Special forces looks at recruiting off the street amid shifting demands

OTTAWA — The Canadian Forces are considering whether to recruit elite special-forces soldiers straight off the street rather than forcing them to follow the traditional route of first spending several years in the military.

The idea, which is still being debated, comes as Canada’s special forces — and the military as a whole — look at radical new ways to attract and retain people with the skills and experience needed to fight tomorrow’s wars.

That includes not just computer experts, for example, but also those with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and language skills, as the special forces aim to operate more effectively in different parts of the world.

“This is not about achieving set quotas or anything else,” Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe, commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, told The Canadian Press in an exclusive interview.

“From a hard-operational perspective, do we have the right mix of people with the right sort of background, education, language, ethnicity, gender … that will allow us to do what our government expects us to do and will expect us to do in the future?”

Canada has about 2,000 special-forces members whose units include Joint Task Force 2, the Canadian Special Forces Regiment, a special helicopter detachment and a unit that specializes in responding to biological, chemical and nuclear incidents.

The government’s defence policy calls for an additional 600 special-forces members amid a realization of the growing importance of special forces to modern militaries.

Canada currently has about 120 special forces soldiers in Iraq and smaller teams working with counterparts in several other countries, including Belize, Jamaica, Niger and Malaysia.

More diverse special forces would make it easier to make connections in different parts of world, understand the environment, interact with power brokers and figure out a way to respond to changing circumstances, Dawe said.

At the same time, he said expectations within society are changing as young people look at different opportunities available to them, which requires the Forces to make it as attractive as possible to join.

Anyone who wants to join the special forces is required to have at least two years in uniform, though they are often required to attain other qualifications that require more time.

Dawe said some “really hard-charging, high-achieving individuals like varsity athletes and super-talented folks out there on civilian street” are interested in the special forces, but they don’t want to spend several years in the regular military before applying.

“So one of the things we would like to look at is whether there is scope to accelerate that, because there is a qualitative dimension that we might not be exploiting or tapping into as well as we could.”

There is precedent for such a move, Dawe said, pointing to Australia and the U.S. as examples where “accelerated” recruiting has been successful.

At the same time, “inculcating future members of the Canadian Armed Forces, doing that properly, making sure they understand what they are joining and why are joining it, is important,” he said, noting recruits will still need to meet the same standards and go through training.

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