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Last Updated: 05 May, 2016


1.0     Introduction

Canadian Special Operations Forces CommandThis article provides an overview of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM or CSOFC), a “fourth service” (Horn, 2012, p.48) of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

Like other nation’s Special Operations Forces (SOF), the number of CANSOFCOM personnel increased in 2015 as part of a planned expansion, whilst the number of CAF personnel decreased (Pugliese, 2016).

“In less than two decades, Canadian Special Operations Forces (CANSOF) grew from a 100-man hostage-rescue unit to a 2,500-person Command…” (Day, 2013, p.iii). In 2015, the Canadian Depart of National Defence (DND) suggested the number of Canadian SOF personnel had increased to 1,745 (Pugliese, 2016). However, when civilians, military police and legal staff are included, the current size (as of 2016) of the Ottawa-based CANSOFCOM and related units was approximately 2,200 (Pugliese, 2016).

CANSOFCOM consists of a headquarters (HQ) and Joint Task Force 2, the country’s main counter-terrorism and special operations unit, both located in Ottawa. Other units include the Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit (which deals with weapons of mass destruction and is located in Trenton), the Canadian Special Operations Regiment and an aviation squadron (both located in Petawana), and a training unit.

Part One of this article looks at women and the Canadian SOF, then discusses the difference between tier 1 and tier 2 forces and highlights the methods of entry. It then outlines the roles and tasks of Canadian SOF before finally providing a brief history on its origins.

Part Two looks at the organisation of CANSOFCOM, including political and military oversight. Part Two outlines the role of the Commander CANSOFOCM and identifies some key personalities, before moving on to outline the various SOF units and support units.

Finally, Part Three provides some useful links and identifies other articles the reader may find useful.

1.1     Aim

The aim of this article is to provide an overview of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command.

1.2     Women and Canadian Special Operations

Iraqi Freedom, Women, GenderApplications for special operations is open to both men and women, “no military occupation is off-limits to women. Submarines were the last all-male bastion and that restriction was dropped in 2001. Combat is open to both genders.” (Campion-Smith, 2016).

“Although no women have qualified as Special Operations Assaulters, one woman (out five) who completed the assessment and selection process but was not selected, later qualified as a Category B, Special Operations Support Personnel, specifically as a coxswain.” (Knarr et al., 2014, p.84).

“In 2006 the first enlisted female completed assessment, selection and qualification course and became a badged operator [within the Canadian Special Operations Regiment].” (Knarr et al., 2014, p.84).

1.3     Tier 1 and Tier 2 Special Forces

Joint Task Force 2 is sometimes referred to as a ‘Tier 1’ SF unit because it is the unit usually tasked with direct action. Other special operations forces, such as the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, are referred to as ‘Tier 2’ units as they, usually, fulfil a supporting role for the Tier 1 units.

1.4     Method of Entry

Civilians cannot join CANSOFCOM directly. However, civilian aspirants who believe that a career with CANSFOCOM is their preferred career path should contact their local CAF Recruiting Centre for detailed information on career choices.

CANSOFCOM recruits members directly from the CAF, both Regular and Reserve forces, for a variety of roles. However, candidates must typically have a minimum of two years’ service and the method of selection is dependent on the unit and the position sought.

1.5     Roles and Tasks

The role of CANSOFCOM is to provide ready and relevant forces to conduct special operations across the operational continuum in a joint, combined or interagency environment.

CANSOFCOM facilities this overarching role through a number of potential tasks which can be classed as either strategic or operational. As such, CANSOFCOM assets undertake a number of tasks, with a degree of interaction and interoperability:

  • Strategic Tasks:
    • Provide advice on special operations to the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) and other CAF operational commanders;
    • Generate deployable, high readiness Special Operations Forces (SOF) capable of deploying as part of a broader CAF operation, or independently;
    • Conduct and command SOF operations on behalf of the CDS;
    • Continuously develop SOF capabilities and tactics; and
    • Maintain and promote relationships with Canadian security partners and allied special operations forces.
  • Operational Tasks:
    • Counter-terrorism (primary mission);
    • Hostage rescue;
    • Direct action;
    • CBRN crisis response;
    • Sensitive site exploitation;
    • Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction;
    • Maritime special operations;
    • Support to non-combatant evacuation operations;
    • Special protection operations; and
    • Defence, diplomacy and military assistance.

