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Problems in Canada Special Forces and What to Do About it?

There have been two recent articles here in Canada about Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) that identified issues within Canada’s special forces community.

The first addresses a number of HR issues within Joint Task Force 2 (JTF-2). These issues range from burnout to the mishandling of sexual violence allegations. The second article outlines what I would call the “poor cousin syndrome” that various units in the CANSOFCOM have toward JTF-2, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) tier-one fighting unit. In a nutshell, those not in JTF-2 have come to resent the special treatment this unit receives.

Without question, this is a problem. Foremost, the CAF is not so large that you can have infighting in its premiere fighting force and not have these maladies impact other parts of the Army. Second, if CANSOFCOM is the tip of the spear of the CAF, then Canada’s operational readiness is most certainly in peril.

Think of a situation where a hostile force invades a Canadian embassy and both JTF-2 and the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) have to work together to get to that country and resolve the situation, but these organizations, can’t or won’t get along. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

So what is to be done?

I have two recommendations:

1) CSOR Should Be Wound Down. The CAF is not large enough to support two special operation units even if they’re Tier-1 and Tier-2 organizations. There simply aren’t enough soldiers in the Canadian Army to feed into these two outfits.

Let’s assume JTF-2 is necessary. We need a Tier-1 organization, full stop. To be generous, there is something like 5,000 combat arms soldiers in the CAF. Of these soldiers, let’s assume that sixty percent of these are viable candidates for special operations. That’s 3,000 soldiers.

Now let’s assume that CSOR is approximately 500 operators. Doing the math, that means that one out of five or so soldiers in the CAF becomes a special forces operator (in CSOR).

This brings up two issues. First, how special can a unit be if your soldiers have a one in five chance of being in one of your premiere fighting units? Second, and perhaps more importantly, when pull your best, most highly motivated soldiers from your regular force units, your already small regular units suffer mightily from these soldiers’ absence.

Apart from these points, because of the size of Canada’s military and due to the inherent nature of Canada’s foreign policy, the idea that CSOR would be used in any type of small-to-medium scale special operations mission is vanishingly small.

By design, special operations soldiers are utilized in quick, low-intensity, high-value missions. If you look at the CAF’s current abilities to move soldiers, the idea that it could quickly move and set up a unit like CSOR for any operation makes their use unlikely.

And then there’s the idea that the Canadian government would actually choose to employ this unit. In one of the articles mentioned above, a CSOR soldier is quoted as indicating the government and CAF leadership seem to have an aversion to employing CSOR. Actual deployments are being left to JTF-2, which is in part, why there is growing resentment in CANSOFCOM toward JTF-2.

This begs the question.

If you can’t get CSOR where it needs to be quickly and you’re hesitant to use it, you have to ask yourself why is this unit operational?

An alternative to CSOR is to designate one or more of Canada’s regular infantry battalions as a rapid reaction force and have it train up to offer a similar level of service whenever it might be needed. Better yet, rotate the responsibility every 18 months or so between Canada’s three main infantry regiments.

2) Create a Civilian Oversight Committee for CANSOFCOM. Based on the reports mentioned above, it’s apparent that the CAF brass cannot be trusted to run an on-base canteen never mind a special operations organization. With so few soldiers to manage (we’re talking something like two thousand people) in CANSOFCOM and with loads of money, you would think keeping folks happy and playing nice together would be a straightforward endeavor, but clearly, it is not.

Here’s what’s happening. Special operations units, by their very definition, think they are special. Add to this that senior leaders across the CAF don’t come into contact with special operations units often so too often they defer to the “special” status of these soldiers. This combination leads poor outcomes – all of the time.

Think of the starting lineup of a football team on campus, the high-profile media executive, or the high-flying Bitcoin bro. Big and small, the examples run in the thousands across society. When people think they’re special and society defers or feeds into their real or fictional special status, you get problems. Big ones. In the special force community, see the recent well-documented example of the US Navy’s SEALS teams.

Here’s the solution: you need a group of people that is outside of this incestuous mess to keep an eye on things, and more importantly, to hold individual leaders accountable for their decisions. In my eyes, this means you have a panel of five to seven people who are non-military. These folks would be accomplished leaders in their own right who would be able to identify performance or cultural issues as they came up and most importantly provide recommendations, and if necessary, mandates, to correct whatever issues get flagged.

I’m sorry to say it, but when it comes to issues of accountability, the Canadian military – particularly its leadership – cannot be trusted. We need people who are outside of the community, people whose careers and/or friends are not baked into the system to oversee, guide, and if necessary, direct various actions and decisions to take place.

Importantly, civilian oversight of organizations like CANSOFCOM is not unprecedented in Canada. For decades, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (kinda sorta Canada’s version of the FBI and the CIA) and the Canadian Security Establishment (Canada’s equivalent of the National Security Agency) already have oversight by way of the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA).

Whether it’s a committee of parliamentarians or highly competent individuals that aren’t politicians (or both), the time has long passed for Canada’s special forces community to be better managed. The Minister of Defence – the person, who should be guiding and directing Canada’s special forces, is clearly unable to do the job sufficiently well. And this isn’t just a problem of the current government. It’s been happening for decades.

From a guy whose only expertise on Canada’s special operations units, is writing far-fetched fictional stories about Canada’s military, those are my thoughts on the recent troubles of Canada’s special ops community.

Have thoughts? Post them below or write to me directly.  

Published inCanadian Armed ForcesDefence PolicyOpinionUncategorized

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