As organizations such as the United Nations and NATO examine their mandates and corporations such as Nortel revolve CEOs through their executive suite, transformation might seem an overused cliché.

But in the Canadian Forces, transformation will fundamentally change the way Canadian interests are defended, operations are conducted, and forces are generated and trained.

In many respects, transformation has been a gradual, largely unnoticed process as the CF shifted from a dangerous but predictable Cold War mentality to an environment where the enemy, as Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier notes, “does not have a postal code.” With each successive operation, from the Balkans to Somalia, Haiti, East Timor, Afghanistan, lessons have been learned.

On February 1, the CF stood up four new commands, a significant structural change and the culmination of a year’s analysis and planning. While the commands are only in their infancy, and subject to fine-tuning, they represent a distinct shift in focus.

“Our raison d’etre is to conduct operations and at times in the past our structures have not reflected that,” Hillier, the driving force behind much of change, told the Canadian Defence Associations conference in late February. “We want to maximize our impact, increase Canada’s profile and increase our effect in the world in a very real way, shaping the places where we go in accordance with our interests and our values. This is the guiding light of transformation – one effect.”

Transformation is based on what Hillier calls a “Canada First attitude,” and means that all components – army, navy, air force, special operations units, logistics support – are brought together as required by the mission and deployed under one command.

“No service can survive or even deploy by itself,” said Major-General Andrew Leslie, director general of strategic planning. “It’s all elements working together under a unified commander with the same intent, being able to interoperate and communicate with the same ethos.”

The anchor of the new structure is Canada Command (Canada COM), responsible for all domestic and continental operations. Canadian Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM) oversees international operations, and an expanded and integrated Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) will direct synchronized Special Forces. All operations, whether domestic or international, are supported by Canadian Operational Support Command (CANOSCOM), responsible for activating and sustaining theatres of operations.

“We’ve gone from a structure where we had a Deputy Chief of Defence Staff responsible for many different things to four operational commanders, and each of us is exclusively focused on operations, unencumbered by all of the other distractions and challenges associated with a national defence headquarters,” said Major-General Michel Gauthier, commander of CEFCOM.

“It’s not about separate land, air or sea components,” Hillier added. “A past silo approach sometimes did not appear on the radar scope internationally, and this piecemeal approach reduced our impact.”

In part, transformation is intended to recognize the transition from a force used predominantly for peacekeeping or other missions requested by others such as the UN or NATO to operations where Canadian objectives and the desired strategic effects are defined prior to deployment. “The traditional inter-positioning of troops between two belligerents who just need some help in implementing a peace accord is no more,” Hillier said. “Whether in Darfur, the Congo, Haiti or other UN missions, we are there to help people build their nation, and in the early going that means much help in the security sector.”

That means revising training methods. “We have to ensure we synchronize how we train our various components so that they are ready at the right time to be integrated into joint task forces,” said Major-General Walt Natynczyk, chief of transformation. “We have to bring them together in a joint training construct. We don’t do that now.”

The change also means a clear separation of strategic operations from policy and departmental planning, and provides commanders in the field with much greater authority to conduct missions as they feel necessary, albeit with greater accountability.

“Success in dealing with any operation, whether routine or emergency, terrorist attack or natural disaster, will be determined in that first 24 hours,” Hillier said. “The psychological impact that comes from perceived success or failure is substantial. All you have to do is recall Hurricane Katrina and what occurred in those first hours.”

Without new capabilities, however, he suggested transformation would be little more than a grand vision. The CDS wants clear priorities – such as airlift – articulated to politicians, an acquisition process that delivers what is need when it is need, and more money.

“Our challenge is on the dollar side,” he said. “We remain short about three-quarters of a billion dollars just to sustain the present CF.” With the Conservative government suggesting regular forces grow from 62,000 to 75,000 and reserves from 22,000 to 30,000, that task will only become more challenging.

With Canada’s largest operation since Korea underway in Afghanistan and the possibility of others looming on the horizon, transformation to an operations-focused force is quickly becoming an imperative.