really counts because when things go sideways on you in an instant, you need to be extremely well trained. Your equipment has to be working very well and you have to prevail, you have to win and that’s a good thing to be reminded of. And you can’t get to that level, no matter how good you’re training is, until you actually are facing that situation. It’s a whole group of leaders who have learned to lead where leadership counts the most—in war, in a fight, in combat—and that’s going to stand us in good stead for generations.

Finally, I’d say that we also recognize the incredible cost of war. Warfare is inherently negative. I think the images of ramp ceremonies and the fact that we have all felt this personal loss—I mean I have and others have—it kind of makes the family a little tighter. I value people in uniform more because I know that they could be brothers and sisters in arms in the most intense environment and I think everybody does. That’s why I’ll tell you, I’m not trying to segue into something completely different here, but when I came out with Operation Honour, the idea was that we were going to take care of each other. Because I saw in Afghanistan, I saw in the aftermath of war where you lose people, where I felt like when we were fighting there, everybody was precious to each other and were treated that way. I can’t pretend to say that nothing ever went wrong there, but I saw the greatest acts of leadership and the best of people came out. So that’s the kind of people who I lead and who I want and that’s how we should be all the time. That’s an incredibly rewarding experience when you feel the kinship of that military brotherhood and sisterhood under the most intense circumstances.

I think inside of all of us there is this inherent understanding that everybody counts, everybody’s important and whether it’s pointing a bayonet into a grape hut or driving a fuel truck or a crew flying the Hercules, everybody had a part to play that was incredibly important and everybody counted. You’ve got to treat people well, and I’d like to think that we’ve got that in our DNA.


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Adam Day

 LM: Still on the subject of Afghanistan, is there any particular moment or story that characterizes the mission for you?

Vance: There are a lot of moments; a lot of up moments, a lot of down moments. I think the one that stands out to me, because it felt like success to me, and it might seem kind of weird or odd that I would use this moment as an exemplar, but I was always looking for opportunities to show what we were doing and that it was worthwhile; and so despite the fighting, despite the combat, despite the gallantry and the bravery and valour shown, all of what we did, ultimately we were trying to get to a point where Afghans were actually taking accountability for things. And the one afternoon that comes to mind is having secured and re-secured Dand District and trying to set conditions with a methodology of counter insurgency that was not easy to apply. All of the stuff in the doctrine manuals—which I did help in a small way contribute to—when you actually have to do it, actually have to think about what happens first, what happens second. You have to come up with a plan and it’s not an exact science, you’re dealing with people. You’re dealing with things as messy as municipal politics. The one afternoon that was important was with the Dand District governor. He was now dealing with some budgetary challenges and he had lots of people who were looking for programs and he turned to me and said, “I’m very frustrated because I’ve only got so much money and I’ve got more programs than I have money and I’m having a difficult time prioritizing.” Now, to me that was a government official dealing with people with a real budget and a real list of priorities as to what he was going to fund and what he couldn’t fund. And I was smiling. I turned to the U.S. battalion commander and the staff and they couldn’t figure it out. Why is he happy? I said to the district governor, “You are now dealing with exactly the same things that any government leader in a free society has to deal with. More problems than money and the problems you’re dealing with are sewer and septic and lighting and schooling, not who’s killing you.” To me that was great. To me, that was, in a counter-insurgency environment, that was a measure of success.

Otherwise, I had afternoons or days of intense periods of challenge and a lot of times saw the—I don’t want to sound corny here—but the tremendous resilience of the human spirit. When you see a rifle company take a hit, lose soldiers, do the ramp ceremony, get back in their vehicles, go back there and give ’er, you just marvel at our resiliency and how good our people are, how good the leaders are and how good the soldiers are. I had that all the time. That was so common but that’s what helps set conditions for this one moment. It felt really good.

LM: Switching topics a little bit, is Canada at war right now?

