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Enabling Resistance: Canada's Opportunity in Great Power Competition

Over the last decade, Canadian Special Operations Forces (CANSOF) have become champions of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. However, with recent changes to the geostrategic landscape and the emergence of long-term strategic competition, they must adapt to some new challenges.

The Shift in Warfare

To provide direction and guidance for such adaptation, the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command published its strategic plan, Beyond the Horizon, in July 2020. The document recognizes major shifts in warfare, including an increasing number of (gray-zone) activities below the threshold of traditional armed conflict by state and non-state actors and the potential for a state-on-state conventional war. While CANSOF is already well positioned to fulfill its mission in the context of the former, it seems to have a long way to go when it comes to identifying and developing necessary capabilities for the latter. On that front, CANSOF is arguably behind in organizing, training, and equipping for a major war.

This article argues that CANSOF should develop the capability to build and enable urban resistance networks in foreign countries. This argument assumes that given Canada’s location and its proximity to its main ally, the United States, it is highly unlikely that any state-on-state conflict involving Canadian forces would happen on Canadian soil, but rather within the territory of a small allied or partner country. This assumption and the fact that small countries likely will not be able to prevent a conventional invasion of an aggressor also posits that CANSOF will mostly execute its missions far from friendly forces, deep within enemy occupied territory supporting the resistance networks of these countries.

It has been long understood that given the substantial time-distance-force ratio advantage of their neighbours, none of the countries bordering Russia or China could defend themselves against a military aggression. This assumption has recently been confirmed several times through a series of simulations, wargames, and tabletop exercises in several European countries.

Our Capability Solutions

As a response to these findings, small countries started to look at solutions for strengthening their defense capabilities and have come up with what they call ‘Total Defense Strategies’ in which their conventional military capabilities are augmented with civilian resilience and resistance efforts. Besides the fact that these concepts are based on civilian contribution, they also seem to capitalize on the defensive advantages of built-up areas since all of them seem to be situated in urban areas. The point of these urban resistance concepts is to create a force multiplier capability in support of other traditional defense efforts to increase the cost of an armed attack and effectively contribute to both deterring and, if necessary, defeating military aggression.

Although at least some elements of CANSOF seem to have recognized the emerging pattern of resistance-based strategies and started investigating their potential role in building and enabling these approaches, they still seem to be far from fulfilling their potential. During the pre-conflict period, CANSOF should focus on helping local resistance networks create and master the “toolkit” they will need to fight against a numerically and technologically superior enemy independently, effectively and in support of a conventional coalition.

CANSOF must develop a habitual relationship through training and exercising with the small states’ resistance networks to build trust, mutual understanding, and common standing operating procedures pre-conflict to maximize the utility of these networks when it comes to actual armed confrontation. Therefore, it is important that CANSOF (at all levels) and the resistance network members clearly understand their goals, capabilities, expectations, and limitations up front.

However, CANSOF is not yet ready to take on such a challenge without some significant adjustments in their training and changes in the way they currently operate. Let us look at some potential necessary changes for consideration.

The Changes, Within

First, CANSOF professional military education and training programs must develop new curriculum at every level to ensure that future military leaders fully understand the characteristics and principles of modern resistance. Second, CANSOF doctrinal publications must include appropriate tactics, techniques, and procedures enabling CANSOF to best fight alongside the 21st century resistance warriors. Third, CANSOF training must go back to the basics in many aspects while also inventing new basics.

Since almost all resistance-based concepts are focusing on urban resistance, CANSOF must become experts in all aspects of the urban operational environment. Skills like urban navigation, urban movement and maneuver, urban survival skills, weapons effects and limitations in built-up areas, communication opportunities and challenges in cities, operation of non-standard, civilian transportation platforms, etc., must become training priorities. Training infrastructure and exercise scenarios must be designed to enable CANSOF to practice activities in large, complex urban areas and to conduct experiments about how to synchronize the effects of conventional military capabilities with resistance-specific equipment and weapons.

Fourth, CANSOF training must focus on skills necessary to effectively operate in civilian cloth hidden in plain sight within a foreign society for an extended period of time. Operators need skills enabling them to effectively operate without their modern personal gadgets and without all the combat support and combat service support they have become accustomed to in recent decades.

Fifth, CANSOF training must include elements addressing how to extend existing resistance networks, recruit and vet new members, create and maintain urban safe havens, and conduct tactical training for new members given the opportunities and challenges of built-up areas.

Sixth, the enemy is no longer low-tech insurgents but professional military forces with peer or near-peer conventional and specialized capabilities. CANSOF members must become intimately familiar with the organization, doctrine, weapon systems, major equipment, rank system, tactics, techniques and procedures of both Russia and China. Besides knowing how to exploit the features of the urban terrain to avoid the strengths of enemy weapons and other systems, it is also crucial that CANSOF members understand and master how to destroy them and, if needed, how to operate them.

Seventh, CANSOF must learn how to teach all these skills to part-time, half-civilian resistance members during peace and then how to enable them to maximize their fighting capabilities during conflict.

Eighth, such changes in training and potentially in mindset should generate some serious debates whether CANSOF’s current organizational frameworks are appropriate for such tasks. A deep analysis of the future operational environment, these small countries’ defense concepts, their associated force structures, and the capabilities and limitations of the competitors might even require some organizational adjustments.

Finally, the defense industry supporting CANSOF’s needs must understand that modern resistance requires purpose-built equipment and weapons both for those who are executing it and those who are enabling it. A completely new subset of individual and collective equipment must be developed and fielded to enable resistance fighters and CANSOF operators to operate in the most efficient way possible.

As the July 2020 strategic document points out, CANSOF must, among several other things, be prepared to effectively contribute if it comes to a state-on-state war. Assuming that such a war will be fought on the soil of foreign countries and that several allied and partner countries have developed resistance-based national defense strategies, CANSOF needs to update its training regime to develop some specific new skills and might need to consider some organizational changes as well. The capability to help build urban resistance networks pre-conflict and enable them during war should become a fundamental task for CANSOF.

Sandor Fabian is a former Hungarian special forces officer with a total of twenty years military experience. Currently Sandor is a NATO special operations subject matter expert, curriculum developer, and advanced studies team leader at LEIDOS, supporting the NATO Special Operations School. Sandor is also a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point and an adjunct faculty member at the School of Politics, Security, and International Relations at the University of Central Florida and the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.


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