Canada’s New Special Ops

PHOTOS: ADAM DAY

PHOTOS: ADAM DAY

Top: CSOR candidates rappel from a helicopter. Inset left: With the mock attack on the factory complete, a CSOR candidate quickly withdraws. Inset right: CSOR’s first commander, Lt.-Col. Jamie Hammond.

It’s after midnight and we’re surrounded by hostile gunmen at an abandoned mental institution northwest of Kamloops, B.C.

We don’t know much about the bad guys or why they don’t like us, but we do know that four choppers full of Canada’s new commandos are coming to get us out. It’s a very dark July night and it will be no picnic to land the blacked-out helicopters among all the buildings, fences and electrical wires in this complex. The potential for rotor-shattering mishaps seems pretty high. Some of the softer journalists appear a little panicky. We hear the Griffon helicopters long before we see them. The pilots of the 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron come in fast and low. The choppers touch down briefly and soldiers jump off and disappear into the night.

The bad guys start shooting, but in what seems like seconds they’ve been overcome and we’re surrounded on all sides by the dark, anonymous operators who’ve come to rescue us. We’re led toward the waiting chopper through a protective cordon of soldiers, kneeling on both sides, rifles pointing out. We’re loaded aboard and off we go–safe and flying high up above Kamloops Lake.

Exciting as it was, this complex evacuation exercise is just one capability among many for the new Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR).

New regiments are a pretty rare thing in the Canadian Forces. The last time it happened was in 1968 when the Canadian Airborne Regt. stood up in Petawawa, Ont. Now, a little more than 10 years after the Airborne’s disbandment, CSOR has been stood up, also in Petawawa. When it’s ready for deployment in late 2006, CSOR will reinforce Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2), Canada’s highest level special operations unit, at the very tip of the military spear.

CSOR is a unit with many different roles. It will provide support to JTF2. It will do all manner of high-risk special reconnaissance and direct action missions. It will send specialists to train foreign soldiers. And CSOR will be a high-readiness evacuation force. If you are ever unlucky enough to be trapped in a place that’s suddenly gone bad, like Lebanon, it’ll probably be these men and women who come to get you out. Of course, you may not know it’s them. Like most special operations forces, CSOR will, for the most part, operate in secrecy. For example, they won’t wear identification on their uniforms, even at their home base in Petawawa. Nor would they consent to have their last names published or have identifying photographs used in this article.

With the rapid creation of this regiment, Canada is joining its British, Australian and American allies in acknowledging that the ongoing conflicts against terrorist and insurgent forces requires some special adaptations to the conventional way of war.

“I think there’s been a recognition that the nature of the threat has changed, and the whole of the Canadian Forces are changing to meet that,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Jamie Hammond, the soft-spoken former JTF2 officer selected to be CSOR’s first commander and its public face. “It’s not as simple as saying ‘well we’ve got armoured regiments and infantry battalions and we’ll use that.’ What we’re trying to do is create a whole continuum of options.”

Though CSOR’s exact lineage hasn’t been specified, there are obvious forerunners. The new unit’s clearest predecessor is the joint U.S.-Canadian World War II-era First Special Service Force–known to the Germans as the Devil’s Brigade. Though disbanded in 1944, this unit became the inspiration for the U.S. Special Forces, known more widely as the Green Berets.

The Canadian Airborne Regt. is also another clear predecessor, and there is more than a trace of that old unit here. Both Hammond and company Sergeant Major Glenn are former airborne, as are several other members. Like the airborne regiment, CSOR will be made up of soldiers drawn primarily from the infantry battalions and it will be an elite organization capable of deploying via parachute.

CSOR, however, is not simply the airborne’s replacement. When it’s finally up to its full 750 member strength, sometime around 2010, CSOR will have three Direct Action companies and one Special Forces company. In comparison to our southern ally, the three Direct Action companies will be much like the U.S. Army Rangers, while the Special Forces company will be modelled more or less on the Green Berets.

“I was in the Airborne Regiment and there were some fantastic things but we’ve also taken some lessons learned out of that structure,” said Hammond. “One of the things that we need to make sure of in the future is that the personnel issues, the career management, the way we structure it, the way we purchase equipment and the way we operate is all lined up with the larger Canadian Forces.”

For the first selection course, which ran from mid-April until early August, 300 soldiers applied and 175 were chosen. By the end of the selection process about 125 remained to don the new tan beret at the Aug. 13 stand-up ceremony, officially becoming operators in CSOR’s 1 Direct Action Company.

In late July, CSOR went out to Kamloops to conduct the mountain warfare component of the selection. In that part of B.C., the mountains are dry, hot and pretty dusty, conditions not too unlike those in Afghanistan.

Though CSOR’s logistical headquarters were at a base belonging to the Rocky Mountain Rangers reserve unit in Kamloops, the candidates and most of the support staff set themselves up in a tented camp on a mountain plateau way outside of town.

