Canadian Army Brig. Gen. Denis Thompson takes command of the country's special forces at a time when those units are at a crossroads.
Canadian special forces have fought in Afghanistan since 2001, but that mission changed this year with the Canadian government's decision to end the military's combat role in that country and switch to one focused on training Afghan security forces.
Named in April to head the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM), Thompson is leading the command as it moves forward in a post-combat role in Afghanistan and as it undertakes other missions around the world, such as training counterterrorism units in Jamaica and North Africa.
Q. Will you be taking the command in a new direction?
A. The easiest way to describe that is to talk about outputs. I don't think I've changed the direction of the command in any significant way. What we're trying to do is emphasize that CANSOF is about outputs.
And that speaks directly to the concept that was developed before I got here, the integrated operating concept. So what I'm trying to do is deepen and thicken that brand, if you can call it that. We've done an internal analysis of CANSOF's three essential outputs, which are the Immediate Response Task Force, the Chemical Biological Radiological Response Team, and Task Force Arrowhead.
The one element that was not as mature as the rest of them was Task Force Arrowhead, which was to reach initial operating capacity by the September time frame. I put the challenge to the command that they needed to step that up. They met the challenge and we had initial operating capability on Arrowhead by mid-July.
It's interesting because that's the task force which our mission in Libya was based on. There was a tailor-made task to provide logistics and security support to the Canadian diplomatic presence in Tripoli, and it fit perfectly inside the idea of Task Force Arrowhead.
Q. There was a lot of speculation that Canadian special forces were inside Libya directing airstrikes and training forces. So that did not happen?
A. No. I like to emphasize that CANSOF doesn't do breakaways. We're always under civil control, and we're very comfortable with that. In this particular case, the mission was to establish security and reopen the embassy and provide logistics to a limited diplomatic staff. We also had a liaison detachment with the main NATO headquarters in Naples.
It's a good-news story in the sense we were able to answer the call. You don't, generally speaking, get several months' notice or even a couple of weeks' notice. You have to be out the door immediately. And that's one of the hallmarks of CANSOF. All of its elements are at a reasonably high state of readiness.
Q. Libya was your field test of whether the Arrowhead Task Force, led by the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, worked or not?
A. Right. It's also worth emphasizing that CANSOF doesn't operate in a vacuum, so none of this is possible unless you have the backing of the Air Force, in some cases, elements of the Navy, and certainly we rely on the Army for an awful lot of things, but not in this particular instance.
So you still need the big machine behind you in order to generate an effect at the other end.
Q. The Canadian Special Operations Regiment now has about 440 personnel, but there are plans to expand that force. Have you taken a look at the numbers you eventually want to build up to?
A. Right now, any move in numbers anywhere in the Canadian Forces is on hold as we're waiting for the Canadian Forces future transformation exercise to go through. Until the transformation exercise is complete, all bets are off.
Q. CANSOF is interested in purchasing a new vehicle fleet. Where is that now?
A. We have repatriated our fleet from Afghanistan and have put it through a repair and overhaul line.
Q. Those are the Humvees?
A. Yes, the Humvees. We call them the Reconnaissance-Direct Action Vehicle.
So they're back going through repair and overhaul. It's a pretty capable vehicle for the here and now and for the foreseeable future. We're not really going to be looking for a replacement until 2015. We still have our line in the water and still keep tabs on where industry is going and where our allies are going. So there are a number of initiatives out there we're interested in, but I'm not in any rush at this point in time as I'm actually satisfied with the current fleet.
Q. The Canadian Army will acquire what it is calling a Tactical Armored Patrol Vehicle. Is TAPV a potential candidate for your vehicle?
A. We use the same procurement model as U.S. SOCOM [Special Operations Command]. Many contracts are written where, as an example, you buy 200 vehicles with an option for 50. Often times it's that option space that CANSOF is interested in.
So we might say, 'OK, we'll bid on 20 of those and bring them into the command, bring them in clean and then bolt on the SOF equipment.' It might be different communications, it might be different weapons, different protection levels, it might be different mobility requirements.
We'll look at them all because they're all potential candidates, and TAPV is certainly up there. We're represented inside the Army's process because the force development cell that I have makes sure we are represented at those meetings that discuss requirements, just as we are with the Air Force and the Navy. Although we run our own force development program, we stay completely plugged into what the Air Force, Navy and Army are doing.
But it doesn't negate the possibility that we go in an entirely different direction if what the Army is looking at is inappropriate for us.
Q. The Canadian Forces Afghanistan mission has changed, and it has underway Operation Attention, which participates in NATO's training of Afghan forces. What role is CANSOFCOM playing?
A. In Afghanistan, our guys are fully integrated into Operation Attention, and they're in a training mission. They are training Afghan National Army SOF.
Q. Now that the combat role is finished in Afghanistan, will the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) be the lead in overseas operations since Joint Task Force Two is seen as the lead in the Immediate Response Task Force in dealing with a domestic terrorism incident?
A. The criteria is on the effect we want to achieve. In other words, what kind of capabilities do we need to have? How big is it? How fast does it have to get out the door? Who's the most qualified organization to lead it?
So when you boil that down, there are instances where the Immediate Response Task Force is the one that deploys. It doesn't necessary always fall on CSOR.
Q. So has there been a change - since the Immediate Response Task Force is usually seen as the first response to a terrorist incident in Canada while the special operations regiment, which leads Task Force Arrowhead, was to handle overseas operations in the future?
A. It was described like that in the past. But what I'm trying to do is get people off of this idea; both of them could do a domestic task and both of them could do an out-of-area task.
If you needed something now, then it's the Immediate Response Task Force. If the tasks require a high degree of precision, then that's the Immediate Response Task Force as well. It's not that one is exclusively for domestic use and one is exclusively for out-of-area missions.
If it's a scenario in Northern Canada, it might actually be Arrowhead that responds.
Q. Is U.S SOCOM your main international partner?
A. They are a major partner. I would suggest the U.S. is up there and perhaps No. 1. We also do a lot of coordination with NATO SOF. We're tied in with the French as well. And then there's Australia, New Zealand and the U.K.
-- By David Pugliese in Ottawa.
Personnel: No details released, but believed to be fewer than 2,000.
Budget: About 200 million Canadian dollars ($194.7 million)
Operations: Afghanistan, Jamaica, North Africa, other undisclosed locations
Four high-readiness units:
å Joint Task Force Two (Tier 1 counterterrorism and special ops)
å Canadian Special Operations Regiment (Tier 2 special forces unit)
å 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron
å Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit (Deals with threats from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons)
Source: Defense News research.