Tuesday, 23 July 2013

New/old insignia for the Canadian Army - what's the point?

Two years ago, the Conservative government restored the titles Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Air Force to mixed reaction.  In my opinion, bringing back those names made sense, as the titles are more meaningful than Maritime Force, Land Force and whatever it was they called the folks who flew aircraft.  And sensibly, the restoration of the names does not devolve the RNC, Army and RCAF back into the separate entities that they were before Unification - all three remain components of the Canadian Forces.  More recently, the RCN restored a nice distinction for officers' uniforms by reinstating the executive curl, a fancy loop in the officer's braid.  Looks dashing and gives the sailors a reason to feel important.

And now the changes are going to go even further - the government wants to restore pre-1968 Army rank insignia.  From 1968 to the present, all members of the Canadian Forces used the same system of rank insignia, regardless of whether they served on land, at sea or in the air.  But now the Government wants to go back to a system that last existed before most current members of the Army were even born.  I've not been able to find images of what the new/old insignia will look like, but according to the news report here

1.  Maple leaves are to be eradicated from officers' rank insignia.  Right now only generals are the only officers with maple leaves in their rank insignia (one for a brigadier, two for a major general, three for a lieutenant general and 4 for a full general).  It's a nice way to add a distinctly Canadian twist to the international tradition of giving generals a number of stars or pips - why not leave our Canadian generals a nice Canadian distinction in their insignia?
2.  Keeping uniform rank insignia across the three services allows instant recognition of who outranks whom.  The forces have been unified since 1968 - why complicate things further?
3.  Enlisted ranks are to be restored to pre-1968 titles and presumably insignia as well.  This seems to me to be a waste of time as well.  Let's keep the insignia as they are, with maple leaves above the hooks for sergeants and master corporals.
4.  The reports say the rank of private will be replaced with guardsman for Guards regiments, rifleman for rifle regiments, sapper for military engineers, trooper for armoured corps and on and on.  These titles are already in informal use, but for official purposes, they are all privates.  Why muck about with changing every soldier's file to show that he is a private when in one unit, but must change to being a rifleman if he changes to a rifle unit or a fusilier or whatever?  These distinct titles can and should be maintained as regimental or corps traditions, but there is no need to add an unnecessary administrative burden by making them formal ranks (really, they are more like appointments - see here for an explanation of the difference between ranks and appointments:  http://canadiansoldiers.com/ranks/rank.htm )
5.  One place where I would see a benefit to restoring an element of the pre-Unification ranks is with the ranks/appointments of Corporal and Master Corporal.  Master Corporals have only been around since 1968, as before then they were known as corporals, the first of the leadership ranks.  Apparently what happened was that privates who had achieved a certain level of technical skill were allowed to become corporals, which led to a need for a distinction between corporals with leadership positions, and corporals who were really more like technical specialists.  The leadership corporals became master corporals.  In my mind, only the soldiers with leadership roles should be called corporals; the other soldiers (privates with advanced skills) should be given another title.
6.  One final thought - in the olden days, there was a distinction between where commissioned officers, warrant officers and enlisted members wore their rank insignia (shoulder/cuff/upper sleeve).  With current operational uniforms, rank insignia is typically worn in the same location on the uniform - usually on a slip-on badge located above the soldier's sternum.  I can see immediately that is likely to be confusion between warrant officers and majors - in the old system, both of these soldiers' insignia consisted of a crown, but confusion was averted due to the placement of the insignia.  That will no longer be the case if both have to wear their crown insignia in the same location.

But then, as with every other decision made by the current government, they didn't ask my opinion.


  1. They haven't actually said that their changing the generals rank insignia, so far their only restoring the gorget patches.

    The rank insignia for army officers has never really been popular since their wearing what is universally considered navy insignia. Most other countries (Britain, Australia, Netherlands, India, Russia, etc) use some form of the old system, indeed a universally recognized one.

    As of now there are no changes to enlisted rank insignias, just the different corp names for privates which have always been used, it has just becomes official.

    The current rank of Corporal is essentially a giveaway, automatic promotion after 4 years service. Master Corporal was created because of the power vacuum the govt created in promoting soldiers to Corporal as a inducement to stay in the service after Unification in 68. The old system worked much better, every rank had a purpose, it was crafted over a century and it worked.

    No doubt there could be some problems (ie. WO vs Major) and while I'm no fan of the Conservatives, I do like the fact that their undoing some of the damage caused by the Trudeau era Unification fiasco. Other countries have integrated their military's without stripping them apart wholesale as the Liberals did in 68. This was partially an attempt to cleanse the forces of their Britishness and a lot was lost, although ironically the CF uniforms took on a more American look. No other country emulated the Canadian example of one service, one uniform, one rank system fits all.