At the camp no one ever seems to sleep and the training never seems to stop. At any time–day or night–there are helicopters taking off, small teams of soldiers coming and going on foot and grizzled men leading candidates through complex move-and-shoot drills. Everything takes place all at once and the sense is that this is something big and serious. It’s kind of like a scene from a WW II movie where everyone’s getting ready to launch a big raid. The camp is literally a hive of activity.

At the centre of it is the mess tent. Over in one corner a young officer and a helicopter pilot are hashing out details of an attack plan. In the other a CBC producer is being denied interviews by wary soldiers, and at another table a group of discreet-looking directing staff are quietly discussing something only they will ever know about. The directing staff is in charge of training the candidates. They are the very fit-looking guys in civilian clothes hanging around the camp. Many are apparently current or former members of JTF2, most of whom either belong to the directing staff–the trainers–or are here as advisers. Various international accents can also be heard.

Though CSOR may bring new capabilities to the Canadian Forces, the concept of special operations is not new. While pre-WW II examples of irregular forces exist, it was largely due to the exigencies of that conflict that highly organized and well-trained units of commandos, saboteurs and raiders made their way into the battle order of western nations. From North African deserts to European coastlines, allied military planners time and again found a need to deploy these especially toughened and skilled soldiers against targets that permitted no conventional large-force attack.

Winston Churchill said these were fighters of the ‘hunter class’ and he probably wasn’t far off the mark. Back then they were a special breed of adventurers, the kind of people who didn’t just accept great risk and hardship but actually sought it out. Today, wrapped in a cloak of professionalism and humility, this spirit lives on.

According to one experienced member (who declined to be identified in any way), the training staff is watching the candidates for a very particular set of attributes.

CSOR operators need, first of all, to be masters of the basic soldiering skills. They need to have great stamina and maturity, but they also need the same well-adjusted sense of adventure that leaders of special operations units have been seeking since WW II. “There’s an ethos in the game,” he said. “The first thing we look for is humility, because a humble person isn’t arrogant. Arrogant people overestimate their own ability and underestimate the enemy. And you should never underestimate the enemy.

“People think operators are supermen, but that’s not true. These depictions are very naive, all hyperbole. The qualities we’re seeking are inherent in everybody, but in the vast majority of people they’re dormant. Very few people experience real hardship and even fewer would seek to do so.

“We’re looking for an innate curiosity, people who seek knowledge, for example, because knowledge dispels fear.”

In a special operations unit, he said, small details can undo everything, lives depend on them. “This is why everybody is responsible, junior to senior, which is why maturity matters so much.”

And the candidates are an impressive bunch, though many of them look like they haven’t slept in days. Corporal Michel is a 29-year-old candidate originally from Trois-Rivières, Que. Before coming to the CSOR selection course Michel was an air force medical technician who previously had just basic combat arms training.

Cpl. Josh, 25, is from Ontario. Unlike Michel, Josh already had some pretty relevant experience, having both qualified as a sniper and making it to final selection for JTF2 a few years earlier.

Josh and Michel found the initial physical testing tough enough. It included swimming 25 metres in combat boots with a rifle. But both say the real challenge was the weeks of testing for phobias and personal attributes. Though the various tests couldn’t be described in detail, they were intended to push the candidates to the physical limits, probe them for debilitating fears and generally try to weed out the weak and poorly motivated. This was quite a change for Michel. “The medical family is a bit quieter than the infantry, so when I came here, you know, that was a punch in the face for me,” he said. “So you change your quiet life for a pretty exciting life, not a lot of sleep and, you know, pretty tough days, long days. But you meet great guys.”

At this point in late July–14 weeks into the selection and just a few days from graduation–Michel and Josh have the kind of rapport seen most commonly among very old friends. They finish each other’s sentences and laugh at each other’s inside jokes. When Michel thought about quitting after the first few weeks, his new buddies talked him into staying, convinced he had what it took to make the distance. “Michel’s a good example of something another Special Forces leader told us,” said Josh. “We and the other SF units are drawing from a shallow gene pool. Basically you can’t just take anybody and put them here. And that’s basically what the attribute testing does; it finds the people like Michel who are capable of grasping new information and applying it right away. That’s what special forces are. They’re special because they can adapt to whatever environment they’re in.”

Having survived the first eight weeks doesn’t mean you’ve made the unit, however. As Josh said, “There’s still an opportunity to fail stuff as you go on, and you could be asked to leave based on–a large portion of it anyway–a peer assessment. After each phase everybody sat down and you assessed everybody within your section and within your platoon.”

“You’re scored for specific attributes, like working with other people, leadership, mental toughness,” said Michel.

“That’s an SF thing apparently,” added Josh. “(JTF2) is huge on it.”