1.6     Origins of Canadian Special Operations

Although Canadians served with distinction in several types of Allied Special Forces during the Second World War, the Canadian SOF legacy goes back much farther. The Raider or ‘Commando’ style of operations can be traced back to the 1600s (Horn, 2012).

Colonel Bernd Horn has written an excellent article on the history of the Canadian SOF legacy which can be found here.

His article looks at:

  • The Ranger tradition: Late-1600s to Late-1700s.
  • World War Two units:
    • Special Operations Executive (SOE).
    • Viking Force.
    • Royal Canadian Navy Beach Commandos.
    • 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.
    • The First Special Service Force.
  • The Canadian Special Air Service Company: Late-1940s.
  • The Canadian Airborne Regiment: Late-1960s.
  • Special Emergency Response Team (SERT): 1980s.
  • Joint Task Force Two (JTF 2): 1990s.
  • Canadian Special Operations Forces Command: 2000s.


2.0     Introduction

In 2005, the then Chief of the Defence Staff decided “that as part of the continuing transformation of the Canadian Forces (CF) he would create a Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM).” (Horn, 2012, p.1), which was formally established on 01 February 2006 (Horn, 2012).

This new independent command, for the first time, unified three existing but disparate elements of the CAF (Jean, 2006):

  • JTF 2, a counterterrorism unit (Section 2.5);
  • 247 Aviation Squadron (Section 2.7); and
  • The Joint Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence Company (Section 2.8).

As well as incorporating these existing capabilities, new units were formed or existing units transformed into SOF (Virgin, 2015). The CANSOFSOM HQ is located in Ottawa, Ontario.

2.1     CANSOFCOM Mission

The mission of CANSOFCOM is to synchronise the planning of special operations and provide SOF to support persistent, networked, and distributed Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) operations to protect and advance Canadian interests.

“CANSOFCOM’s primary mission is counter-terrorism, which involves conducting rigorous and specialized training and working with local law enforcement agencies, as required, to protect Canadians from the threat of terrorism.” (ND & CAF, 2015).

In 2015, the then Deputy Commander CANSOFCOM stated (Virgin, 2015): “CANSOFCOM’s purpose is to force-develop, force-generate, and, where required, force-employ special operations task forces capable of achieving tactical, operational, or strategic effects desired by the Government of Canada.”

2.2     Commander CANSOFCOM

The Commander CANSOFCOM, a Brigadier General (OF-6), is the title of the professional head of the Canadian special operations forces, and is the CAF functional authority for counterterrorism.

However, in 2016, the then Commander CONSOFCOM was promoted to Major General (OF-7) and continued in post (Defence House Publishing, 2016), in contrast to the first Commander who was a Colonel (OF-5) (Jean, 2006).

The Commander CANSOFCOM, headquartered in Ottawa (Ontario), is accountable to the Chief of the Defence Staff who, in turn, is responsible to the Minister of National Defence.

2.3     Key Personalities

Key personalities include:

  • Deputy Commander CANSOFCOM: an OF-5 level officer. This position was held by a Brigadier General (OF-6) in 2016 (Defence House Publishing, 2016).
  • Chief of Staff: an OF-5 level officer.
  • Command Chief Warrant Officer.

2.4     Units of CANSOFCOM

CANSOFCOM is organised into a HQ element and five units:

  1. Joint Task Force 2 (JTF 2);
  2. The Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR);
  3. 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron (SOAS);
  4. The Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit – Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CJIRU-CBRN); and
  5. The Canadian Special Operations Training Centre (CSOTC).

2.5     Joint Task Force 2

“The first ‘JTF’ existed as an ad hoc unit that served a short stint in the Persian Gulf.” (Freeze, 2010).

Joint Task Force 2The Joint Task Force 2 (JTF 2) was formally established on 01 April 1993 when the CAF accepted responsibility for federal counter-terrorism operations from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The RCMP’s Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) was created in 1986 as a hostage rescue unit but, in 1992, the role was taken over by the military and was recreated as JTF 2; evolving into a Tier 1 organisation (Horn, 2012).

JTF 2 is headquartered in Dwyer Hill, Ottawa (Ontario), and is commanded by a Brigadier General (OF-6); although the rank of the commander has varied between Lieutenant Colonel (OF-4) and Brigadier General (OF-6).