Vance: Well, good question. I’m not going to prevaricate because we’ve had all sorts of challenges about the semantics of words. The fact is that Canada is in a period of conflict and the word war is a difficult one because it has legal connotation. So if you’re asking me if we are in war because we’re in combat then, yeah, Canada’s fighting. But are we in an international armed conflict as a principal combatant? No, we’re not. And it’s really important in my view that you report accurately on this because we are not principal combatants in this. We are combatants, but the combatant of note here is Iraq. And so our challenge is if you go somewhere to help somebody and you’re providing the support that they’re asking for, but there’s a limitation to it, you’re not all in, the method that you’re using is to train, advise and assist with a self-defense clause, or you’re part of a coalition air campaign to drop bombs and achieve effect, so to some people that looks like war.

Okay, if your definition of warfare is you’re fighting then I guess we’re at war. From the CDS’s perspective, it’s a little more nuanced because Canada as a nation is not in a declared state of war, and to me that’s important. But I’ve got to tell you, if you’re on the ground or in the air and you’re performing that combat mission, you’re doing the same things you’d be doing at war, so it feels like war. So we’re in combat operations, no question about it. It’s not an easy answer and the nuance, people don’t like nuance, but the fact is that I deal in that.

LM: I think you explained it. There is a nuance. It’s not a legally declared war but it still feels like war.

Vance: Yeah, absolutely. I’m comfortable with that, and if one wanted to describe Canada as at war with ISIS, I buy that. They are an adversary. They have declared against us. But they’re non-state actors. It’s kind of hard to declare war against non-state actors, right?

LM: But they have a state.

Vance: Well, they don’t have a state. I beg to differ and they’re not going to have one.

LM: Next question…

Vance: They don’t have a state. They have a self-declared state. And there we are in a group of nations who are going to help the states that do own that territory, who don’t want a caliphate to emerge in their midst. We’re going to help them prevent that from happening. That’s what we’re all about right now. The challenge, of course, in operations today, combat or otherwise, is that we are in the position of helping others achieve as opposed to achieving ourselves. We’ve learned this. We’ve learned this from Afghanistan. You can do all you want to set conditions to bring a country to a point where it can govern itself, but I think there’s a truism here, that the country that you’re dealing with, they’ve got to earn it. They have to go through that crucible and feel like it’s theirs and become a stakeholder in their own security. There’s no point in bringing a whole bunch of super-motivated North Americans into a conflict to achieve brilliant success only to leave the nation that you’re there to help kind of in your dust. So we developed partnership strategies to help them become stakeholders. I don’t blame Afghanistan. Thirty years of war would demotivate anybody.

I think what we’re seeing in Iraq is that the Iraqi government does not want a Western army coming in and doing it for them. But we’re supporting them so they don’t fail. Now, success may take a long time, but better that success take a long time and hold, than for us to go in and do it for them and then have a vacuum exist where they can’t really do much about what we’ve done. Remember, you’re not going to kill off all of ISIS, you can’t. What you want to do is dissipate it. You want to attrite what you need to attrite so they can’t achieve their stated military objectives. But politically, they have to win over their population.

LM: Right, it’s an interesting point, in that we’re helping them so they don’t fail. But many people are predicting that ISIS will be around until at least 2020, and probably longer. Which brings up a certain constraint with democracies and low-intensity conflict—it’s only possible so long as our political system allows for it. The centre of gravity in this conflict isn’t over there, I would say, for us. It’s our population’s willingness to continue the fight.

Vance: As is always the case.

LM: So you can’t create military strategy in a vacuum. You’re right, low intensity conflict to attrite ISIS over time would work.

Vance: Contribute to a defeat.

LM: Yeah, except we don’t have that luxury because depending on who wins the next election—which we’re not talking about—Canada may withdraw from the conflict.

Vance: Well, that’s how she goes. The good thing is we’re in a coalition, to add complexity to the world you just described, which I agree with. The value of a coalition is that there is burden sharing across the board and every nation that contributes to a coalition is free to decide how it will contribute, and they do so in a rational way.

