W5 delivers an exclusive look at Canada's Special Forces and the war against ISIS
You’ve read about them in bestselling novels. Seen them in Hollywood movies. But what’s it really like to be among Special Forces soldiers?
Well, I had that opportunity as a producer, filming for W5. With more of these elite troops about to be deployed to Iraq, to help the Kurdish Peshmerga army fight ISIS, CTV News was granted exclusive and unprecedented access to Canada’s Special Forces.
Canadian Special Forces Command – CANSOFCOM, opened their doors to allow Canadians to see what Canada’s most elite soldiers are doing, to prepare for foreign and domestic threats.
For me, the story began when I ventured up to Petawawa, about two hours north of Ottawa. The terrain, Canadian Shield, but with a lot of sand. Almost desert-like features, which makes this an ideal location for training our Special Forces for potential desert missions.
CANSOFCOM is made up of 5 different units. There are the ultra-secret JTF2, protecting Canadians from terrorism at home and abroad and the Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit, tasked with dealing with nuclear, biological and chemical threats.
Then there are the Commandos of CSOR and dedicated air support for all of these troops, the 427 Special Operations Aviation Unit. Finally, there is the school that teaches the skills required for potential deployment, CSOTC, The Canadian Special Operations Training Centre.
That is where I was able to get an insider’s look at what it takes to be a member of Canada’s most elite unit. From the moment I got there, I was observing everything that was going on. It was my job, along with our crew, to give Canadians a small glimpse into this training centre.
My first taste of Special Ops training was with the 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron. They are the men and women who provide very specialized air support for every unit of CANSOFCOM. This means being able to deploy troops in a hot zone or landing on a small target in the middle of the night.
We were strapped in aboard CH146 Griffon helicopters, specially outfitted for our special forces. The exercise of the day: practice deploying commandos on very small rooftops. It’s not an easy task when you factor in wind and other helicopters in the air but, in this line of work, error is not an option.
“We can’t screw up,” said the unit’s chief instructor. “So, we have to hit it right the first time and this is where all the training comes from.” (While we were able to tape troops and operators – a first – for security reasons we agreed to withhold names.)
After flying like I have never flown before, we were shown the training centre, the “school house” as they call it. The next demonstration: an attack training exercise.
In the scenario, a team of Special Forces Operators try to neutralize an enemy target in a field. The troops move slowly, precisely, slithering on the ground and in constant communication, until the enemy is taken out. What they are learning is teamwork, trust and the ability to work together in any situation avoiding casualties at all cost. As soon as it is done, the special forces troops re-group and do it again.
It is training like this that will save lives in the battlefield and ensure that Canadians prevail. But it is not all combat training. We also were able to see what it takes to be a medic. A priority in CANSOFCOM is making sure everyone is taken care of. But being a first responder in a battle has its challenges and these men and women practise relentlessly under simulated fire, saving the lives of fellow soldiers and civilians.
Members of CANSOFCOM told W5 that they take their job very seriously. They are tasked with some of the most challenging missions the Chief of Defence Staff can order. Like their current mission in Northern Iraq, which is a “non-combat” role of training and assisting the Kurdish Peshmerga army in their war against ISIS.
Members of our Special Forces have been in Iraq for about two years, but now Canada has committed to triple the number of boots on the ground to help the Peshmerga win the fight. It may seem like an odd match to have some of Canada’s most trained operators teaching another army the skills of combat, but that could not be further from the truth.
“Some of the more publicized aspects, or the ‘Hollywood’ aspects of our jobs are usually what people assign us as being only capable of,” a Sergeant with CSOR told Lisa LaFlamme while on the front line, not far from ISIS controlled territory in Iraq.
“But a large part of our jobs has always been to impart knowledge and skills necessary to assist anyone that’s around us. They become force multipliers. In this case we are their force multipliers as they are the primary combatants.”
The Special Forces Operators have also played a key role in helping the Peshmerga paint targets for airstrike, allowing the Peshmerga to call in their own assaults on ISIS targets. The Canadians have taught them how to identify and validate a military target while also making sure there are no civilians in the line of fire.
“We have trained them to the degree where they have the ability to call in air strikes, said Major-General Mike Rouleau, Commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command. “I would say though that there’s always a level of Canadian governance around, making sure that’s an appropriate use of force and that targets are engaged in a way that’s consistent with what our expectations are as Canadians.”
The mission in Northern Iraq is well suited for Special Operations Forces. They have the expertise working in small teams in difficult areas with cultural differences.
“This is basically a classic irregular warfare mission. In the military we use the term IW. And it’s really getting with an indigenous force and achieving policy objectives by, with and through that indigenous force. And so it was classically in the Special Forces wheel house, if you will,” said Rouleau.
Perhaps the final word should go to the special forces operator, on the ground in Iraq, who told us: “The Kurds have asked for our assistance. The Kurds are fighting on behalf of everyone else out there. They are pushing back a threat that can affect everyone out there. If we fail to do so and they lose this fight, this fight is going to come and face us at home.”