Having started with approximately 100 personnel, in 2015 it was reported that “After having doubled from 300 to 600 men, JTF2 is set to move from Ottawa to a 400-acre compound near Trenton, Ontario…” (Engler, 2015).

JTF 2 is a mixture of civilian and military personnel (both Regular and Reserve forces) from across the Army, Navy and Air Force. JTF 2 is considered Canada’s premier special operations unit and is the country’s main counter-terrorism unit, although it is employed on other high-value tasks.

In 2001, JTF 2 was deployed to Afghanistan as part of the SOF coalition. It was an important milestone; it was the first time the unit had been deployed in a major combat role outside of Canada. “Unquestionably, JTF 2’s participation in OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] was a critical turning point in its evolution and CANSOF history.” (Horn, 2012, p.40). Although in the 1990s, the unit had “ventured to Bosnia, Rwanda, Peru on missions to protect Canadian politicians, diplomats and fellow soldiers.” (Freeze, 2010).

“Recruits run a gauntlet of scientifically designed physical and psychological tests. Typically only two in 10 soldiers who train for the unit succeed in becoming “assaulters,” a position that can pay a premium six-figure salary.” (Freeze, 2010).

2.6     Canadian Special Operations Regiment

Canadian Special Operations RegimentThe Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) was established on 01 February 2006. The CSOR is headquartered at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, Ottawa (Ontario), and is commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel (OF-4).

When first established it was reported that the CSOR would “fill a role much like the U.S. Army Rangers … [and] … have 762 troops.” (Jean, 2006).

The CSOR can trace its roots to the Second World War in the form of the First Special Service Force, a Canadian-American unit that earned the moniker the ‘Black Devils’ for daring night raids on German forces at the Anzio beachhead. The CSOR carries the Black Devils’ battle honours.

Personnel can join the CSOR as either a Special Forces Operator (Category 2) or Special Operations Supporter (Category 1).

The CSOR is a high-readiness unit that works in conjunction with other CANSOFCOM and CAF units in order to increase operational efficiency and effectiveness, and is comfortable operating in urban, jungle and mountain, arctic and littoral environments. CSOR personnel wear the tan beret and provide CANSOFCOM with its overt military SOF capabilities, as such CSOR is considered the public face of CANSOFCOM.

2.7     427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron

427 SOAS, Special Operations Aviation Squadron427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron (SOAS) was established (more accurately retitled and re-roled) on 01 February 2006. 427 SOAS is headquartered at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, Ontario, and is commanded by a Squadron Leader (OF-3).

427 SOAS started life as 427 (Lion) Squadron in November 1942 (427 Squadron Association, 2007).

427 SOAS is a Canadian Air Force unit, part of 1 Wing, embedded as an integral element of CANSOFCOM and is the command’s rotary wing aviation squadron.

The primary role of 427 SOAS is to provide a dedicated special operations aviation capability for both domestic and international operations. In its secondary role 427 SOAS supports the provision of tactical and admin/utility aviation to CANADACOM, to include support to secondary SAR and domestic contingency operations.

427 SOAS is a mixture of civilian and military personnel (both Regular and Reserve forces).

2.8     Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit

Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit, CJIRUThe Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit (CJIRU) was established in September 2007 (Virgin, 2015). The CJIRU is headquartered in Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ontario and is commanded by an OF-3 level officer.

Simplistically, the role of the CJIRU is to deal with weapons of mass destruction. Elaborating on this role, the CJIRU provides the Government of Canada with a CBRN response (aka chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence).

The events of 9/11 led to the immediate CBRN response capability of the CAF being assigned to a new high readiness unit – the Joint Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence Company (JNBCD), part of the Joint Operations Group (Virgin, 2015). This unit was assigned to CANSOFCOM on 01 February 2006 and was transitioned to become a specialised joint incident response unit focused on the CBRN threat. The unit was officially given its new title the Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit – Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CJIRU-CBRN) in September 2007 (Virgin, 2015).

The CJIRU has three key mandates (Virgin, 2015):

  1. Domestically, the CJIRU supports the RCMP and the Public Health Agency of Canada in response to CBRN incidents;
  2. Providing specialised CBRN support to CANSOFCOM forces both domestically and internationally; and
  3. Providing support to other CAF elements, including instruction, training, and education in any aspect of CBRN matters.

