CANSOF and the CF: A shared framework

Three themes are central to any discussion of special operating forces (CANSOF) within the Canadian military. First, CANSOF is and should be an embedded part of the Canadian Forces in its rules, structure and culture. Second, CANSOF is and should be part of the overall CF operational framework. Finally, CANSOF is a critical part of the ongoing evolution of the CF and the Department of National Defence to meet the ever-changing threats and demands of the future security environment.

It is a tired cliché to say that 9/11 changed the world and that the world will continue to change. We know we will be surprised. Forecasts are just that – forecasts. A recent analysis by an investment group concluded that there will be far more conflict in the near term regarding energy exploitation as well as tensions resulting from food and water shortages. Consequently, it is hard to ignore the likelihood that more conflict will mean a requirement for SOF capability to grow, not diminish.

I am a member of NATO’s Studies Support Group to advise on special operations forces. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral James G. Stavridis, has stated that unlike every other capability, nations have volunteered their SOF capability to missions and have not had to be cajoled to do so. Why is that?

In this construct, Canada Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) and the CF writ large must constantly challenge how it does its business and increasingly what that business actually is. There must not be a series of independent actors moving along tracks of their own making – we do not, nor will we likely, have the size. Nor does it make sense for parts of the CF to carve out independent operations. With the creation of CANSOFCOM, the CF recognized the need for a “one stop shop” that not only looked at asymmetrical threats within the classic defence realm, but also recognized that the classic defence realm was changing and changing rapidly.

Associated with that is an equally and closely associated change in the overall security and intelligence component, both internationally and domestically: look at the manifestation of the Toronto 18 and the damage and chaos that would have ensued if they had been successful.

The intelligence component is obviously critical – we need to know who are the good guys and bad guys. How best to achieve this demands continuous professional and academic debate and analysis. In the fall, SACEUR stood up NATO’s SOFCOM with three priorities: 1) SOF mobility, i.e., the air piece, 2) training/education i.e., the military assistance piece which is now fundamental to SOF operations, and 3) intelligence sharing amongst agencies both military and civilian – all easy to say, but exceptionally difficult to achieve, even within one nation, let alone an alliance of 28 independent nations. I think, however, that his direction is instructive in terms of what SOF ought to focus on in this day and age.

Embedded in the CF
It cannot be stressed enough how critical it is for SOF to be fully embedded in Canada’s military ethos and ethics, to follow the same rules and regulations as our regular conventional forces, including managing resources in terms of people, materiel, money and time, and to take an active role in the debates that help shape the overall CF construct.

CANSOFCOM does have unique skills and responsibilities. However, they ought not to be exclusive, but complementary to the overall CF capability. That has not always been the case, though in the last nine years we have seen a positive evolution in that regard. The relationships between the conventional and unconventional communities need to be very close; they need to recognize each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Having said that, much progress has been achieved.

Cultural values of an institution are force multipliers. Having a common CF view of what should or should not be, what is right or wrong, allows for a common code of conduct that reflects the ideals of both the CF and the nation. There should never be a separate code of conduct for unconventional forces. The same Canadian cultural values must, and do, exist for both conventional and special forces.

CF operational framework
In late 2001, Canada deployed a Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) capability into Afghanistan with a unique command and control (C2) architecture. We purposely designed two distinct task forces with two distinct C2 lines – the conventional forces and their supporting elements under the command of a one-star general co-located with CENTCOM in Tampa and our special forces group under the command of a three-star in Ottawa.

Why did we do that, given my previous statement about how close conventional forces need to be with special forces? At the time, we had to consider the post-Somalia era and the decision to disband the Airborne; in addition, we had not previously deployed JTF2 capability on SOF direct action/strategic reconnaissance missions. We could not fail. We were not certain the CF would ever recover should a crisis in confidence ensue with both the government and the Canadian people. It would not have been fair to place that kind of burden and responsibility on the shoulders of a one-star.

Part of that C2 architecture for our SOF contingent included a very specific targeting directive in which all SOF operations had visibility at my level and at the level of the Chief of the Defence Staff and the minister. Many decisions made by the CDS or me ensured our political authorities were kept informed.

We always recognized that as we gained operational experience and confidence, at both the operational and strategic levels, a maturing process would occur. Control at the strategic level would eventually be lessened and the commander in the field would be given more latitude than what was initially granted. This has obviously occurred with some of the principles of transformation. Today, the SOF component is combined with conventional forces under one theatre commander.

There is no doubt that SOF is a joint force enabler, but we were not yet ready in 2001 to let that happen. Since CANSOFCOM has stood up, one of its fundamental successes is to allow a special forces capability to be integrated into the operational construct of the entire CF. This provides all kinds of additional benefits – coherence and focus amongst all CF elements, standardization of practices such as targeting guidance, a more flexible C2 governance, and much more visibility of SOF capabilities to a much wider audience throughout the CF community.

The more decision makers – including commanders and their staffs in the field – understand SOF capabilities, the more effective the CF can be. The current C2 construct of SOF being in support of either Canada Command or Canadian Expeditionary Force Command or occasionally operating as an independent command provides a framework within the CF institution from which to choose the most effective construct and response to a crisis.

CANSOFCOM and its elements are a fully integrated and key part of the Canadian Forces; they answer to the same ethos, ethics, rules and regulations of the CF. The SOF capability in Canada is better understood by Canadian political authorities. It is recognized as a strategic asset because it can be deployed outside of the normal glare of publicity to achieve surprise against an adversary. And it is clearly a joint force enabler.

We have seen recent examples where SOF was selected as the force of first resort; if that philosophy or thrust continues, then who or what is the force of last resort that cannot fail? Can – or should – SOF be both?

Vice-Admiral (Ret’d) Greg Maddison is the first Honorary Commandant of Canadian Special Operation Forces Command. He served as Deputy Chief of Defence Staff when JTF2 was first deployed to Afghanistan. This article is adapted from a presentation to a Special Operations Forces symposium in December.

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