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Views and Opinions

‘Back to the Future’: A New Golden Age for the Air Reserve?

by Allan English

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It was a great pleasure to attend Reserves Conference 2005, the Special Commission on the Restructuring of the Reserves Ten Years Later, held in Calgary during December 2005. I learned a great deal from the participants. However, when I was invited to attend this conference, I was somewhat surprised by its focus, as most of the proceedings seemed to be oriented towards a land force view of the reserves. This thrust was indicated by a number of things, including the title of the URL for the Internet link to the event: “Homeland Defence & Land Reserves,” as well as the scheduled panel discussion: “Air and Navy Reserve: Supporting or Equal?” As a former air force officer and the son of a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Auxiliary, it appeared to me that the air force was being marginalized. However, upon later reflection, I concluded that the air force probably deserved this marginalization.

After unification in 1968, the RCAF was the only one of the three services to lose all its professional military education institutions. The greatest loss was the RCAF Staff College, upon which the service depended to be the epicentre for doctrine and ideas with respect to the use of Canada’s military air assets. This loss had a particularly detrimental effect upon the development of Canadian air doctrine, and, in the 1970s, such doctrinal development degenerated into the views of separate air warfare communities cobbled together with little coherence or consistency.1 This loss is still felt today, epitomized by a September 2005 Canadian Forces College (CFC) curriculum note that stated: “As of this year, [the] CAS [Chief of the Air Staff] has discarded [the air force doctrinal publication] Out of the Sun as restrictive and inadequate. New doctrine is to be drafted in the coming years by the new Air Warfare Centre. In lieu of Canadian-sanctioned doctrine, CFC will rely on USAF and US DOD Joint Air doctrine.”2 It must seem strange indeed to the Chief of the Defence Staff, and to other senior army officers leading current transformation initiatives – who view doctrine as a central part of their culture and as the foundation for much of what they do – to be dealing with an organization (the air force) that professes no doctrine above the tactical level. 

With the publication of Strategic Vectors3 in 2004 and the inauguration of the Aerospace Warfare Centre, this situation will soon be rectified, but we must recognize that without doctrine to guide it over the past 37 years, Canada’s air forces, including the Air Reserve, have been somewhat adrift, if you will pardon the mixed metaphor. That is the bad news. The good news is that ‘starting from a clean sheet of paper,’ doctrinally speaking, the Canadian Air Force (CAF) and the Air Reserve can adopt bold new directions that will support and enhance Canadian Force (CF) transformation.

I would like to present one idea in keeping with this direction, based upon principles taken from the ‘golden age’ of the Air Reserves in the 1950s, that could provide new capabilities for the Air Reserve and complement the excellent work that its members are already doing. At the peak of its ‘golden age,’ the RCAF Auxiliary4 consisted of almost 6000 personnel, and its order of battle contained some 13 fighter or fighter/bomber squadrons, 14 aircraft control and warning (AC&W) squadrons, 16 auxiliary medical units, nine wing headquarters, and other units.5 During this period, which was early in the Cold War, the roles of the RCAF Auxiliary were mainly complementary to those of the Regular RCAF, as opposed to the supplementary roles that the Air Reserve assumes today in support of the air force. The RCAF Auxiliary was responsible for providing most of the front line air defence of Canada, consisting of fighter and mobile radar squadrons, while the Regular Force RCAF was relegated to mainly its pre-war duties of aerial photography, transportation, and training.

The factors that underpinned the success of the RCAF Auxiliary during its ‘golden age’ were: 

  • The realization that to raise such a force quickly, the air force had to match its needs with the skills and availability members of the civilian population; 

  • The realization that a vision and a plan to guide the creation of this force had to be created; and 

  • The will to implement the plan had to exist.

I submit that a similar opportunity, but in a different context, exists today for the Air Reserve, based upon similar factors. First, we know that so-called ‘knowledge workers’ are a key part of any profession, including the profession of arms. For example, a recent article on knowledge management, published in Bravo Defence, stated that:

EBO [Effects Based Operations] requires a broad-based, comprehensive, and systematic knowledge of the adversary, friendly forces and neutral parties. It must address the full range of a region’s political, military, economic, social, information and infrastructure systems.6

However, the range of skills required to acquire and manage this knowledge is considerable, and the CF already finds it difficult to recruit, to educate, and to retain such people.

Nonetheless, Canada has large numbers of civilian ‘knowledge workers,’ whose skills might be employed, on a part-time basis, by the Air Force Reserve. Imagine the air force creating Knowledge Creation and Management (KC&M)7 squadrons around the country, composed mainly of reservists, but including a leavening of Regular Force personnel. These squadrons could fulfil many functions, such as those required to support EBO in the example cited above, for providing strategic, economic, and political analysis, as well as social, cultural, and risk analysis. 