It makes sense to that nation why they contribute the way they contribute. It makes sense to them. You know what, I always sit in sort of celebration of that fact. I can’t ever dismiss or somehow criticize the fact that a free and democratic nation makes its political decisions on what they will do in these coalition environments because that’s the very nature of governance and use of military force that I celebrate, that I fight for. So how we fight for things and whether we fight or not, are decisions that our nation makes and I’m good with any decision our nation makes. I have no choice and I think that everybody who contributes in this fight against ISIS would think the same way.

Although we absolutely want an effect, the mix from nations in how you achieve that effect will likely change over time. I think we have to expect that it will change over time. Not only will there be potential political pulls somewhere else but there might be another crisis in the world—there will be—so you have to balance your use of force and where your priorities are. You have to remember that for a lot of nations, including Canada, there’s an element of discretion in what you contribute and for how long and to what degree, because we’re not all in and we can’t be. We can’t go all in on everything that happens around the world because then we have nothing left for everything else. I could take you around the world today, there are all sorts of challenges that we’re facing and we’ve got to be wise about where we assign our resources and to what effect. It is important that we realize that some things will take some time, and we have to be in it for the long haul.

If we kept tilting at windmills and going all in, we might run out of stamina. So I’m comfortable that we make wise decisions as a nation. My job is to provide advice to government privately, and then once I get my orders, do what I’ve got to do. I’m comfortable with that, very comfortable with that.


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Adam Day

 LM: So then, speaking of tilting at windmills, what’s your appraisal of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his expansionism? Is it over or is he going to keep pushing?

Vance: I think he’s going to keep pushing. I think the resurgence of a belligerent Russia that is using other than recognized international norms to achieve political objectives is worrying. I think that this will be an effort that will go on for some time. I believe that. I can’t predict, nor can anybody predict, where it goes from here. Or whether or not the multiple efforts, be they sanctions or demonstration of resolve by NATO or anything else, will work to change his behaviour. I hope it doesn’t take much more to change his behaviour, but hope is not a method. We have to wait and see but I think I certainly have to operate from the perspective that it’s unlikely to change any time soon. I am concerned that Russia’s employment of military force as a lever or as a buttress stays short of declared hostilities. That’s not a good world to be living in. That’s not a world that we in Canada would espouse. That’s not how you’re supposed to act and so I absolutely think it’s important to demonstrate our willingness to support the NATO posture, which we do. Our willingness to be strong in the face of bullying or belligerence, and then deal with crises to the best of our abilities.

LM: It is an interesting scenario, that the hybrid warfare that Russia has developed presents problems for NATO allies like Estonia. As we look at that country now, is it under attack now by Russia? How can you tell? When do you know? And then what do you do?

Vance: That’s a good point because when does war start? If you start it in space or in cyberspace or in some plausibly deniable act, is that the beginning? And what do you do? We in the military profession certainly think about what advice to give to government. Where do you fight? When do you fight? Why do you fight? What do you think the ends might be as a result of that fighting or conflict? How do you deter in a world where some people cannot be deterred? Or they don’t appear to be able to be deterred. I think we’re still learning. We’re not in a stasis. It’s a very dynamic, fluid world where malign actors like Russia teach you as you watch them. I would like to be in a position where we have a kind of global ability to stop this, but we don’t. We never have, so I just can’t wish problems away. We deal with it in a very practical, pragmatic way and I think that’s what we’re doing right now across the board and I think Canada is very good at it. I think Canada has a very common-sense approach. We are a nation that contributes expert tactical forces to wider coalition or alliance objectives. We are involved in command and control leadership. Our real export is these fantastic tactical elements that go out there and do good. And where we choose to put them and how long we choose to employ them, and for what purposes, those are government decisions. But ultimately we came to help and I think that’s a pretty practical, pragmatic way of looking at things.

LM: Okay, last question on the current threat environment. Which of the two, ISIS or Russia, do you think presents the greatest threat to Canadian national security?

