OTTAWA — The Royal Canadian Navy has started deploying less-experienced sailors on operations and eliminating certain positions altogether as it struggles with an unprecedented personnel shortage.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, navy commander Vice-Admiral Angus Topshee said about 17 per cent of navy positions are vacant. That equals about 1,400 sailors that the navy needs to reach its full complement.
“Describing the current crewing and staffing shortages with ‘crisis’ is probably the right word across the navy,” Topshee said. “We need more people. We need them as quickly as we can get them.”
The shortfall comes amid a recruiting crisis across the Canadian Armed Forces, with officials recently admitting that the number of applicants coming forward each month is about half what the military needs to meet its targets this year.
That is expected to compound the military’s current personnel shortage, with thousands of unfilled positions across the whole of the Armed Forces at a time when it is supposed to be growing to meet increased demands at home and abroad.
Yet while Topshee emphasized the importance of bringing in a new generation of sailors, there is a particularly difficult pinch when it comes to a shortage of more experienced personnel such as petty officers, lieutenant-commanders and commanders.
Such personnel not only fill key roles on board Canadian warships but are also critical for training new recruits.
“When you’re short teachers, what do you do? You increase class sizes,” Topshee said. “So we’ve increased class sizes. What does that do? It diminishes the quality of the education across the board. But we’re taking the risk.”
At the same time, Topshee said new sailors are being deployed on operations with less experience and training than would otherwise be ideal. The hope is that the added experience at sea will offset any deficiencies from their in-class education.
“The truth is that we’re putting more junior people into operations because we’ve been very robust and effective there,” said Topshee, who took over as navy commander in May.
“We’ve got very good command teams and we’re counting on the command teams to provide the experience and mentorship to guide more junior people.”
The navy’s crisis is very similar to the struggle that the Royal Canadian Air Force has faced in having enough experienced pilots to teach in the classroom and lead missions in the air.
It is also forcing the navy to take a closer look at how it treats Canada’s sailors, along with an overall assessment of which jobs are critical to its operations — and which could be eliminated.
Topshee recently announced that the navy was eliminating steward positions, whose primary roles included serving officers and providing logistical support on warships, and the commander indicated more such changes could be on the way.
“We’re looking at all of the occupations in the navy to say: ‘What does this look like?’” he said.
The navy is also looking at changing the way it assigns crews to ships to avoid burnout and additional stress, particularly when it comes to short-term deployments such as sea trials and tests that Topshee said are often very disruptive to sailors’ schedules.
The current shortfall also coincides with a marked effort by Armed Forces commanders — including Topshee — to change the military’s culture to make it more attractive as a workplace, in the hopes of increasing recruitment and retention rates.
The navy has struggled in recent months with several ship commanders being replaced, sometimes while at sea, due to investigations or complaints about their conduct.
While the navy has tried to better evaluate officers in terms of their conduct before assigning them to key leadership roles, “the unfortunate reality is no system is perfect,” Topshee said.
He nonetheless suggested that the spate of recent replacements was an indication of lower tolerance for inappropriate behaviour, a greater willingness to report such actions, and greater transparency.
“There was a case where I was on board a ship where the commanding officer … had been fired,” he said.
“But at the time, I was just like: ‘Oh OK, we're doing a change of command.’ So even on the ship, there were rumours that the CO wasn't doing so well. But we often wouldn't even say why something had changed.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2022.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press