While Stephen Harper and his government are known for appearing in front of “Support Our Troops” signs and inflating Canada’s historical military record (like commercials celebrating beating up on America hundreds of years ago), it appears DND still can’t buy a decent pair of much needed combat boots for frontline Canadian soldiers.
In a move aimed at replacing the old pair one soldier aptly described as “clunkers,” the Canadian Forces began distributing new spiffy “Arid Region Combat Boots” in mid-2012. They cost the Canadian government a cool $3.1 million for 20,000 pairs of what ended up being partly defective boots. Recent reports by David Pugliese of Postmedia are even suggesting the boots suffered discoloration problems, and literally fell apart at the seams. The government returned 10,300 pairs of boots to the contractor for inspection and correction then continued reissuing the boots in May. This isn’t a new issue: Canadian troops have been hating the old one-type fits all army issued combat boot, for at least as many years as they’ve been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“No one likes the (new) boots. Everyone just rolls their eyes every time a high ranking member attempts to justify the quality of them,” says one Afghan vet still in the Forces who wished to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to speak with the media. “A clunker may work for the logistician, but may not be ideal for someone hunting insurgents.”
While quality footwear may not seem to be high on most people's "list of things to be upset about," in the military it's a different story. “Boots are a big fucking deal,” the soldier tells me. “The best soldiers, often athletes, hunt out superior footwear,” he says pointing out that the long marches, gun shooting, and general life risking, naturally requires a decent pair of kicks. According to him, most guys in his platoon (and most Afghan vets) usually end up buying their own boots with their own money, because they don’t trust the terrible Canadian ones.
The soldier also says the average fighter buys hundreds of dollars in extra equipment (including crucial stuff like better tactical-vests for carrying ammo) before tours, because the government issued gear is designed to suit the needs of the Canadian Forces as a whole and not those of a combat unit. “There is nothing more frustrating than some dinosaur asking why you're not wearing the boots the Queen provided,” he said referring to older members of the CF who didn’t believe in using gear not bequeathed by the crown.
Meanwhile in the US, American soldiers have the option to pick from a broad list of pre-approved footwear to find the right shoe. Technically, the new Canadian boot system will eventually allow soldiers to pick from three new boot types from the same company, once the latest models are fully cleared. But when that will actually happen is unclear.
Meanwhile, another Canadian Army Captain I spoke to says that might be a step in the right direction: “Footwear, especially when worn under physically extraneous conditions, is very personalized,” the captain says. “Some boots are better for some people. The concept of having a selection of three models is a huge step forward.” The captain adds that although he isn’t a “military fashionista,” style points for a better looking boot could pay dividends to a soldier’s confidence in the field.
Yet the issue with the new boots, fancy or not, goes deeper and sits at the core of Canada’s treatment of soldiers. For example, Canada purchased tactical vests, which store ammo, with four ammo pouches, that were perfect for peacekeeping tours in safer zones. But when it came to the running and gunning of Afghanistan, soldiers needed 10-12 mags a patrol. So troops bought their own tac-vests, lest they run out of ammo fighting a Talib, until Canada belatedly bought new ones. “There is a process to take a soldier's opinion into consideration,” one soldier says. “It is bullshit and takes too long. I think seven years after the initial release of our famous tactical vest they came up with a patchwork solution post combat mission for the guys doing mentorship for the Afghan National Army.”
According to him, the specialists in DND who decide on the purchases for soldiers, aren’t soldiers with experience but professional desk-jockies who throw money at problems, and not necessarily solutions: “Some individuals in DND have never had a real job outside of the military and seem to think the stuff that pays the bills and wins wars is monopoly money.”
Canada’s military procurement has been kindly described as “like a Monty Python movie,” because the government has a tendency to spend big, without any results. And the proof is in the graveyard of faulty projects: DND has been trying to buy Sea-King helicopters for the better part of Harper’s tenure as PM, while a protracted effort to buy the defective F-35 has been blasted as a vast piss-away of billions in taxpayer dollars. On top of that, the Harper government’s planned purchase of a much needed close combat vehicle once lauded to protect frontline soldiers from IED attacks, looks in serious doubt. When it comes to actually buying the things soldiers need, Harper’s DND has missed the mark.
Sadly, the Mickey Mouse procurement and shitty gear is considered status quo for Canada’s finest: “In order to recruit and retain the best, I would argue that it is in the military’s interest to start thinking more about morale, opinion, and personal wellbeing of its soldiers.” In other words, before Mr. Harper next considers sending troops to Haiti, Libya, or Afghanistan he should probably think about sorting out DND so they can buy them a decent pair of boots.
After all, as the soldier put it: “If we can risk our lives why can't we be given the responsibility to choose appropriate footwear?”
Follow Ben on Twitter @BMakuch
More on the Canadian military