Vance: I’ve been asked this question before and I’ll give you the same answer. I think both are fighting for the bottom in terms of the respect I’d give them in how they’re acting. It’s not easy or essential for me to prioritize one or the other. I know others have. I don’t really see a need to. Right now I’m in an open fight with ISIS. Canada is. We’re shooting at them, so by the fact that we’re in a hot conflict with ISIS, I give them the pride of being first on my list of people I don’t like. Russia’s a close second because Russia represents a big strategic threat in terms of strategic actor, nuclear arms state thwarting not only international norms but common decency in how they’re acting and it bodes poorly for the future in terms of where Russia could go. They’re behaviour is bad, not just in eastern Europe. Their behaviour is bad elsewhere, too. And so which one is worse doesn’t really matter to me. I’m assigning forces as I’m told to assign forces and on any given day depending on what they do, they might rise up on my Richter scale. But Russia’s doing a lot of stuff covertly that indicates they are a malign actor as well, and I suspect if their behaviour doesn’t change, they will provide a long-term strategic problem.

I’ve got to tell you, ISIS is like a call to arms for those who are disaffected around the world. And they are able to be convinced to do atrocious things. I don’t think that phenomenon is going to go away easily either.

LM: These are huge issues and I’m unsure they get enough attention or focus. Do you think Canadians know enough about these conflicts, considering we are in one hot war and one cold war right now? It’s a pretty unprecedented situation.

Vance: My sense is Canadians are tuned into it. On the Iraq conflict, we have been as transparent, more transparent, than we have ever been. Every shot we take is reported. We don’t necessarily give you the photo ops. We’re stating the facts. I’ve done the technical briefings and I certainly sponsor the wider effort to report on this. Try to find a time in history when we’ve been so open about every single weapon that’s been used. That’s unprecedented, too. There’s nothing that’s being not reported, so I think Canadians understand that ISIS is bad. I think with the events of last fall, losing Warrant Officer Vincent and Corporal Cirillo, brought home the fact that people can be killed here by terrorist acts, and it’s not a simple thing to contain it, and it’s dangerous. I think Canadians are absolutely aware of that and I think Canadians, generally speaking, are comfortable with the idea that one ought to not change borders with force. I think that is pretty much in Canadian values. And so here’s ISIS trying to do that. So I don’t think it takes a great deal of argumentation to convince people ISIS is bad. There is sinister activity there that concerns me a great deal and not only in terms of the techniques used but how it portends for the future. So I think Canadians would generally agree that both ISIS and Russia are bad actors and that how you hold them accountable is different. I think they understand that.

LM: Well, the allies’ stated mission is to degrade or destroy ISIS. Interviewing various people for articles on this, not very many people have a concrete sense of whether that mission is working or not.

Vance: I would agree with that.

LM: And I consider that to be unusual and problematic because it allows people to make uninformed decisions about what’s happening. So, is the mission working? How do we know?

Vance: Yeah, so again I go back to the challenge of modern conflict. We’re a coalition, of which Iraq is a part. Iraq is the principal beneficiary of coalition activity. People forget that, right? Iraq is part of the coalition. The technique we’ve chosen is degrade, stop and degrade ISIS, so that they can’t unseat the Iraqi government. We’re giving Iraq the time to create the rest of the force package necessary to change the equation. Now, here’s where it’s problematic. It’s very difficult to make firm estimates on when the Iraqi army will be victorious in clearing their borders. All we can say is it’s going to take time because there’s a whole bunch of factors at play here. The international community’s ability to train, the Iraqi army’s ability to absorb the training, the ongoing political challenges that affect things like motivation, scheduling or sequencing activities. What do you do first? What do you do second? Ultimately, the country needs to be cleared of a military threat. It won’t necessarily be cleared of the political threat and there will always be a little bit of that or a lot of that, I don’t know. So those mission statements are collective mission statements and until people realize that, internalize that, and know that you have thrown in your lot with others and that you sometimes have to go at the pace of the slowest part of the coalition. In this case, it’s building up the Iraqi capability. Nobody, no pundit or anybody, would argue against that. It is better that Iraq develops a cohesive national strategy that accounts for its minorities, tries to heal the rifts in that society, and works together to clear the nation. I would challenge anybody to say that’s not a good thing. But that is a process that could take a very long time. Just because it’s going to take time doesn’t mean it’s bad.