The jobs of those employed in these KC&M squadrons would be similar to their civilian jobs, and therefore, their training could be minimized. They could work from home or some other convenient location of their choice in a virtual environment, linked by the Internet, meeting face-to-face only on occasion, mainly for team building and social activities. This virtual work environment would mean that these squadrons would not need permanent infrastructure facilities requiring capital expenditure or overhead costs. Furthermore, members of the squadrons would not need to meet the same physical standards as other members of the Canadian Forces.8 Therefore, KC&M squadrons would not be required to deploy their members physically, but, in a manner similar to the old sedentary militia, they could be ‘based’ in a fixed geographical location. Nevertheless, employing methods such as ‘reach back’ and ‘reach forward,’ they would be able to support expeditionary operations in a virtual sense. KC&M squadrons therefore could offer services to any number of CF organizations. For example, they could provide strategic planning considerations and analysis to the CDS’s new Strategic Staff, or virtual support to Canada Command.

The type of individuals likely join a KC&M squadron would be those who were prepared to make a worthwhile contribution to the CF, based upon their expertise in their civilian job, but at minimum disruption to their lives. In most cases, money would not be the main motivator for them to join the reserves, but, as study after study of organizational behaviour has demonstrated, the most powerful motivator – doing challenging work as a member of a high performance team – would induce them to join. I suggest that the air force, whose culture is rooted in technology, would provide the best organizational culture within which these technologically-minded people could work.9

I further submit that this is idea is viable, based upon my experience with the Joint Reserve Command and Staff Course (JRCSC). Two things about JRCSC lead me to believe that ‘knowledge-based’ KC&M squadrons are possible: process and the personal qualities of the JRCSC staff and students. As for process, JRCSC is a 10-month course consisting of approximately 300 program hours. It has two residential terms: Term One, two days of personal contact and team building, and Term Four, two weeks of residential group study conducted in syndicate. Two-thirds of the course work is done at a distance via Internet in Terms Two and Three. Despite its challenges, this distance education methodology has worked very well. For example, the syndicate for which I provided academic assistance last year was spread across the globe. The syndicate ‘Directing Staff’ was a colonel in the Australian Army who deployed to East Timor for half the course, then returned to Australia for the second half. The syndicate was composed of students from Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and we worked successfully together as a staff-student team, only getting together for the first time during Term Four. 

In terms of personal qualities and qualifications, generally speaking, those of JRCSC students are excellent. They have many valuable civilian and military qualifications that lead me to believe the creation of KC&M squadrons would be feasible. Yet, many more people with these types of attributes and skills are not in the reserves, and I suggest that it would be of great benefit for the CF to tap into their capabilities to the fullest extent possible. This proposal is not without its challenges, but – like the RCAF Auxiliary in its golden era – with a sound plan and the will to execute, the obstacles to implementing it could be overcome.

In closing, I would like to make it clear that this model would complement, not replace, current Air Force Reserve roles. If adopted, this proposal has the potential to give the CF access to a previously untapped pool of highly skilled ‘knowledge workers,’ who would require minimum training and infrastructure, but who could make an important contribution to the Canadian Air Force and to the Canadian Forces of the future. 

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Doctor Al English, a former air navigator, teaches in the War Studies Program at the Royal Military College of Canada.


  1. Ken R. Pennie, “The Impact of Unification on the Air Force,” in William March and Robert Thompson, (eds.), The Evolution of Air Power in Canada, Vol. 1 (Winnipeg: Air Command History and Heritage, 1997), pp. 108-109.
  2. CFC, AMSC Schedule for 27 September 2005, “A/JC/CPT 404/LE-3, Nature of Air Operations,” accessed 15 October 2005.
  3. Department of National Defence, Strategic Vectors: The Air Force Transformation Vision (Ottawa: Director General Air Force Development, 2004), available at <http://www.airforce.forces.gc.ca/vision/strategic_e.asp>.
  4. In February 1946, the Cabinet approved a new peacetime structure for the RCAF, which was to be comprised of four components: a Regular Force, an Auxiliary, a Reserve, and a cadet organization. The Regular Force consisted of units manned by personnel engaged for full-time military service; the Auxiliary consisted of units with personnel engaged for part-time military service; while the Reserve was a pool of inactive personnel available for activation in the event of mobilization. Over time, all members of the Auxiliary and the Reserve became referred to collectively as ‘reservists.’ Department of National Defence, Air Reserve History, Post-Integration, <http://www.airforce.forces.ca/
    >, accessed 26 November 2005.
  5. R.P. Haskel, “The Rise and Fall of the RCAF Auxiliary,” unpublished RMC BMAS paper, pp. 38-9.
  6. Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Gibbons, “CF Experimentation Centre: Leads KM Multinational Project,” Bravo Defence, Vol. 5 (Summer 2005), p.17.
  7. I chose the designation KC&M deliberately to reflect the roots of some of the original air force knowledge managers – the AC&W squadrons.
  8. Another example recently published on the Canadian Forces College Spotlight on Military News and International Affairs web page highlighted a peanut allergy, where an individual might not be eligible for some types of service in the Canadian Forces, but where that person could serve in a KC & M squadron, Shi Davidi, “Pyear has High Hopes,” 2 December 2005, at <http://slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Football/NCAA/2005/
  9. The issue of differing environmental or ‘service’ cultures is discussed in detail in Allan English, Understanding Military Culture: A Canadian Perspective (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004).


Boeing photo – D4C-122059-l

The Boeing C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifter.