Special operators: Unique skill set in high demand
At a quiet ceremony in Ottawa in April, BGen Denis Thompson assumed command of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM), marking a return to the force he served in from 1992 to 1995. In the 16 years since, Thompson has held a variety of positions, including command of multiple missions in Bosnia, a secondment as a policy officer with Foreign Affairs, and commander of the multinational Joint Task Force Afghanistan in 2008. He spoke with Vanguard about the place of Special Operations Forces (CANSOF) in the Canadian Forces.
How has your background, especially your command experience in Afghanistan, shaped your perception of special forces?
Nineteen years ago I joined Joint Task Force 2 as a captain and served three years there before becoming a company commander. In operational missions, whether it was as a company or battalion or brigade commander, there was always a SOF element. Because we are a small armed forces and the SOF community is even smaller, wherever you go in various theatres you know these guys. I’ve never had any issues exchanging information with them or vice versa. During my last tour in Afghanistan, as is the case almost exclusively with SOF, they work for the in-theatre commander, so there wasn’t anything they did that I didn’t have to sign off on. As the deployed task force commander I was responsible for the actions of SOF and I had complete oversight. As a battalion commander I worked with a SOF presence at the G8 in Kananaskis, I exchanged information with them. So I have a fair degree of familiarity with them and I’m pretty comfortable coming into this job.
What does the future security environment suggest about the need for SOF capability?
We have a capability that is tuned for the world that we can see today and for the immediate future. There is a force development capability that is part of the CANSOF headquarters that works hand-in-hand with Chief of Force Development and others to think about those futures issues and to work through what future capabilities we might need to develop. You can’t predict the future, you can only respond with the tools that you have in the shop. Afghanistan is a pretty good example of the ultimate capacity of the Canadian Forces. We can meet that to everyone’s satisfaction at this point in time. If future conflicts demand more of Canada, it is not just CANSOF that we’ll need more of; it’s the entire Canadian Forces. At this point in time we don’t have any capability gaps that we are aware of. But as Rumsfeld said, beware of the unknown unknowns.
CANSOFCOM was stood up, however, to bring together resources to address a need and the Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) was created to fill gap at the time. Are there still pieces within the command that you’d like to have?
Any commander worth his salt is going to say he needs more. But this is not a resource-starved organization. It’s worth saying that. I guess the big question is do we have sufficient forces to maintain the operational tempo that is being demanded of us. The op tempo through the war in Afghanistan has been extremely heavy, and that is no different for CANSOF than for a battalion in the regular army. What we are building up is a sufficiently large CANSOF force to meet the expectations of the government over the long haul. CANSOF has been doing that successfully with its current level of resources but it would make easier in terms of personnel tempo if there were a few more folks on the team. I think that is really what drove the CSOR decision, and some of the unique capabilities that have stood up since like the Joint Incident Response Unit and the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) capabilities.
SOF is credited with offering a lighter, more cost effective footprint. How do you see this?
It’s an interesting question. SOF is one tool in the government’s toolbox. The price of each tool might be different, but so is the effect of each tool. As a guy who has commanded a full up task force, I can say that the SOF task force in Afghanistan couldn’t do what it is doing if somebody wasn’t holding the ground. You still need a conventional footprint in order to enable those SOF activities to take place. So viewing it as a money equation is the wrong way to look at it. It is a different tool and it comes with different costs.
We tend to think of SOF as the very sharp end of the kinetic stick, but in fact there is a broad range of non-kinetic activity. Are training missions such as the recent one in Senegal now common?
Training has caught our interest. It’s one that Canada has been engaged in for a long time. If you think of what is now called the Military Training and Cooperation Program, they have been engaged in 40-50 countries around the world in various low level training activities. One of those places is Jamaica. There is a big nexus for Canada in Jamaica so that is one of the areas where CANSOF has made a significant investment in terms of bringing up the capacity of the Jamaican defence forces. By all accounts it has been quite effective. A second area is in West Africa. A group from the Special Operations Regiment just returned from Exercise Flintlock in Senegal, where they went through a series of training iterations to build capacity there. We’re looking for opportunities of that ilk to expand our defence, diplomacy and military assistance program in lockstep with the rest of the department. It ties into the MTCP’s longer-range plan and is meant to complement it.
Where does SOF fit within the larger whole-of-government or comprehensive approach construct?
I would say that we are absolutely in lock step with it. We’re engaged with a number of government departments. Domestically, it tends to be the RCMP and, internationally, it tends to be Foreign Affairs. There are not many places I can think of where SOF doesn’t operate without interacting with other government departments by necessity. I think we are pretty comfortable with the concept and certainly, given my background, I’m comfortable making sure we stay on that glide path.
Does being both a supporting command (to either Canada Command or Expeditionary Force Command) and an independent command create any unique command and control challenges for CANSOFCOM?
I think that we are correctly structured to be able to do that. I am entirely comfortable working with General Lessard and General Semianiw, whom I have known my entire career. It’s a small army. So the personal relationships and trust that need to exist between commanders is there.
In an article in this issue, Admiral Maddison raises the question of SOF as the force of first or last resort. Can it be both?
Obviously there are cases where not only is SOF the first response, it is the only possible response. And there are other circumstances where it is indeed the very last tool you pull out of the toolbox. Without getting into discrete examples, to me it’s absolutely both.
We often hear about SOF in an international context, yet CANSOFCOM’s first priority is domestic. Are there other common misperceptions about what you do?
