Probably one of the first questions you get asked in SOF whenever you tell someone your unit—especially if you’re in a non-U.S. SOF unit—is, “What do you do?” In the Canadian Special Operations Forces (CANSOF), that’s even one of the first questions you get asked from the regular forces, along with, “What’s the difference between Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) and the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR)?”

In this series, I’ll try to enlighten people a little bit. Nothing that would risk OPSEC obviously, but CANSOF tends to be especially shy, and it’s not always for the best. Without knowing what it is that the various units do, potential operators may either not make the choice to train and try out, or else will try out for the wrong unit based on bad information. While I used open source info as the basis for this article, I fleshed it out with a no-nonsense translation of what that information really means when you read between the lines.

Although they will never make the recruiting video, CANSOFCOM HQ plays an absolutely vital role in the success or failure of the various units. CANSOFCOM is an odd anomaly in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Not quite on equal terms to the other services, they’re commanded by a “one-star” (currently Brig. Gen. Mike Rouleau), while the other services are commanded by a “four-star” lieutenant general or vice admiral. Despite the disparity in command rank and resources, CANSOF punches far above their weight level, and this is due to their operational tasks:

  • Provide advice on special operations to the chief of the defence staff and other CAF operational commanders. Commander CANSOF reports directly to the chief of defence staff (CDS), and is at the table with the other service chiefs reporting to the prime minister when required.
  • Generate deployable, high-readiness special operations forces (SOF) capable of deploying as part of a broader CAF operation, or independently. Unlike the other services, CANSOF both force generates and force employs. The other services are only responsible for force generation; operational command is handed over to Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC).
  • Conduct and command SOF operations on behalf of the CDS. CANSOF commands and deploys special operations task forces (SOTFs) ranging in size from two-man liaison teams to six-man strike detachments, to large task forces with integral aviation assets, liaison teams, and ground forces. There are always multiple operations of varying sizes being conducted around the globe, and they are all commanded through CANSOF HQ. Despite this, CANSOF really preserves the flattened command structure that is the hallmark of SOF, and it is the usual practice for the Special Forces team leader (SF TL) to have a regular call with CANSOF command, being able to transmit his issues directly and unfiltered to the commander. It should be noted that SF team leaders on some of the smaller missions are detachment commanders at the rank of sergeant (E4), and they backbrief their mission directly, often in person, to the commander in Ottawa.
  • Continuously develop SOF capabilities and tactics. CANSOF has its own force development (FD) cell that is continuously engaged with the units, industry, and allies to stay at the cutting edge of technology. CANSOF also has its own professional development center, producing case studies, recording the history of the command, and passing on lessons learned. Its biggest event is jointly hosting the annual SOF Symposium with the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) in Tampa, Florida.
  • Maintain and promote relationships with Canadian security partners and allied special operations forces. CANSOF has liaison elements with allied SOF HQs from USSOCOM to NATO SOF HQ, to individual allied SOF units. Again, in line with the flattened SOF command structure, these liaison elements are made directly available to SF teams and SOTFs deployed abroad. They are invaluable, as they are able to leverage their networks and relationships to solve problems for operators on the ground, as well as feed valuable intelligence and assessments from CANSOF’s deployed elements to our allies.

Although there is no physical selection process for HQ personnel, virtually all are posted there only after a file review, recommendation, and interview. The HQ is small, the work is intense, and the responsibilities are massive. Like all CANSOF elements, personnel have to be flexible and self-motivated. A touch of charisma and emotional intelligence also goes a long way to being successful. Desk officers for the regions are jointly responsible with unit planning personnel for long-term mission planning, and must have a good understanding of individual SF team needs and requirements, and then leverage their charms and networks amongst allies and partner nations to ensure the mission is set up and supported for success. Unlike other HQs, CANSOF is about product, not process, and the bureaucratic burden must be largely handled by the HQ so the teams can focus on their mission.

Canadian Special Forces 101: CANSOFCOM

It’s not glamorous, and you’ll never see a desk officer typing away on his computer or chatting on the phone in a recruiting video, but make no mistake, their role is essential and the guys on the ground notice a big difference in their ability to get things done when they have a professional and engaged team working behind the scenes to make sure they meet up with the right people, their equipment gets shipped and sails through customs, and their return flights aren’t delayed leaving them stranded in yet another desert!

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