    1. Sorry Anonymous, but it is false to claim that the British rank system is a universally recognized one.

      There has been plenty of comment suggesting the new rank system will be more recognizable and enhance inter-operability with allied nations. This is false. An internal Army communication (now posted on a few websites) goes so far as to state that “almost 100% of the armies” of the world use the stars and crowns system to denote rank. How does one refer to “almost 100% of the armies” of the world while excluding the USA, France, Portugal, Switzerland, Romania, Slovenia, and others that do not even use a pips system?

      It is true that many nations use three identical unembellished pips to denote the rank of Captain. Of course, there are also many nations that use three identical unembellished pips to denote other ranks including Lieutenant General, Division General, Colonel, Senior Lieutenant, Lieutenant and even Sergeant Major; and of those nations that use pips there are others that use four pips to denote the rank of Captain.

      Most pip using nations denote field grade ranks through the use of a different icon or embellishment. This “field grade pip” can be a crown, laurels, a gold braid, a flaming grenade, or some other symbol of national significance. Most pip using nations will denote the lowest field grade rank (major) with one of the junior officer pips and the field grade pip/embellishment. The British system is unique in using its field grade embellishment independently, and so the ranks of Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel and Brigadier would all appear to be one rank lower based on most other nations that define the mythical international standard. The British rank pattern is unique to the British system.

      Of course there are further deviations in how different nations denote rank. There are pip using countries that include a stylized icon/emblem with the junior officer ranks, making these appear field grade next to the majority of others. There are other pip using countries that do not add an additional icon/emblem to denote field grade but instead use differing styles (or colour) of pip.

      There is no international convention (written or otherwise) and customary practice as to how pips systems designate rank – certainly, amongst those nations that use stars and a national/other symbol to denote field grade officers, the British system follows a pattern of its own. Therefore, this return to pips does nothing to facilitate communication with NATO at large.

      As to your final thought, the Israeli Defence Force is a single service with common rank insignia for Army, Navy and Air force. The South Koreans also have common rank insignia for Army, Navy and Air force. Where these nations have been fighting for preparing to fight for national survival for more than the last half century, maybe there is something to this.

  2. Hi, Anonymous and thanks for the well informed and helpful commentary. I went on a hunt to see what the new insignia would look like, but was unable to find any images, so my comments are limited to the verbal description. I'm particularly curious about the gorget - does this mean that Canadian officers will wear a metal soup plate over their DEUs? I'm also hoping that they'll release images of the proposed insignia.

    1. William,
      The gorget patches would be the red tabs that British Colonels, Brigadiers and Generals wear.

    2. OK, thanks for the clarification.

  3. Every Canadian Soldier who I have spoken with has viewed the change of officer ranks negatively on a spectrum of disbelief that effort is being squandered up to resentment over “the powers” being so disconnected from what actually matters to serving personnel. The evidence (anecdotal as it may be) suggests the moral effect will be neutral at best but more likely it will be mildly negative on the whole. The change is unnecessary, unwanted, unhelpful, wasteful, and occasionally supported under an insulting message.

    The world over (universally within NATO but with some exceptions external to the alliance) military ranks are distinct to a nation and they often contain imagery and symbolism of national pride. Just as a flag is linked with the identity of its nation, so too is the rank insignia and uniform of the military. The current common rank insignia is uniquely Canadian and it incorporates elements from the former services.

    After nearly a half century of proud service, the current rank insignia is what current serving service personnel identify with. Referring to pips & crowns as our traditional rank is inaccurate – it is our historical rank, but our tradition has changed. Tradition is something that evolves, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, sometimes out of desire, and other times out of necessity. After two generations, the current tradition (the rank the Army now identifies with) is the current system of rank.

    This is an important reality that must be accepted over the argument that the move rights a wrong of unification because the move actually repeats the wrong. In 1968 the government reached into the Army and, against the desire of most members and the expressed wishes of Army leadership, the in-place symbols of identity/rank were thrown out the window and new ones imposed. Today the government is reaching into the Army and, against the desire of most members and Army leadership, the in-place symbols of identity/rank are again being thrown out the window and new ones imposed. If it was wrong in 1968, it is wrong today.

    Not only is the current rank now our tradition and change unwanted, the current rank insignia are more functional than the historical ranks. It facilitates communication across the environments because, even though service pers may not be able to name the rank, all CAF members can recognize the rank of any other CAF member. If you go into a coalition environment today, you will find a great mix of every nations’ army, navy, air force, marines and gendarmerie – the common CAF rank actually helps in this setting because our allies only have one rank system to learn. Amongst those nations that use a pips system for rank, there is no common convention for depicting all ranks and there are a substantial number of allies who do not use a pips rank system including USA, France, Romania, Bulgaria, Portugal, Slovenia. In the end, the only way we will ever see a rank that truly improves recognition in a coalition environment will be if we successfully lobby for pan-NATO Joint rank insignia ... that notion is probably several bridges too far. Sticking closer to home, we could preserve the enhanced ability to communicate across environments which is provided by our current rank system. Simplicity is a principle of war - design to the lowest common denominator and minimize potential points of failure. Leaving things as they are makes good military sense while the announced change does not.