The CJIRU is an integral component of CANSOFCOM, and provides a rapid response capability for SOF missions throughout the world.

Domestically, the CJIRU is a branch of the CBRNE Response Team (in association with the RCMP and Public Health Agency of Canada) responsible for CBRN counter-terrorism operations. Additionally, they provide direct and indirect CBRN support to CANSOFCOM operations. Internationally, the CJIRU provides CBRN support to CAF elements in all theatres of operations.

The CJIRU accepts members of the CAF (both Regular and Reserve forces) in the role of operator or supporter, and is spearheading the development of the new CBRN Operator occupation as a trade within the CAF.

2.9     Canadian Special Operations Training Centre

Canadian Special Forces (1)The Canadian Special Operations Training Centre (CSOTC) was established in June 2012 (Spencer, 2014). The CSOTC is headquartered in Petawawa, Ontario, and is commanded by a (?) Lieutenant Colonel (OF-4).

The CSOTC is responsible for providing CANSOFCOM with common SOF-specific training, designing and delivering a wide range of academic and practically-orientated courses

As described by the Director of Research and Education (Spencer, 2014) at CANSOFCOM’s PDC (Section 2.10):

“The CSOTC provides training that is common to all CANSOFCOM units and designs and runs professional development courses that push members out of their comfort zones and provide insight into different areas of cognitive development. Through this process, the CSOTC empowers CANSOF members with not only the physical skills required to meet the demands of their profession, but also the mental capacity to deal with uncertainty and possible moral ambiguities in a complex, dynamic and, potentially, lethal operating environment.”

2.10     Non-Special Forces Support Units

Non-special forces units that provide USSOCOM-wide crucial training and support roles for SF units are outlined below.

  • The CANSOFCOM Professional Development Centre (PDC): Formally established in January 2011, the PDC is situated in Kingston, Ontario, in order to be closely aligned with the Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC) and to be near all four of the CANSOFCOM units, as well as the HQ. The PDC offers graduate and undergraduate RMCC courses for CANSOFCOM personnel, often adapting the delivery methods in order to meet the operational demands of the members. The PDC also provides a number of uniquely tailored professional development sessions and workshops that take complex academic theories and illustrate how they apply to the jobs that CANSOF personnel perform. The PDC is headed by the Director, a OF-5 level officer.
  • Defence Research and Development Centre (DRDC): As an agency of the Department of National Defence, provides support to CANSOFCOM in the development of an agile, high readiness force capable of conducting a wide variety of operations.


3.0     TV Documentaries

  • In 2014, the Canadian W5/CTV News filmed the CSOR during Exercise Flintlock, an exercise organised by the United States Africa Command.

3.1     Useful Publications

  • Balasevicius, T. & UNKNOWN (eds) (2007) Casting Light on the Shadows: Canadian Perspectives on Special Operations Forces. Kingston, Ontario: The Dundurn Group and Canadian Defence Academy Press.
  • Spencer, E. (2009) (ed) The Difficult War: Perspectives on Insurgency and Special Operations Forces. Kingston, Ontario: The Dundurn Group and Canadian Defence Academy Press.
  • Spencer, E. (ed) (2012) Special Operations Forces: Building Global Partnerships. Kingston, Ontario: The Dundurn Group and Canadian Defence Academy Press.
  • Rouleau, M. (2012) Between Faith and Reality: A Pragmatic Sociological Examination of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command’s Future Prospects. Kingston, Ontario: Canadian Defence Academy Press.
  • Crabbe, R.R., Mason, L.G. & Sutherland, F.R. (2007) A Report on the Validation of the Transformed Canadian Forces Command Structure. Ottawa, Ontario: Report Prepared for the Chief of the Defence Staff, 31 January 2007.
  • Day, M. & Horn, B. (2010) Canadian Special Operations Command: The Maturation of a National Capability. Canadian Military Journal. 10(4), pp.00-00. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vol10/no4/12-day%20horn-eng.asp. [Accessed: 20 April, 2016].
  • Day, S.J. (2013) 9/11 and Canadian Special Operations Forces: How ’40 Selected Men’ Indelibly Influenced the Future of the Force. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA583821. [Accessed: 17 April, 2016].
  • Horn, B. (2012) “We Will Find a Way”: Understanding the Legacy of Canadian Special Operations Forces. JSOU Report 12-2. February 2012. Available from World Wide Web: http://jsou.socom.mil/JSOU%20Publications/12-2_Horn_CanadianSOF(Feb12)_final.PDF. [Accessed: 17 April, 2016].
  • Horn, B. (2014) A Reflection on Leadership: A Comparative Analysis of Military and Civilian Approaches. Available from World Wide Web: http://jmss.org/jmss/index.php/jmss/article/view/553. [Accessed: 18 April, 2016].
  • Morehen, T.A. (2010) The Proposed Canadian Mode for Special Operations Forces Aviation Part 2. Available from World Wide Web: http://airforceapp.forces.gc.ca/CFAWC/eLibrary/Journal/Vol3-2010/Iss1-Winter/Sections/05-The_Proposed_Canadian_Model_for_Special_Operations_Forces_Aviation-Part_2_e.pdf. [Accessed: 18 April, 2016].