“You put down some names,” said Michel. “You know, good guys you want to work with and other guys you’re not sure you want to work with but are still good guys anyway.”

“Yeah, it’s a professional thing not a personal thing,” said Josh. “You don’t just put down a name because you want to. You need to have good reasons and you do have to justify what you write.”

If a particular candidate is listed enough times for the same reason, they will be taken aside and given a warning to shape up or ship out. “The first impression I had was, you know, this is kind of back-stabbing people,” said Michel. “But after a few weeks you see that some guys are changing their minds and their behaviour as a result of these things.”

Like every other operator in CSOR, Josh and Michel are assaulters first and specialists second–Josh a sniper and Michel a medic. “He’s going to be a gunfighter,” continued Josh, nodding at Michel, “like right in the action, doing exactly what we’ve been doing; only when guys start going down that’s his responsibility at that point.”

“When the fight is over that’s my job,” said Michel. “I start my specialty there, otherwise I’m a gunfighter.”

“Whereas my specialty,” said Josh, “will be less direct action, I’ll be the guy in the hills, calling in the information on the objective and making key target acquisitions and key shots to start off the entire attack–like dropping sentries and dropping primary weapons systems. Things like that.”

Though CSOR can attack unconventional targets in conventional ways, it will also have the highly useful skill of attacking conventional targets in unconventional ways. The anonymous experienced member mentioned earlier–explained it using a neat metaphor. Imagine a military target–anything from Fortress Europe to a Taliban stronghold. This frontline position is heavily armed and capable of putting out withering fire. If you stop to consider the problem, you can see that the position needs several things to continue firing. First, it needs a target. It also needs a continuing supply of bullets; it needs communications to receive orders; it needs military leaders to give those orders and political leaders with the will to fight.

While a conventional infantry unit would seek to overwhelm that position with firepower, a special operations unit would not necessarily do that. Instead of attacking the position directly, it would do some or all of the following: disperse itself to take away the position’s target; attack its supply lines, cut its communications, kill the enemy’s military leaders and confuse their politicians. And so this is how a special operations unit attacks a conventional target using unconventional tactics.

In a counter-insurgency campaign like the one currently being fought in Afghanistan, the enemy also fights using unconventional tactics. Some of the most common are vehicle-borne suicide bombs, roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs), small unit hit-and-run ambushes and long-range indirect mortar and rocket fire. What makes these attacks unconventional is that they present few targets for Canadian soldiers to engage and they are very difficult to defend against. Though regular force soldiers have shown they can adapt to fight a counter-insurgency, there are certain high-risk, complex missions that fall somewhat outside what they’ve been trained to do.

In Afghanistan, the battle can’t be won by merely evading or surviving the enemy’s IED and suicide attacks. Instead, NATO and the CF must diminish the insurgent’s ability to fight with a whole range of unconventional tactics.

In a mountain valley just outside Kamloops, the candidates put on a demonstration of one such high-risk mission–attacking an IED factory.

The attack on the factory began several days before, when several small units did long, clandestine marches onto the high ridges surrounding the target. From their concealed positions they watched and collected information on the enemy’s strength and defences, which they relayed back to headquarters.

The helicopters came in waves, low and fast. The first Griffon set down on a rooftop a few hundred metres from the compound. Soldiers jumped from its skids and began firing their rifles and belt-fed machine-guns to pin down the defenders. Another group of helicopters emerged low from a treeline just down the valley. Three of those set down in a field about 500 metres from the target to unload the main assault force while another hovered just outside the compound walls as its troops rappelled quickly into the fight.

With the defenders under attack from three sides, the main assault force breached the compound walls and started clearing the structures using their rifles, grenades and some good old-fashioned door kicking.

It was all over in a few minutes. Though it went well, Hammond declared there remained some work to do, which is fine because CSOR, much like JTF2, will be in a constant cycle of training and deployment. Therefore, they will have plenty of chances to hone their skills.

Hammond said it is unlikely the unit will ever deploy as a complete regiment. Much more likely is that one Direct Action company will be deployed while one waits at high readiness and the third reconstitutes. The Special Forces company will deploy on its own schedule, as events require.

Secrecy is of course an inherent component of special operations, and so just where and when and how the Canadian public will next hear about CSOR seems to be a bit of a secret in its own right.

Whether CSOR will operate in uniform or civilian clothes, whether they will announce their presence or remain in the shadows and whether they’ll want their deeds known or not, all remains a mystery. However, it’s a pretty safe guess that elements of 1 Direct Action company will sooner or later show up at Kandahar Airfield, ready to head out to the mountains in search of an IED factory or some other slippery target.

But should you never hear of them again, at least you know they’re out there–watching the enemy from the hills or waiting near a hangar somewhere, ready to come to the rescue.

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