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Canadian Special Operations Command: The Maturation of a National Capability

by D. Michael Day and Bernd Horn

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As the threats faced by Canadians, both at home and abroad, have increased dramatically over the last several years, so has the need for robust, agile, and responsive Canadian Special Operations Forces that provide the Government of Canada with the widest spectrum of possible options to combat these perils.1 While the future of the threats against Canada is unknown, what is certain is the need for the Canadian Forces (CF) to be prepared to face and successfully deter, disrupt, or defeat these threats when and where they arise. Successive analyses of the Future Security Environment have not always been wholly accurate, nor can they be expected to be, given the nature of terrorism in today’s world. What they have consistently identified, however, is the need for these threats to be met, but, further, that the threats will require high readiness forces capable of rapid adaption, surgically precise in their attainment of effects (kinetic or non-kinetic), and able to deploy and respond without emptying the coffers of the national treasury.

To this end, the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) was created in February 2006 to provide the necessary focus and oversight for all Canadian Special Operations Forces (CANSOF).2 This initiative has ensured that the Government of Canada (GoC) has had the best possible integrated, led, and trained special operations forces at its disposal.

The creation of an independent command is evidence of the continuing evolution and maturation of Canadian thought and governmental action with regard to national security. The existence of an independent CANSOFCOM, in reality, the de facto fourth service – much like those that exist in other advanced Western democracies – represents a necessary national evolution. After all, it ensures that a unity of thought exists within the Command on how SOF does what it needs to do, ensuring that all members of CANSOFCOM operate within a single conceptual operating space. The independent command also speaks to the need for a streamlined command and control process within the CF that allows for an agile, flexible responsiveness that promotes the “we will find a way” ethos among its members to provide the GoC with the resolution to problem sets that it requires.3 In addition, the independent command allows for a tailored, robust, and mature governance process that guarantees that the requisite administrative, doctrinal, and support concepts, processes, and oversight are in place.

Current Operating Environment

Most would agree that Canada and its allies must be prepared to address all threats to their national and collective interests. Globally, we will remain locked in persistent conflict against forces intent upon destabilizing the world for the foreseeable future. As such, we will continue to face well-financed, networked, and technologically ‘savvy’ and empowered adversaries, who use asymmetric and ever-changing tactics at home and abroad. The environment can perhaps be best described by the concept of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Asymmetry). Those individuals and forces that oppose us will continue to adapt, change, and pursue unconventional and innovative tactics that they believe will allow them to achieve their aims, which normally entail catastrophic loss of life and massive destruction to physical and/or economic infrastructure.

To effectively counter these threats, it is not enough to simply be able to react. CANSOF must be able to deter, pre-empt, disrupt, and destroy adversaries that would do harm to Canadians or our allies. Therefore, CANSOFCOM must, and does, continue to evolve and transform and develop those organizations, capabilities, and processes that will allow it to retain an advantage over those who seek to impose their will upon Canada or its allies.

Importantly, CANSOF must be positioned to perform demanding and specialized tasks in hostile, denied, and politically sensitive areas – alone or in conjunction with other government departments or its allies. The logical deduction is that in addition to the provision of operators who are able to excel in such situations, the command itself must be structured and strategically positioned to enable its freedom of movement across the Force Development, Generation, and Employment domains.




The SOF Factor

The effectiveness and success of SOF are not exclusively contingent upon the special equipment, ‘cutting edge’ technology, or even the special training of SOF personnel. The key factor to SOF success is its people. CANSOF, like its international brethren, equip the operator rather than man the equipment. When all costs are rolled up, the result is a very cost-effective solution for the modern military of tomorrow.

