Out with the Gold, In with the Blue (and Pearl Grey)

ByD0sE8IUAA5Lv4Last Sunday, September 21, 2014, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) presented its newly designed rank insignia to the public. This took place during a ceremony honouring the 74th anniversary of the Battle of Britain at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.

These changes continue a trend that has been seen in the last couple of years. In August 2011 the Canadian Forces’ Air Command and Maritime Command were renamed the RCAF and Royal Canadian Navy respectively, reverting to the historical nomenclature used prior to the unification scheme which began in the late 1960s. More recently, the army’s officer rank insignia has been changed from a striped scheme to the pips and crowns scheme that the British Army has continued to use since the Second World War. It is similar to the rank insignia used by Canadian police forces, which have generally retained the insignia style of Great Britain. The Canadian Army uses a traditional regimental system which survived unification. In this system certain non-commissioned member (NCM) ranks have informally retained terms such as sapper and bombardier which depend upon branch of service. These have now been formally adopted. The army has also renamed much of its organization to include divisions rather than area commands, reflecting the army’s peak during the Second World War when the Canadian Army overseas fielded five divisions, a pair of independent armoured bridges, plus ancillary units. Most recently, the Canadian Forces have been re-branded the Canadian Armed Forces, emphasizing their fighting role.

There are a number of notable changes, as well as some notable non-changes when it comes to the RCAF rank style. Beginning with the latter, the RCAF – to my surprise – did not revert to the Royal Air Force (RAF) style officer rank structure. This structure utilizes ranks such as squadron leader, wing commander, and air marshal. Instead, the RCAF opted to retain its traditionally army rank style from second lieutenant up to general.

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I believed that the RAF style ranks would be adopted as this seemed to have been the trend the Canadian Armed Forces has been following recently, essentially returning to the “glory days” of the Canadian military in the wake of the Second World War when Canada fielded the third largest navy (after the US Navy and the Royal Navy) and the fourth largest air force (after the US Army Air Force, the RAF, and the Red Army Air Force) in the world.

The following is the official explanation (via RCAF Public Affairs) for retaining the RCAF officer rank nomenclature:

Even before unification, the air force rank structure was a topic for discussion. For instance, a 1965 report highlighted that by that stage in RCAF history, officers’ ranks no longer reflected their function; for instance, squadron leaders did not command squadrons and wing commanders did not command wings. In addition, there were advantages to adopting the Canadian Army rank structure as it was similar to the rank structures used by other NATO members, with whom the RCAF would be working on operations. The 1965 report recommended that RCAF rank insignia be retained but Canadian Army rank titles be adopted as “the best of both choices.”

Forty-nine years later, this is essentially the route that the 2014 changes to rank and insignia have taken.

I know there are many folks who will be disappointed that the RCAF did not adopt the pre-unification RCAF officer rank structure. I am not one of them. I think that this is a very fair explanation and agree with the idea that since the rank title is no longer married to the role it is best to avoid the confusion. In addition, the RCAF traces its lineage to the Royal Flying Corps of the First World War which, as a branch of the British Army, utilized army officer ranks. Furthermore, since unification in 1968 the air force has used army-style ranks. I believe that retaining this tradition – which has existed in Canada for a longer period than the RAF rank style – is a great idea.

That said, unification did not leave the RCAF with its original rank insignia, which consisted of stripes of varying shades of blue. Indeed, the Canada’s air force – and navy – wore green for a time. A more recent decision has the RCAF continuing to wear green flight suits (with the exception of 431 Air Demonstration Squadron – the Snowbirds – and Search and Rescue Technicians). This is a second notable non-change.

The new designs for RCAF officer rank insignia represent a change in colour only. In short, it’s out with the gold and in with the blue. At first I felt that gold braid looked better on the uniforms, but having looked at the images the RCAF has released for almost a week I now feel that the colour is already starting to grow on me.

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Perhaps the most significant change is the replacement of the single gold chevron for trained privates with a propeller. Additionally, the propeller is coloured pearl grey along with the rest of NCM rank insignia (which had also been gold), reflecting the pre-unification colour scheme. A private is now an aviator. This sounds a little funny since all aviators or pilots in the RCAF are officers. It is, however, gender neutral (i.e. not aircraftman, or aircraftwoman) and translates well into French (aviateur – which was used for aircraftman or aircraftwoman anyways). Thus it is probably a fair compromise.

These are some interesting changes that, after some reflection, I find myself generally on board with. However, it is frustrating that the Government of Canada under Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to place pomp and circumstance above items that really matter. Is this the right time to spend money on these changes when Canada’s military budget is being slashed to reach a deficit elimination goal? The military has just been withdrawn from Canada’s longest war and continues to be deployed in response to crises around the world – in Eastern Europe and Iraq for starters. Furthermore, the budget going towards commemoration of past conflicts – the First World War centenary and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War – seems to far outstrip that which is going to assist clients of Veterans Affairs Canada.

As a military historian who believes that it is important for Canadians to learn about Canada’s military past I find this situation rather difficult. Public commemoration often toes a fine line between an honest effort to educate and attempts to use knowledge of the past to political advantage. Ultimately, I do not know if this is the right time or the right budget for these changes. I do know that regardless of what they wear, members of the RCAF, and the remainder of the Canadian Armed Forces, will continue to serve their country with pride.

Sic Itur Ad Astra

There are a number of other relatively minor changes which I have not discussed here. See http://www.rcaf-arc.forces.gc.ca/en/article-template-standard.page?doc=new-insignia-for-the-royal-canadian-air-force/i0dsl28w for full details.

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