By Sandrine Murray
When wildfires were ravaging record amounts of forest in B.C. this summer, the Canadian Armed Forces were there. They spent 10 weeks assisting the province in managing the situation through Operation LENTUS.
The Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC) directed the regional joint task force responsible, as it does for most of the Forces’ operations. It administers the day-to-day management of all kinds of missions for the Chief of Defence Staff, including domestic and global challenges, ensuring Canada’s goals are met. CJOC has six standing regional Joint Task Force Headquarters across Canada, as well as a network of units and task forces that are deployed abroad. Esprit de Corps’ Sandrine Murray recently sat down with CJOC Commander LGen Stephen Bowes to discuss the organization’s efforts, evolution and future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Esprit de Corps: Since you assumed command of CJOC, what have been your team’s main efforts?
LGen Bowes: I assumed command back in June of 2015, so it’s been two and half years now in this, and I’ve seen the evolutions go through. I’ve seen a government come into office and one of the first big tasks they had was what we called Operation PROVISION, which was to facilitate the movement of Syrian refugees into Canada. We played a role there, on the domestic side.
[Domestic operations are] rather routine for us, in a sense. What we’ve done in British Columbia this summer is not new — we were fighting fires in Fort McMurray and Saskatchewan the years before — and we also supported New Brunswick during the ice storm on the Acadian Peninsula. That’s a very normal set in the run of a year. We’re basically supporting other arms of government as the leads, in bringing the capabilities that we have —both in equipment, but more importantly in people — to those challenging circumstances.
When I look at the world, we break it down in three ways: Canada, North America and the periphery — the United States, Mexico and the countries of the Caribbean — and then we look at the broader set of the world. You can subdivide that in terms of Canadian priorities, but those are the three that allow us to understand what the world really is.
We have an air task force that’s in Romania; a maritime task force that’s in the waters off of Europe; and a land task force that’s in Latvia. That consumes quite a bit of our time, so our focus is managing that mission. We’re in the Middle East and of course the [Persian] Gulf region. And we support a wider set of smaller missions that are currently in support of the United Nations, but also in support of things like the Multinational Force & Observers [an independent international organization] in the Sinai. We’ve been there for quite some time; it’s a very successful peace support mission between Egypt and Israel.
We are also part of something called Operation PROTEUS, which is to support the United States in building up the capacity of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. We have people in Jerusalem, and across the West Bank, helping to build the capacity of the Palestinian security forces. So there’s a range of missions that are out there. And at the end of the day, the underlying theme in all of this is we focus on the management of the missions and their sustainment.
I divide my responsibilities. I also oversee a joint training program that helps bring all the domains of the Canadian Forces together. Every day I go to work, I am concerned about the Forces’ protection and the well-being of our people that are deployed wherever they’re at, be it Canada or abroad.
Esprit de Corps: Have things changed at all since you took command in 2015, in the structure of the command, in its mandate or goals?
LGen Bowes: The CJOC I took command of is the same basic organization that we have today. We perhaps adapt and change small positions based on the missions, but CJOC is a broader team. It’s a joint team that’s right across the country. We have a joint air component commander in Winnipeg; we have a maritime component commander in Halifax. That structure hasn’t changed. In terms of the cycle of the tasks, things ebb and flow.
You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I see more on the environmental side. I’ve certainly seen more active engagement by the military in support of other government departments and other branches of Canadian government writ large. I don’t expect that to change too much. There will always be fires and cycles, so we will continue to help Canadians in need as called upon by the appropriate provincial or federal authority. And the trends on the international stage have not changed in the last number of years. Our challenges are still the same. And that’s unlikely to change in the near term.
Esprit de Corps: What have been your main challenges in commanding CJOC?
LGen Bowes: We have a very small force, and we have proven ourselves time and again to the Canadian people and the Government of Canada by delivering operational excellence. And the reason I refer to the smallness of the force is that, well, people tend to identify ships, planes and armoured vehicles, but our most important resources are people. The most important capability they bring to the table is their intellect: It doesn’t know gender, race, creed, colour, or sexual orientation. As we go forward as an organization, it’s how we ensure that the right person with the right skillset is appropriately trained, has the intellect and is assigned to the task. We went through a period in the early part in this decade where our budgets shrunk dramatically. The force got smaller.
Now we’re in a period where we are trying to grow in response to Strong, Secure, Engaged — the defence policy of the Government of Canada. But at the same time, growing is a challenge. We are more active than we were three to four years ago. We have more people deployed on operations. When I come to work every morning and leave every day, I’m always thinking about our people.
Where is the CJOC headed in 2018?
LGen Bowes: I see a continued uptake in the tempo. By tempo, I am referring to our personnel, primarily. We stand by for orders from the government through the Chief of Defence on peace support operations, as an example. If that comes down the pipe, then we will launch out in whatever direction that is given. But based on where the world is at, based on what I’m seeing, in the broader Middle East region, in Europe, in Africa, and in terms of weather and environmental challenges, I think the tempo of Joint Operations is going to be higher in the years ahead. And therefore, we seek to set the conditions to sustain that.
My perspective in this job is a lot shorter in timeline than others. Our service chiefs and others take a look at the longer term, they acquire equipment based on a longer-term piece. I’m focused very near-end, very day-to-day. I still look ahead and I still participate in that dialogue, but the Chief of Defence Staff is looking to me and our team here in Joint Operations Command to have a focus on the day-to-day operations and the near-term challenges.
We think in terms of rotations of our forces overseas. With a previous rotation that may have come out from an operation, we go through a formal lessons learned process. We identify where we need to make changes, how we prepare the force, and what its structure should be. We manage the force that’s there in the moment, and then we look ahead to say, ‘here’s the things we need to do to enable the next team that goes in to have success.’ The clear message coming out of that is our focus is delivering excellence in operations. But excellence in operations is entirely dependent on your personnel.
And now for a few rapid-fire questions:
What is your favourite movie? The Hunt for Red October.
Your favourite travel location? Disney World. I last went there with my granddaughters.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be? Seeing the future.
Favourite sports team? Montreal Canadiens.
Favourite season? Fall.
Your favourite meal? I love food period. Steak … but Thai food would be up there.
Dogs or cats? Dogs.
If you could sit down with one historical figure, who would it be? People who found themselves at a key moment in time and changed the course of history … Abraham Lincoln, Churchill, Roosevelt.
When you were growing up, what did you want to be? I think I wanted to be an athlete. High school to me was football in the fall, hockey in the winter, and baseball in the spring.
You can listen to only one song the rest of your life. Which would it be? I can think of a couple of Beatles’ songs. Hey Jude has got to be up there.