The individuals who are attracted to SOF – those who volunteer and who are ultimately chosen to serve in SOF as a result of highly refined selection procedures and standards – are what provide the SOF edge. That is the key element for mission success. In the end, to achieve the SOF edge that provides the catalyst for success, SOF organizations seek individuals who are:

  1. Risk accepting – Individuals who are not reckless, but rather carefully consider all options and consequences and balance the risk of acting versus the failure to act. They possess the moral courage to make decisions and take action within the commander’s intent and their legal and moral parameters of action to achieve mission success.
  2. Creative – Individuals who are capable of assessing a situation and deriving innovative solutions, kinetic or non-kinetic, to best resolve a particular circumstance.  In essence, they have the intellectual and experiential ability to immediately change the combat process.
  3. Agile Thinkers – Individuals who are able to transition between tasks quickly and effortlessly. They can perform multiple tasks at the same time, in the same place, with the same forces. They can seamlessly transition from kinetic to non-kinetic, or vice versa, employing the entire spectrum of military, political, social, and economic solutions to complex problems to achieve the desired outcomes. They can react quickly to rapidly changing situations and transition between widely different activities and ensure they position themselves to exploit fleeting opportunities. Moreover, they can work effectively within rules of engagement (ROE) in volatile, ambiguous, and complex threat environments, and use the appropriate levels of force.
  4. Adaptive – Individuals who respond effectively to changing situations and tasks as they arise. They do not fear the unknown, and embrace change as an inherent and important, dynamic element in the evolution of organizations, warfare, and society.
  5. Self-Reliant – Individuals who exercise professional military judgment and disciplined initiative to achieve the commander’s intent without the necessity of constant supervision, support, or encouragement. They accept that neither rank nor appointment solely define responsibility for mission success. They function cohesively as part of a team, but also perform superbly as individuals. They continue to carry on with a task until impossible to do so. They take control of their own professional development, personal affairs, and destiny, and strive to become the best possible military professional achievable. They demonstrate constant dedication, initiative, and discipline, and maintain the highest standards of personal conduct. They understand that they are responsible and accountable for their actions at all times, and must always make the correct moral decisions, regardless of situations or circumstances.
  6. Eager for Challenge – Individuals who have an unconquerable desire to fight and win. They have an unflinching acceptance of risk, and a mindset that accepts that no challenge is too great. They are tenacious, unyielding, and unremitting in the pursuit of mission success.
  7. Naturally Orientated to the Pursuit of Excellence – Individuals who consistently demonstrate an uncompromising, persistent effort to excel at absolutely everything they do. Their driving focus is to attain the highest standards of personal, professional, and technical expertise, competence, and integrity. They have an unremitting emphasis upon continually adapting, innovating, and learning to achieve the highest possible standards of personal, tactical, and operational proficiency and effectiveness.
  8. Relentless in their pursuit of Mission Success – Individuals who embody a belief that first and foremost is service to country before self. They have an unwavering dedication to mission success, and an acceptance of hardship and sacrifice. They strive to achieve mission success at all costs, yet within full compliance of legal mandates, civil law, and the law of armed conflict.
  9. Culturally Attuned – Individuals who are warrior/diplomats, who are comfortable fighting, but equally skilled at finding non-kinetic solutions to problems. They are capable of operating individually, in small teams or larger organizations integrally, or with allies and coalition partners. They are also comfortable and adept at dealing with civilians, other government departments (OGDs), and international organizations, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They are culturally attuned and understand that it is important to ‘see reality’ through the eyes of another culture. They understand that it is not the message that was intended that is important, but rather, the message that was received that matters. They strive to be empathetic, understanding, and respectful at all times when dealing with others. They comprehend that respect and understanding build trust, credibility, and mission success.
SOF soldier


SOF Capabilities

SOF are a strategic asset that provides governments with a wide range of kinetic and non-kinetic options to pre-empt, disrupt, react to, or shape strategic or operational effects domestically or abroad.4 Key to the effective employment of the full spectrum of SOF options is the early engagement of SOF by decision-makers so that SOF can advise, plan, and deploy in a timely manner. Quite simply, time equals enhanced options. As such, SOF are capable of providing the government:

  1. High readiness, low profile, task-tailored Special Operations Task Forces (SOTFs) that can be deployed rapidly over long distances, and provide tailored proportional responses to a myriad of different situations.
  2. Highly trained, technologically enabled forces that can gain access to hostile, denied, or politically sensitive areas.
  3. Discrete forces that can provide discriminate, surgically precise, kinetic and non-kinetic effects. 
  4. A deployed, capable, and internationally recognized force, yet with a generally lower profile and less intrusive presence than larger conventional forces.
  5. An economy of effort foreign policy implement that can be used to assist coalition and/or allied operations.
  6. A rapidly deployable force that can assess and survey potential crisis areas or hot spots to provide “ground truth” and situational awareness for governmental decision-makers.
  7. A highly trained, specialized force capable of providing a response to ambiguous, asymmetric, unconventional situations that fall outside the capabilities of law enforcement agencies (LEAs), conventional military forces, or OGDs.
  8. A force capable of operating globally in austere, harsh, and dangerous environments with limited support. SOF are largely self-contained, can communicate worldwide with organic equipment, and can provide limited medical support for themselves and those they support.
  9. A culturally attuned SOTF or teams that can act as a force multiplier through the ability to work closely with regional civilian and military authorities and organizations, as well as populations through Defence, Diplomacy, and Military Assistance (DDMA)/Security Force Assistance initiatives.
  10. A force capable of preparing and shaping environments or battle spaces (i.e. setting conditions to mitigate risk and facilitate successful introduction of follow-on forces).
  11. A force capable of fostering interagency and interdepartmental cooperation.

Operational Imperatives

The CANSOFCOM operational imperatives are the foundation of the ‘SOF edge.’ They are the basic operational tenets that Canadian special operations forces hold as fundamental to achieving mission success. Ultimately, it is the man, not the equipment or technology, that prevails and assures victory, particularly in the face of complexity, chaos, and confusion. It is the ascendancy of an indomitable warrior spirit that fuels the ‘SOF edge.’ The operational imperatives are:

  1. Relentless Task and Mission Focus – An unwavering commitment to mission success.
  2. Adherence to the Highest Uncompromising Standards – An unyielding and resolute personal commitment to achieve and maintain the highest standards of personal and organizational competence, tradecraft, and conduct.
  3. Flourishing in Conditions of Ambiguity and Chaos – An acceptance that operations will almost always be conducted in a context of potential, if not perpetual, ambiguity, chaos, and change.
  4. Interoperability – The realization that the battle space is complex, dynamic, and inter-connected by a myriad of organizations and capabilities that must be coordinated, fused, and integrated to achieve the best possible effect and mission success.
  5. Operations Security – The recognition that security is a fundamental prerequisite for SOF.
SOF soldiers


SOTF Concept

The successful conduct of special operations relies upon individual and small unit proficiency in a multitude of specialized, often non-conventional combat skills applied with adaptability, improvisation, innovation, and self-reliance. The small size, unique capabilities, and self-sufficiency (for short periods of time) of SOF operational elements provide Canada with agile, adaptive, appropriate, and rapid military responses.

However, although each of the units has its own integral command-and-control capability and a limited combat service support capacity to conduct independent operations within its respective task set, the true strength of CANSOFCOM lies in its focus upon the combined strength of its parts. CANSOFCOM utilizes an integrated operating concept that is based on SOTFs. The concept is predicated upon a broad spectrum of SOF capabilities, which, in the event of a deliberate deployment or crisis, are tailored and scaled into an integrated force package (i.e., Immediate Response (IR) CT Task Force (TF), CBRN TF, aviation TF) designed to meet the specific threat and to deliver a specific capability set. In essence, the SOTF is the vehicle through which CANSOF capabilities are delivered. The Command maintains a number of standing SOTFs that provide a framework for developing and maturing command-and-control relationships, training, and support concepts, as well as no-notice training exercises. The standing SOTFs also provide the GoC with a cohesive, integrated, and rapid response to anticipated threats, as well as the necessary framework to tailor to unexpected crises.

The CANSOFCOM SOTF concept is integrated in nature. It is capable of operating independently, or within a joint (i.e. navy, army, air force) or coalition construct, either domestically or abroad. Moreover, it is also linked into the whole-of-government approach to ensure that it is capable of operating with LEA or other government departments (i.e., CSIS, RCMP, Public Safety, DFAIT, Public Health Canada).