    1. ...

      Because the change is unwanted and unhelpful, the waste going into this really stands out. The announcement is being described as one that will pay for itself, but this argument is arrived at by taking a convenient slice of the whole change and focusing on that to the exclusion of the whole announcement. Renaming the CA, RCN and RCAF has already cost over $1 million as reported in the press. How much more will this cost to implement? I am not convinced this will eventually pay for itself – instead of sewing a ribbon of rank onto just the officer uniforms, we will sew divisional patches on the sleeves of every member in the Army (and have tailors rotate these patches on any number of postings every summer). How much will it cost to embroider pips and crowns onto the dress shirt slip-ons as opposed to sewing on the strip of ribbon? How will costs compare to embroider the more intricate pips & crowns onto operational clothing slip-ons as opposed to embroidering the simple bars now? What is the cost of changing the Army command pin, and introducing new division flags? What is the cost if the public purse picks-up and maintains separate stocks of desired regimentally unique pips & crowns?

      Regardless, the biggest wastes in this whole thing is not money but effort. For all the staff effort that will go into this in Ottawa, a person (or persons) could probably have been found to instead push through a few minor equipment projects or help accelerate a major project to get soldiers operationally needed clothing or equipment. Or maybe this person could have updated some years out of date CFAOs on military careers and promotion (resulting in useful improvements to how personnel progress through the ranks). When a decision is made on the design of the new ranks, that is going to take-up the purchasing time of a item and supply managers working for soldier systems in ADM(Mat) – that means these people will be postponing the buying of potentially more relevant soldier kit. In all the time that the MND and his staff spent discussing, planning, and presenting the various little bits of these silly aesthetic identity changes – what files were marking time? Where is the solution to the housing problem in Cold Lake? Where is the solution to the families that have lost tens of thousands because the housing markets were less than favourable when the CAF ordered a move? How many expenditures requiring ministerial approval time expired?

      And if it wasn’t enough for this change to be unnecessary, unwanted, unhelpful, and wasteful – soldiers are treated with the additional (unintentional) slap in the face of being told this will restore lost pride. Lost Pride?! That very statement implies some lack or want of pride over the last decades. Go look an Afghan vet in the eyes and tell him “you guys lacked pride over there.” There was no shortage of pride amongst the guys fighting over there.

    2. Hi, MCG and thanks for this great comment. Touch a nerve? 8^) I don't think changing the rank insignia is really that big of a deal, more a nuisance than anything, but it is interesting that our 'pro-military' government is capable of imposing uniform changes and name changes, but still hasn't solved helicopter procurement (which has been ongoing through the Mulroney, Chretien and Martin goverments, so neither Grits nor Tories have fixed that on), and is still embroiled with the f-35 procurement.

      Ranks were clear enough for me when I was in the reserves. The silly brigade patches were just coming in - I remember eyes rolling at the idea of wearing the teddy bear patch, so I can imagine what they're thinking now about the division patches.

    3. Indeed it has touched a nerve. It is frustrating to see this march forward with so much speed and energy because it is sexy to a politically connected lobby that does not represent the soldiers. It is frustrating to see that same lobby ostentatiously bully dissention with the backwards notion that opposition to the change is failing to support the troops ... and conveniently overlooking the fact that the troops don't want the change.

      It is most frustrating to see the effort going into this while the boots on my feet are falling apart, and other soldiers cannot get combat uniforms that fit.

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  6. I see MCG has started evangelizing on private blogs after trying to sell his viewpoint on larger military sites like the British military collectors forum. He keeps presenting his comments as if they were indicative of some mass consensus on the part of Canadian Forces soldiers across the country, but they simply aren't anything like that. I don't know why he keeps grinding his axe, but the soldier's I have talked to (which don't represent anything like a consensus either) are either indifferent, or supportive. The stars and crowns have always been in use on full dress and mess dress in many regiments, so currently we have two systems of rankings for officers - seems wasteful and confusing - and other organizations like EMS, police and RCMP across the country all use star and crown rank systems based on the system the Canadian Army previously used. There's no compelling reason *not* to use that system.

  7. Thanks for the comment, Mike. In the end, it's not like they asked my opinion on the matter (or anyone else's). Still, I wish they could have found room for maple leaf pips somewhere, and taken the time to dump the MCpl (which of all those "allied forces" has master corporals?).