Introduction | By Dr. Gaëlle Rivard Piché
Revealed to the public eye by the war in Afghanistan, modern Canadian Special Operations Forces (SOF) have generated much interest since the early 2000s. Like the rest of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), Canadian SOF now face a series of challenges that are forcing the organization to rethink its role, function, and priorities. First, the operating environment is rapidly changing. Strategic competition has replaced terrorism as the pacing challenge faced by Canada and its allies, and the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) is experiencing these changes at home and abroad. The dynamic threat environment is leading CANSOFCOM to reimagine its role at the intersection of defence and national security where its unique capabilities provide essential support to CAF as well as other government departments and agencies in the detection, deterrence, and defeat of asymmetric threats to Canada, while also working abroad alongside partner forces in the defence of Canadian interests.
In parallel, the sexual misconduct crisis affecting the CAF and the ensuing conversation about military culture has generated significant institutional stress of which CANSOFCOM is not immune. Moreover, the Canadian military continues to face a recruitment and retention problem. Pressure on morale and human resources coupled with a more demanding operating environment might force the CAF, and within it CANSOFCOM, to make difficult choices and bear additional risk in the defence of Canada’s strategic interests.
This issue of On Track explores certain themes that will be particularly important as CANSOFCOM moves toward 2030 and beyond: the evolving operating environment and within it, the growing importance of new domains of operations (information, space, cyber, etc.), the health and wellbeing of CANSOFCOM members, and the promotion of a positive and effective culture that enables the organization in its roles and functions while adequately supporting its people. The articles present the work of researchers who are not all subject matter experts on all things SOF, but whose research interests and expertise can bring important insight to CANSOFCOM. Rather than focusing on what SOF can teach researchers, the objective of this issue of OnTrack is to showcase research that can help Canadian SOF navigate the murky waters ahead.
Christian Breede and Kevin D. Stringer open the issue by discussing their recent research endeavour on the future of SOF in great power competition. Based on their conversations with SOF experts and practitioners held over their 10-episode podcast series Politics of SOF, Breede and Stringer highlight four main takeaways. First, narrative warfare is becoming increasingly important for SOF, a topic Bradley Sylvestre further addresses later in the issue. Second, SOF is much more than the proverbial direct action that came to defined Special Forces during the so-called War on Terror. Third, based on their interview with Erin Yantzi who also contributed to this issue, culture is essential to understanding SOF success and failures as well as required transformation and adaptation in a fast-changing operating environment. Finally, SOF is increasingly called to act as a multi-dimensional integrator in coordination with the rest of the CAF and with its security partners and allies, foreign and domestic.
In the next piece, Bradley Sylvestre offers a new typology to better understand the information environment and how to operate in it. While this topic is certainly not limited to Special Forces, it is particularly important for CANSOFCOM to master this new domain of operations that is becoming increasingly critical to the evolving operating environment. Without it, it is difficult to conceive how CANSOFCOM can operate effectively and fulfill its core strategic functions: sense, signal, and respond.
The remaining two articles reflect on issues related to what CANSOFCOM describes as its “most precious resource and its greatest strength” – its people. Meghan Fitzpatrick discusses the role and relevance of resilience in the training, selection, and management of SOF personnel in the context of ever growing demand for SOF in Canada. Erin Yantzi then reflects on the strengths and weaknesses of SOF culture which she characterizes as a double-edged sword. Drawing on the conclusions of research looking at other western SOF organizations, she not only explores the Canadian SOF culture, but also how it relates to the broader CAF community and political decision-makers.
Together, these pieces offer diverse perspectives and new avenues for reflection on some of the key challenges CANSOFCOM is bound to face in the coming decade. Hopefully, they contribute to ongoing conversations among the Canadian SOF community and inform the development of innovative solutions to ensure CANSOFCOM continues to excel and maintain its competitive advantage in a complex and demanding operating environment.
Dr. Gaëlle Rivard Piché is a strategic analyst with Defence Research and Development Canada. Embedded with the Canadian Armed Forces, she provides direct decision-making support through evidence-based research on a wide range of topics, including threat analysis, defence planning, and the Arctic. She is also a fellow with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute (CDAI) and the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) at Carleton University where she completed her Ph.D. in 2017. She was previously a Fulbright research fellow in the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (2014-2015) and the vice-chair of WIIS-Canada (2017-2020).
As a defence and international security expert, her research spans across a wide range of topics. She co-authored two books on Arctic defence and security: At the Gaps and Seams: Canadian Special Operations Forces in the Defence of North America (with Nancy Teeple) and The Newport Manual on Arctic Security (with Walter Berbrick and Michael Zimmerman), both to be published in 2022. She previously contributed to edited volumes on Canadian foreign policy and Latin American politics, authored policy reports on the legacy of post-conflict interventions, and published her doctoral research in scientific journals, including Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, International Journal, and Études internationales. Her latest research on China’s hostage diplomacy and its implications for middle powers was published in the Texas National Security Review in December 2021.
The views expressed in this issue of ON TRACK are the authors’ and do not represent DRDC, the Department of National Defence, the Canadian Armed Forces, or the Government of Canada.