Pathfinders
CHRIS MACLEAN and PAUL PRYCE
© 2015 FrontLine Defence (Vol 12, No 2)

The Canadian Army Patrol Pathfinder (PPF) course is an advanced infantry certification that focuses on a variety of infantry operations including: airborne, airmobile, rugged terrain and amphibious operations.

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The Patrol Pathfinder Course (PPF) is an advanced infantry course within the Canadian Forces (CF). This course focuses on the conduct of various types of infantry operations including: airborne, airmobile, rugged terrain and amphibious operations in any kind of terrain. (2012 Photo: MCPl Peter Reed, Formation Imaging Services, Nova Scotia.)

Becoming qualified as a PPF requires passing (or, as some have quipped: “surviving”) what has been called one of the world’s most intense and gruelling 8-week specialist courses. Run in the fall by the Canadian Army Advanced Warfare Centre, the course includes a ground phase (typically completed at Petawawa), and a naval portion which usually includes working with submarines and other maritime platforms. The naval portion takes place in either Comox or Halifax depending on the Navy’s availability for that timeframe.

Although by no means a secret, it is safe to say that few Commanders across the Canadian Armed Forces truly have an in-depth understanding of the unique capabilities at their disposal when they have certified Patrol Pathfinders among their soldiers. This lack of awareness has led some observers to question whether this certification is being wasted. For instance, a common misconception sees Pathfinders as simply duplicating the capabilities of paratroopers.

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Pathfinders from 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment (3 RCR) rehearse an amphibious beach landing with the Latvian Army on Exercise SUMMER SHIELD XII in Adazi, Latvia on March 22, 2015. (Photo: Land Task Element, DND TN2015-0009-C0202)

In truth, the Pathfinders fill a valuable niche in the Canadian Army. This includes both combat and humanitarian roles. Patrol Pathfinders are trained to rapidly deploy from water, land or air.

LCol François Dufault, Commanding Officer at the Canadian Army Advanced Warfare Centre, spoke to FrontLine about the unique capabilities a soldier with Pathfinder certification can deliver to ­mission commanders.
 
For humanitarian missions where a community is cut off from road access, he says Patrol Pathfinders can be parachuted in and are trained to quickly establish an emergency airstrip for cargo aircraft to facilitate bringing in emergency supplies and medical responders. Part of their advanced training includes tandem parachuting, so if medical attention is urgently needed in a particularly difficult-to-reach area, a Patrol Pathfinder can jump with a medical practitioner (who may have never parachuted before) strapped to them for a safe landing.
 
In a combat environment, these soldiers are trained to deploy and operate both covertly and independently. Pathfinder soldiers are trained to gather intelligence for commanders on enemy capabilities, prepare sniper positions, and otherwise set conditions favourable to deployment by a larger military formation. In short, Patrol Pathfinders are perfectly suited to what the Canadian Forces refers to as ‘adaptive dispersed operations’ (ADO).

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Students participate in a portion of the Patrol Pathfinder course held in Halifax, Nova Scotia from July 11-13, 2012. 2012 (Photo: MCPl Peter Reed, Formation Imaging Services, Nova Scotia.)

In 2007, when Canadian Army strategists reflected on lessons learned from the mission in Afghanistan, they developed a new strategic concept entitled Land Operations 2021. That document defines ADO as “…the ability to conduct coordinated, interdependent, full spectrum actions by widely dispersed teams across the moral, physical and informational planes of the battlespace, ordered and connected within an operational design created to achieve a desired end state.”

In the context of a failed state where multiple conflicts have emerged, Pathfinders can be an essential tool for commanders who need to make sense of what is happening within their area of operations. When it comes to surveillance, this human component and ‘adaptability’ is what the Canadian Forces has identified as key to ADO and future warfare.
 
Although one could argue that Patrol Pathfinders are still not being employed to their full potential, their performance on CAF exercises demonstrates they can clearly match ADO requirements. The challenge now is to make sure operational commanders are fully aware of the depth of specialized training each PPF-certified soldier has to offer.
 
During the 2008 edition of Exercise Trillium Response, Pathfinders conducted a suitability assessment of an airstrip near Moosonee, Ontario prior to the arrival of the main body of forces via a CC-130 Hercules transport aircraft. The Pathfinders communicated this information to the commander and provided security during the landing. Exercise Trident Fury is another example, Pathfinders joined with Royal Canadian Navy clearance divers to establish a beach site for insertion and extraction, established a drop zone for a sniper team, and generally performed specialized roles for the commander during the two-week maritime exercise.

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Soldiers participate in a portion of the Patrol Pathfinder course held in Halifax, Nova Scotia from July 25 to August 2, 2013. (2013 Photo: MCpl David McCord, Army Public Affairs)

Clearly, Patrol Pathfinders add value, but ensuring full utilization may require a Force Employment Concept that will articulate doctrine for commanders on the use of soldiers with these specialized skills.

The Canadian Armed Forces is currently “revisiting everything related to Light Forces,” notes Dufault. This may help to clarify which functions should be assigned to Pathfinders, and dispel some of the confusion surrounding reconnaissance roles in the Canadian Army.

Such steps would be in line with those taken by other NATO member states. For example, the British Army has long employed a Pathfinder Platoon, a specialist reconnaissance unit that forms an integral part of 16 Air Assault Brigade. During the Kosovo War, it provided forward air control and formed a defensive screen around Pristina International Airport. Since then, Britain’s Pathfinder Platoon has also served in reconnaissance roles in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Iraq. France has formed a Commando Parachute Group to fulfill a similar function. Each regiment within the 11th Parachute Brigade has one or two of these Commando Parachute Groups within its ranks, making a total of 19 such teams. Other countries known to have adopted this model include Belgium, India, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United States (which operates three Pathfinder schools).

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Pathfinders from 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment (3 RCR) rehearse an amphibious beach landing with the Latvian Army on Exercise SUMMER SHIELD XII in Adazi, Latvia on March 22, 2015. (Photo: Land Task Element, DND TN2015-0009-C0204)

Canada is essentially unique in its lack of formalization surrounding the Patrol Pathfinders, and this may restrict effective integration into the commander’s toolbox. After surviving such grueling training, Pathfinders are ready to be assigned to ­missions that harness the fullest extent of their skills and abilities.

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Chris MacLean is the Editor-in-Chief of FrontLine Defence magazine.
Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada and wrote about this topic for that organization. He holds degrees in political science from universities in both Canada and Estonia.
© 2015 FrontLine Defence

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