CANSOF – A Team Player

In the larger CF institutional context, CANSOFCOM contributes to the defence of Canada through its integral support to the six core Canada First Defence Strategy missions:

  1. Conduct daily domestic and continental operations, including in the Arctic and through NORAD. CANSOFCOM can deploy agile, tailored, rapidly deployable SOTFs able to provide a wide range of SOF operations capabilities, and to operate in an independent, joint, or integrated context in any environment, including urban, and harsh, remote locations.
  2. Support a major international event in Canada, such as the 2010 Olympics. CANSOFCOM offers the GoC and the CF a wide range of SOF capabilities that both support and enhance LEA and conventional military forces.
  3. Respond to a major terrorist attack. CANSOFCOM is the CF lead for counterterrorism response, both domestically and abroad.
  4. Support civilian authorities during a crisis in Canada such as a natural disaster. CANSOFCOM offers the GoC and the CF rapidly deployable self-contained SOTFs that have integral communications, as well as a high degree of mobility and medical support.
  5. Lead and/or conduct a major international operation for an extended period. CANSOFCOM is globally focused to help shape the operational environment to support and enhance the conventional military and campaign plan and the whole-of-government approach.
  6. Deploy forces in response to crises elsewhere in the world for a shorter period. CANSOFCOM is capable of rapidly deploying task-tailored SOTFs and / or small teams capable of fulfilling a wide range of SOF functions that allow the GoC accurate timely situational awareness, as well as the widest possible number of response options.

In line with the CDS’s vision of the CF as “…an integrated military force, built upon core service and formation competencies, achieving strategic effect with naval, air, land, and special operations forces supporting each other in operations while, along with our Defence Team support, forging relationships with, and working alongside, allies and government agencies/departments as well as non-governmental organizations,” CANSOFCOM will continue to evolve fully nested in the larger CF context.5 It will continue to provide the larger CF with the benefits of its efforts, whether they be the removal of enemy leadership, command and control nodes, or military capacity; the sharing of technologies, equipment, or enhancement of tactics, techniques, and procedures.


In the end, as the global security environment continues to grow in ambiguity, complexity, chaos, and uncertainty, so also will CANSOFCOM adapt and evolve to provide the government and the people of Canada with dedicated, highly trained and skilled special operations forces capable of providing the wide spectrum of special operations options to deter, disrupt, dislocate, and, when necessary, to destroy those that would do harm to Canadians, our allies and friends, or our national interests.

SOF soldier


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Brigadier-General D. Michael Day, OMM, CD, an experienced infantry officer, is currently Commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM).

Colonel Bernd Horn, OMM, MSM, CD, PhD, also an experienced infantry officer, is the former Deputy Commander of CANSOFCOM, and is currently Chief of Staff Strategic Training and Education Programs at the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston.


  1. Special Operation Forces are organizations containing specially selected personnel that are organized, equipped, and trained to conduct high-risk, high-value special operations to achieve military, political, economic, or informational objectives by using special and unique operational methodologies in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive areas to achieve desired tactical, operational and/or strategic effects in times of peace, conflict, or war. Special operations differ from conventional operations in the degree of physical and political risk, operational techniques, modes of employment, independence from friendly support, and dependence upon detailed operational intelligence.
  2. On 19 April 2005, the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) declared that he intended “…on bringing JTF 2, along with all the enablers that it would need, to conduct operations successfully into one organization with one commander.”  As a result, on 1 February 2006, as part of the CF’s transformation program CANSOFCOM was created with the purpose to force, develop, generate, and, where required, to employ and sustain SOTFs capable of achieving tactical, operational and strategic effects required by the GoC.
  3. Viam Inveniemus,” or the translated “We will find a way” is the official motto of CANSOFCOM
  4. ‘Non-Kinetic’ options refer to a wide range of skills and task sets that include provision of strategic advisory teams, security force assistance, information operations, psychological operations, and support to other military, paramilitary, or law enforcement agencies. Special operations differ from conventional operations in the degree of physical and political risk, operational techniques, modes of employment, independence from friendly support, and dependence upon detailed operational intelligence.
  5. CDS SITREP 01-08, 15 December 2008.  The CDS noted that “…special [operations] forces have evolved to work seamlessly with joint task forces and their allied counterparts.”

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