Softer side of SOF in growing demand
The term “special operations forces” (SOF) tends to conjure up images of a SEAL team descending on a compound in Abbottabad. While covert kinetic operations will remain the raison d’etre of SOF, increasingly special forces are taking on a more visible training role.

From Afghanistan to Jamaica to Mali, members of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) have provided specific training to designated units, from basic soldiering in Mali to counter terrorism in Jamaica, to reconnaissance and SOF skills for commandos in the Afghan National Army. Afghan training has also included mentorship of SOF units.

The training is being delivered under a program called Defence, Diplomacy and Military Assistance (DDMA), an effort to counter instability and insurgency through capacity building of local security forces, explained BGen Denis Thompson, commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) at a recent SOF conference in Kingston.

It’s a tool the government may turn to more frequently has it seeks to build economic and security partnerships, especially in the western hemisphere, as it can produce significant impact for minimal investment.

While capacity building has a long tradition in the special forces community – known as Security Force Assistance or Foreign Internal Defence in the United States, the practice dates back to World War II – it carries both old and new challenges.

LCol John Vass, commander of CSOR, said recent missions have reinforced that DDMA requires a long-term commitment and puts a premium on cultural awareness and language capabilities. He also stressed the importance of “deploying teams that are JIMP aware,” that understand the construct of Joint, Interagency, Multinational and Public and the strategic implications that a tactical activity can have.

Though DDMA missions are often political decisions, a friend today could be a foe tomorrow, so “determining appropriate host nation partners and forces does matter,” Vass said. “You need to know the long-term plan for long-term training and who will take ownership of it.”

Anomaly, my Dear Watson?
When an IBM computer named Watson beat a couple of Jeopardy champions in February, it opened possibilities for more than just trivia buffs and artificial intelligence aficionados.

As Anand Paul, the global government industry research relationship manager for IBM Research’s Watson Labs, told a SecureTech audience in Ottawa this past fall, the victory demonstrated the ability of a machine to learn within a particular domain. “Watson can make the necessary connections between large sets of dynamic data,” he explained, and provide an answer that may not “be readily obvious.”

Paul suggested the Deep QA software behind Watson has the potential to help police forces and intelligence agencies with scare resources sift through streams of data – including the 140 million daily Tweets and other social media postings – to link what otherwise might appear to be disconnected pieces of information.

Among the more interested conference attendees was Vice Admiral Paul Maddison, Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy. He told delegates the Marine Security Operations Centres have been critical to Canada’s “federated, integrated domain awareness,” but key to that is the ability to identify anomalies among all the contacts at sea. “I can see applying Watson to maritime domain awareness,” he said.

A call to revisit the Reserves
“I cannot imagine moving into the future without strong Reserves,” Vice Admiral Bruce Donaldson, Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, told the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence in an appearance before it in October.

The committee would appear to have taken him at his word, issuing a report in December on the future role of Canada’s 27,000 primary Reserves that argues for considerable reinvestment in a force that has been widely deployed on operations and will likely see greater demand as conflicts consistently call for skill sets “that Reservists can bring much more easily to the battlefield than the traditional military.”

Donaldson describe a “conceptual framework” for the committee in which every Reservist would be expected to maintain a level of readiness to step up on short notice. In addition, some Reservists would need “to be at a higher level of readiness that can feed into a force package that is ready for deployment,” a model that he said the army was exploring.

Aware that defence budget cuts may cut into the Reserves, the committee suggested in its report that government not diminish the size or strength of the Primary Reserve, and in fact should “continue growing it in line with the Canada First Defence Strategy target.”

It proposed reducing the number of full-time Reservists to a baseline level and employing them “primarily in support of the Reserve structure,” but enhancing the number of training days and making Reserve pay “stable, predictable, non-discretionary and protected, with its own funding line.”

With so much change in the past five years, the report also suggested the government restate the roles and missions of the Primary Reserve and DND “identify the operational tasks and measurable readiness benchmarks required for the Reserve, both for deployment abroad and at home.” Among future Reserve tasks, the committee recommended the CF consider specialized roles such as cyber defence or anti-terrorism.

The report is available at

Caring for the casualties of operational stress
Canada may have drawn down its combat mission in Afghanistan but the effects of that mission will be felt for many years to come. Operational stress injuries do not necessarily disappear with time, Senator Romeo Dallaire told a conference hosted by the Canadian Institute on Military and Veteran Health Research in November.

A survivor of post-traumatic stress himself from his tour as commander of the UN mission in Rwanda, Dallaire noted that nine of his 12 Canadian officers on that mission “crashed from operational stress disorder” and one committed suicide. “We are still picking up casualties from the first Gulf War, the Balkans, and Somalia,” he observed.

If statistics hold true, more Canadian soldiers from the Afghanistan campaign may die from suicide than the 158 who died in theatre. “We need to crack the code that non-visual injuries are as significant as visual injuries,” Dallaire said.

Evidence of just how critical a problem the Canadian Forces now faces was on display in the findings of study released by Maj Paul Sedge at the conference. He found that 23.1 percent of 792 members of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment who fought in Afghanistan in 2007 had been diagnosed with mental health problems; one in five were diagnosed with PTSD.

Though much effort has been made to improve support for military personnel and their families, and to improve the care and support provided to veterans, the system needs a much better long-term care program for these types of injuries, Dallaire said.