I’ve certainly been aware of [that misperception] since we stood up JTF2 19 years ago. CANSOF is unique in the sense that it brings a unique set of skills to the table. But it is not unique in its governance structure. It’s absolutely responsive to the government of Canada. And through the normal military chain of command, I answer directly to the Chief of the Defence Staff. There is nothing that CANSOF does that would violate the criminal code of Canada, that is outside the rule of law, the laws of armed conflict or the Geneva Convention. It is not a shadow operation; it is a full participant in CF operations and directed by the CDS himself.
You would dispute recent calls for greater oversight?
Perhaps there needs to be more done on public education, but the oversight pieces are certainly in place. Like any member of the Canadian Forces, we understand civil control of the military and respect it without question.
Do decision makers have an adequate understanding of SOF capabilities?
I think we do our best to educate our minister. I certainly recall briefing ministers many years ago. The big piece for us is the senior level bureaucrats in government that have a need to know this sort of thing and we tend to reach them through the National Security program at the CF College in Toronto, and there’s a shorter one in the spring where a whole host of them are invited and given exposure. In terms of our officers that may not get an opportunity to serve in CANSOF, they get exposure at the army staff college in Kingston, at the junior staff course in Toronto and then again at NSP, so we do our best to educate people about our capabilities, what it is and what it isn’t, and try and dispel a lot of those myths. That kind of outreach is already happening. The impact depends on the audience.
Would a bit more public visibility help you in the long run?
To be frank, it’s not about advertising. I don’t need to stump for resources. I think we are adequately resourced. I believe if we are going educate the Canadian public, it is because we have a duty to the Canadian public to tell them how their tax dollars are being spent to the degree that we can within operational security.
When we interviewed the first commander of CANSOFCOM in 2006, a medium- to heavy-lift helicopter was one item on his requirements list. Any requirements?
I had my visit with 427 (Special Operations Aviation Squadron) and we obviously discussed the aviation component, but no one has expressly stated to me that we are looking at another airframe. Again, we’re just another part of the CF so presumably we’ll have access to the Chinooks. With the mission profiles that we have today, we have the correct aviation assets.
You have a key role in CBRN; is there a future role in cyber?
CF Transformation is still ongoing but Colonel Loos has been promoted to BGen to head up the cyber task force. That’s not part of CANSOF. So at this point in time there is no move afoot to make cyber part of anything CANSOF does.
What has the “legalization” of the battlefield meant for SOF?
Thinking again of my experiences as a task force commander when I would be briefed on an operation for which they needed my sign off, there was always a legal component. That is certainly no different for SOF. We are accountable for all of our actions. If you think of the detainee file, the commander of Task Force Kandahar is personally liable if those prisoners are mistreated, so clearly you want to make sure that he is covered. I took that responsibility seriously, just as my predecessors and successors have. The public in western democracies demands a high standard of their soldiers so, to provide them with some legal advice, there are perhaps more lawyers than there once were. But I don’t see that as an impediment. In an odd sort of way, it is almost reassuring to have a legal opinion when you are executing some of these operations. I can’t think of an example where the insertion of a legal opinion slowed something down.
Is there a greater “evidentiary” requirement of SOF now?
Every detainee that is handed over to the Afghan authorities in Kandahar goes with a package of evidence. It is labelled and catalogued to our standards, and turned over with the idea that they will get a conviction with that evidence. That’s an important bit, because not only are we developing the Afghan army, we also have a remit to develop the rule of law pillar – police, courts and corrections. SOF needs to contribute to it by giving the cops the evidence they can use in the court to get the guy into the correction system. I don’t know if the evidentiary requirement has grown, but it is an important piece of what we do.
What is the SOF role within the larger intelligence community? Are you a user or a provider of intelligence? Or both?
Domestically we don’t have a huge intelligence-gathering requirement – we’re brought in [by other departments] as required. Anything internal to Canada becomes difficult. Internationally, if you look at the generic tasks of SOF, one of those is strategic reconnaissance, so there is certainly a use of CANSOF in an intelligence-gathering mode. But you have to differentiate between when are you gathering intelligence and when are you gathering evidence. The two are different in terms of the rigour that has to be applied. If you are going to use a piece of information as evidence, there are rules of evidence that need to be followed that aren’t necessary when you are just collecting intelligence.
At one point, recruitment challenges affected the CF as a whole. Are there any recruitment issues at this point for SOF?
There’s no shortage of volunteers and the bar is set pretty high. Since the start of the war in Afghanistan, the combat arms over-recruited. While we had a hard-pressed army at the front end of the war, fighting for resources and people, now at the back end we’re healthy in terms of numbers and CANSOF has grown substantially. We’re not seen as poaching from the army. Whatever animosity might have existed when we were expanding has long since passed. SOF is a natural place for people to gravitate toward. I wouldn’t characterize it as elite; it’s just different. It’s a unique tool and it takes a unique person to join. But we’re also sending folks back the other way to command or be sergeant majors of companies, battalions, brigades, etc.
Do special operators bring back unique skills to their original services? Do they change the dynamic?
Yes, I saw it myself as a battalion commander. Some of it is pretty self-evident: they raise the shooting skill level, people’s confidence in close-quarter combat, and they certainly can lift the training of the unit. Along those lines, fighting in built up areas, in complex terrain – these are skills they would typically bring back to the combat arms and it’s been much appreciated because it’s been used by the guys on the ground in Kandahar. Tactical planning is another area. It has certainly helped decision making at the platoon and section level in these environments. The conventional army is pretty good at it now, but in the early days they brought to the table the joint fires part of the package, bringing in the fires, the fast air, etc. But it hasn’t been a one-way street. The conventionally forces have brought the M777 howitzer to the fight and that’s been incorporated by our guys. The back and forth has proved beneficial for both sides.
An interview with BGen Denis Thompson.