3.2     Useful Links

3.3     References

427 Squadron Association (2007) 427 Squadron History. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.427squadron.com/427history.html. [Accessed: 18 April, 2016].

Campion-Smith, B. (2016) Looking for a Few Good Women – Canada’s Military goes on a Hiring Spree. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2016/03/14/looking-for-a-few-good-women-canadas-military-goes-on-a-hiring-spree.html. [Accessed: 20 April, 2016].

Day, S.J. (2013) 9/11 and Canadian Special Operations Forces: How ’40 Selected Men’ Indelibly Influenced the Future of the Force. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA583821. [Accessed: 17 April, 2016].

Defence House Publishing (2016) Promotions. Appointments at Canadian Special Operations Forces Command. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.defense-house.com/defense-news/promotions-appointments-at-canadian-special-operations-forces-command/. [Accessed: 17 April, 2016].

Engler, Y. (2015) If Re-Elected Harper Government Would Expand Canada’s Special Forces … To be Deployed Internationally on Behalf of Pentagon. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.globalresearch.ca/if-re-elected-harper-goverment-would-expand-canadas-special-forces-to-be-deployed-internationally-on-behalf-of-pentagon/5479849. [Accessed: 17 April, 2016].

Freeze, C. (2010) Silent Killers: Secrecy, Security and JTF2. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/silent-killers-secrecy-security-and-jtf2/article1319588/. [Accessed: 17 April, 2016].

Horn, B. (2012) “We Will Find a Way”: Understanding the Legacy of Canadian Special Operations Forces. JSOU Report 12-2. February 2012. Available from World Wide Web: http://jsou.socom.mil/JSOU%20Publications/12-2_Horn_CanadianSOF(Feb12)_final.PDF. [Accessed: 17 April, 2016].

Jean, G. (2006) Commandos See Expanded Mission Portfolio. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2006/June/Pages/CommandosSee2954.aspx. [Accessed: 17 April, 2016].

Knarr, W., Turnley, J.G., Stewart, D.J., Rubright, R. & Quirin, J. (2014) Special Operations Forces Mixed-Gender Elite Teams (SOFMET): Examining Socio-Cultural Dynamics of SOFMET. Joint Special Operations University, Centre for Special Operations Studies and Research. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/wisr-studies/SOCOM%20-%20JSOU%20Study%20on%20Special%20Operations%20Forces%20Mixed-Gender%20Elite%20Team3.pdf. [Accessed: 20 April, 2016].

ND & CAF (Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces) (2015) About the Special Operations Forces. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.forces.gc.ca/en/operations-special-forces/about.page. [Accessed: 17 April, 2016].

Pugliese, D. (2016) Number of Canadian Special Forces Soldiers Increases. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.ottawasun.com/2016/01/26/number-of-canadian-special-forces-soldiers-increases. [Accessed: 17 April, 2016].

Spencer, E. (2014) CANSOFCOM. Available from World Wide Web: http://defence.frontline.online/article/2014/4/155-CANSOFCOM. [Accessed: 18 April, 2016].

Virgin, S.A. (2015) Capt(N) S.A. Virgin (Deputy Commander, Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, Department of National Defence) at the National Defence Committee. Available from World Wide Web: https://openparliament.ca/committees/national-defence/41-2/53/capt-1/only/. [Accessed: 17 April, 2016].