I go back to my point about Afghanistan: the other guy’s trying to win and he’s trying to do everything in his power to prevent us from being successful. It’s an active enemy. It’s an active, thinking enemy and so we can’t legislate success, we can’t just declare we’re going to be successful. You’ve got to earn it. Is it going to take a while? Absolutely. Is it hard to measure? Yes. Are we going to have ups and downs on the way? Yes. Could we fail? Yes, because the Iraqi government has to decide what success looks like. We have to be there with them, so it is not a simple thing of going from that side of the map to that side of the map, breaking everything on the way and declaring success on the day. It’s much more complex and that’s the world we’re in.


LM: Another change-up here: so, as you know, Legion Magazine primarily focuses on history, so our readers love to learn about things like the Korean War and the First and Second world wars, so I wonder if I could get you to reflect a little bit on your experience with Canadian military history. When you look back as somebody who has led a Canadian contingent during war, I’m sure you have an interesting perspective on things like generalship, the First World War or the Second World War or Korea. Can you give me some highlights of your appraisal of Canadian military history?

Vance: Well, I like to think, and perhaps sometimes I’m in denial, but I like to think that Canada as a country has some of the best raw material in its population for military action. And it seems, for a peaceable nation, we have this great raw material. We recruit from the best population base that one could have, which seems kind of odd maybe, but I’ve seen the results. I’ve seen what a Canadian soldier can do, can be a peacekeeper, peacemaker, peace enforcer and warrior and can do that all in the same day. Not everybody can do that. So I think my sense of the breadth of Canadian military history is that we train very well and we have great people to start with. But the thing that always comes back to me, always, is that be it the birth of our nation, back when we were fighting here in Canada, all the way through the Boer War and into the 20th-century wars, Korea, we have this amazing innovation that occurs at very low ranks in our armed forces. The best ideas always come somewhere between master corporal and major. I think that happened to us throughout the history of our fighting, where we’re really good at that tactical level because we’ve got really good tactical people. Sometimes we stand accused of not being militarily strategic or operationally astute, and we felt we were kind of behind the times when the advent of military academic thinking about the operational level of war and the strategic level of war. I think sometimes we felt like we were perhaps not quite in that same league of being able to fight at the operational level or strategic level. I don’t think that’s true anymore. I think we have fantastic tactical level ingenuity, be it developing better artillery systems in the First World War or our remarkable ability to patrol in Korea. We invented patrolling doctrine. We were extremely good at it.

And back to the Boer War, we functioned as part of a coalition and were able to integrate and fight effectively under incredibly harsh conditions. We’re good at that. Because we’re often a contributor of forces to larger enterprises, be they alliances or coalitions.

Which I think allows us to do another thing that is absolutely strong within our history. We bring the right force to the right war at the right time. I think that is a legacy. Some people will say that our legacy is peacekeeping. That’s hogwash. We brought expert peacekeeping to bear in a period of time that needed expert peacekeeping, but before that we brought expert warriors to bear in a time that needed war fighting.

I guess my point is that although some people like to stand on the sidelines and criticize militaries for fighting the last war, my sense is that’s not the case in Canada. My sense is that we try very hard to have relevant forces and relevant policies. Our challenge is not to hold on to them too long. That happens at all levels. There are people that hang onto the peacekeeping myth as being the only thing. That kind of peacekeeping was very important in that 30- to 35-year interregnum and we did it very well, but it’s not our legacy. We kind of invented it because I think we bring the right stuff to bear at the right time and we have done so over history. So taken all together, we’re very good at being in a conflict in the right way.


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