Air force memo warns of risk to operations due to poor recruiting

Canadian military operations will suffer "devastating" effects if recruiting efforts for the Royal Canadian Air Force don't improve, a briefing note prepared for the commander of the air force warned last fall as Canada was marshalling forces to fight ISIS.

Briefing note sent as Canada ramped up anti-ISIS forces in Kuwait raised red flags

Aviation systems technicians remove the propeller of a CP-140 Aurora for maintenance during Operation Impact in Kuwait. The director of personnel strategy for the air force issued a warning last year about the pressures created by poor recruitment of technicians. (Combat Camera/DND)

Canadian military operations will suffer "devastating" effects if recruiting efforts for the Royal Canadian Air Force don't improve, the commander of the air force was warned in a briefing note last fall.

The blunt assessment from the director of the Air Personnel Strategy office, obtained by CBC News through access to information, came just as hundreds of military personnel were being deployed against ISIS in the Middle East.

The briefing note says key staffing targets were missed in the previous fiscal year — or met so late that members weren't able to get in on crucial training courses — and raises red flags for the 2014/15 fiscal year.

An aerospace telecommunication and information systems technician secures new cables to an antenna at Camp Patrice Vincent, Kuwait. This is one of the trades the air force flagged as going unfilled or filled too late for training purposes. (Combat Camera/DND)

The memo places the blame squarely on the Canadian Forces Recruiting Group, the department in charge of drawing people into the forces.

Promising to give the Air Force Commander the "ground truth" about the problem, the note says the recruiting group's inability to meet staffing targets "is having a devastating effect on the health of all occupations but in particular the Air Maintenance, ATIS and pilot occupations."

There are approximately 600 Canadian Forces members in Kuwait right now to support Canada's military operations against ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. Canada has six CF-18 fighter jets, one refueller and two surveillance planes operating in the region as part of a U.S.-led coalition.

The personnel in Kuwait supporting these missions include aircraft maintenance workers, logistics staff and of course the pilots themselves. In March, the government extended Canada's mission by a year to March 30, 2016. By that point, the military will have been deployed in Iraq for nearly a year and a half.

Technical positions going unfilled

The document reveals that many Aerospace Technology and Information Systems (ATIS) technician positions were going unfilled. Recruiters were only able to fill 47 of their 79 targeted positions, for a 59 per cent success rate in the 2013/14 year. These are the people who repair and maintain all types of air force telecommunications and information systems, such as satellite systems, switchboards and computer systems.

Two aviation systems technicians work on a CF-18 fighter jet at Camp Patrice Vincent in Kuwait. There are about 600 military personnel, including air force maintenance crews, based in Kuwait as part of Operation Impact. (Combat Camera/DND)

Recruiters were also unable to find qualified applicants for Avionics Systems Technician (AVS) positions — the people who maintain all of the electronic systems on aircraft. The document said that while recruiters hit 75 per cent of the target for the same year, most were recruited so late in the season they weren't able to take the crucial courses they need to do the job they were hired for.

Overall, the numbers were even worse, with total new recruits to the air force reaching only 54 per cent of what had been requested by the target date of September 2014.

According to the document, if the recruiting issues for the RCAF were to continue, the "situation will lead to a reduced ability to remain operationally responsive to the needs of Canada."

It also warns that during a time of tighter budgets across the Canadian military, recruiting levels and last-minute hires are actually jeopardizing the air force's ability to be fiscally responsible.

Recruiters meeting targets now

The warning seems to have had an effect. A Defence spokesman told CBC News the recruiting group managed to enroll 100 per cent of all needed ATIS and AVS technicians by the end of the 2014/15 fiscal year, adding the military is in the midst of building a new system aimed at modernizing and streamlining the recruiting process.

A CF-18 Fighter jet arrives at the Canadian Air Task Force Flight Operations Area in Kuwait last October. The military says recruiting targets were met last year, after a briefing note warned of serious lags in filling positions. (Combat Camera/DND)

"Overall, there has been significant progress in meeting RCAF recruiting targets, and the air force is able to mitigate the impact of shortfalls when they occur by making adjustments within the occupation management process," said Maj. Krzysztof Stachura, public affairs officer for the recruiting group, in an email.

But another military-wide trend is creating more concern.

While the Canadian Forces overall reached its objective of signing up 3,900 new soldiers last year, that was offset by more soldiers leaving than was expected.

In an email to commanders across the forces, Lt.-Gen. David Millar, the outgoing chief of military personnel, said "the overall result of intake versus outtake is minus-777 [people] for the FY [fiscal year] due to higher attrition than expected."

That means, despite making new hires, the Canadian Forces still shrank in the first half of 2014.

Millar expressed optimism that recruiters would be able to meet the military's goals by the end of the fiscal year, but warned that the bigger issue "is forecasting the impact of high attrition on our overall numbers from FY 2015/16 and beyond."