Jul 15, 2014

A timeless criticism of military planners is that they are continuously planning for the last conflict and thus more often than not miss the mark in terms of being properly prepared for the next engagement. The first and second world wars illustrate this point on a grand scale, and more recent conflicts throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium provide fodder for this claim as well. It is perhaps not surprising that history appears to repeat itself in this manner for, as the baseball icon Yogi Berra so aptly quipped, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” Nonetheless, clearly there are advantages to breaking this cycle and having a military that is not only prepared for the next conflict but also able to help shape the future operating environment in a desired manner. Recently, the Special Operations Forces (SOF) of many Western nations have been recognizing this gap, and are focused on providing professional development to their personnel in order to bridge the divide.

Photo credit: Cpl Mark Schombs, 4 CDSG Garrison Petawawa Imaging

In the Canadian context, Canadian Special Operations Forces (CANSOF) assure the Government of Canada that they will be ready for the next engagement, wherever that may be, by being empowered with cognitive warriors who are culturally attuned, strategic thinkers, capable of providing precision kinetic and non-kinetic solutions to complex problems, and whom, importantly, know how to determine which type of action is required in any given circumstance.

Notably, it is no accident that Canada has this capacity. Indeed, with the establishment of both the Canadian Special Operations Training Centre (CSOTC) and the CANSOFCOM Professional Development Centre (PDC), the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) has intentionally devoted time and effort into advancing the cognitive development of its members. Through a process of self-reflection, and a long-term vision of the mental astuteness required of the 21st Century warrior, CANSOFCOM, enabled by its training and professional development centres, will ensure that they are properly prepared for any future battle-space. As such, these two organizations, and the courses and teaching methodologies that they employ, serve as good examples for others to emulate.  

Notably, the task of ensuring that CANSOF are prepared for the future operating environment is not an easy undertaking. SOF generally deploy in small teams and are expected to have an effect much larger than their footprint would suggest. Additionally, they may be sent anywhere in the world and deployed with very little notice. When deployed, they are often required to engage with the host nation population to achieve their mission and, indeed, may even be prepositioned in an area of concern to work with locals and help prevent conflict from arising.

Importantly, CANSOF do not work alone. As part of the Canadian defence team, CANSOF support and work alongside members of other governmental departments and agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations. Moreover, SOF work with their military brethren and enable, and are enabled by, their sister services. Clearly, preparing for this complex environment and the multiple roles and responsibilities that CANSOF have, as well as the number of players they support and with whom they interact, is not a simple process. Nonetheless, it is paramount for success.

In recognition of the need to excel in these areas in order to best contribute to the Canadian Government’s integrated approach to operations, the CSOTC was established in June 2012, in Petawawa, Ontario. 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.

Learning How to Think
With the aim of empowering members with the knowledge of how to think rather than dictating what they should think, the CSOTC designed a number of courses that address many of the issues that Special Forces may face when on missions. Additionally, the courses are designed to have a number of speakers not only from within the Command, but also from the other services and other areas within the Department of National Defence, other governmental departments and organizations, allied organizations, academia, and others. As such, CANSOF members are exposed to a wide breadth of experienced and multi-layered perspectives on any given issue.

From a variety of learning opportunities, three specific courses aptly illustrate some of the diversity that is provided through the CSOTC learning experience. With the purpose of providing core deployment training, to ensure that all members are deployable upon return to their units or Headquarters, the Special Operations Common Environment Training (SOCET) is a mandatory course for all staff and support personnel at the Command. An integral part of the course is also to make sure that all participants appreciate the history of CANSOF and the culture that has developed within the Command. Additionally, candidates are exposed to the social and political contexts within which the Command exists, and are taught critical and creative thinking skills, just to mention a few.

With participants coming from diverse backgrounds from within the Canadian Armed Forces, the multi-day SOCET course helps to grow a common organizational culture that is as much influenced by the diversity within the group as it is from those already within the Command. Indeed, the course underscores the connection between the Army, Navy, Air Force and CANSOFCOM. The CSOTC has also developed a course on operational planning that draws on experts from a number of fields including key decision makers within the Department of National Defence, other governmental departments, allied SOF, and academics from a variety of institutions. While the focus is on understanding the strategic environment for operational planning purposes, a main takeaway is the multitude of different perspectives that the diversity of speakers provide.

Adaptive Proficiency
While shorter in duration than the other two courses mentioned, the Adaptive Proficiency course offered by the CSOTC demands the most introspection from each student. Designed to enable individuals to be adaptive within cognitive, interpersonal and physical domains, as well as when engaged in a leadership role, the Adaptive Proficiency course is most appreciated for the insight that participants gain in terms of understanding their own personality and in appreciating the lenses through which others see them. The self-reflection is both humbling and empowering.
Through these courses and many others, the CSOTC helps CANSOF personnel reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses, understand and appreciate the different perspectives of the people with whom they interact, and helps to assure that the culture within the Command remains a healthy reflection of that of the Canadian Armed Forces at large.

The CSOTC guarantees that CANSOFCOM will never be static in its capabilities and instead is involved in a continuous learning and developmental process that allows CANSOF to meet the needs of the future operating environment, no matter how unpredictable they might be.

The CANSOFCOM PDC is another vehicle through which the Command has consciously enabled its personnel to develop their cognitive capabilities.
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 Headquarters. 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. Topics include cultural intelligence, strategic thinking, cognitive biases, historical case studies, and SOF strategy, to name a few. The PDC also publishes a number of short monographs each year on topics that are pertinent to CANSOFCOM personnel and the Canadian Armed Forces at large. Additionally, the PDC cohosts an annual SOF Symposium with the U.S. Joint Special Operations University that brings SOF from many countries, members of other governmental organizations and agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, and academics together to discuss topical issues. Certainly, the PDC is an important link to allied civilian universities and SOF institutions, which allows for the sharing of expertise, ideas and research. Ultimately, by helping to develop the cognitive capacity of CANSOF personnel, the PDC enables CANSOF to be even better at what they do.

Obviously the cognitive development of CANSOF members is not limited to courses run through the CSOTC or the PDC, but these two organizations, often working together, are the fertile soil that enables the growth and development of the CANSOF cognitive warrior. By providing tools for self-reflection, as well as the opportunity to be exposed to a breadth of experiences, both lived and vicarious through dialogues with diverse groups of people, CANSOFCOM is ensuring that its personnel will never be static in thought or action, or myopic in vision. Through the dedication of scarce resources to the development of the cognitive capacity of personnel, CANSOFCOM is prepared for the future, whatever it may be.

Dr. Emily Spencer has a PhD in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. She is currently the Director of Research and Education at the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command Professional Development Centre. Her research focuses on the importance of cultural knowledge to success in the contemp­orary operating environment, particularly as it applies to special operations forces, as well as the role the media plays in shaping understandings of world events. Dr Spencer has published widely in these areas, as well as in the field of gender and war.
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