Canada's special forces want to attract women for a job that's more than kicking down doors

Canada's special forces are throwing open the door to more women as the nature of combat changes. But one former commander of an elite unit says there needs to be a cultural change in the military for that to happen.

'Having female operators would allow us to be more flexible in the battlespace,' says Maj.-Gen. Mike Rouleau

Capt. Ashley Collette poses with children during a patrol in Afghanistan in 2013, in a photo provided by the Canadian Armed Forces. During her 10-month deployment, Collette led an all-male infantry unit, receiving the Medal of Military Valour. The Canadian military wants to attract more women, including as members of its elite special forces. (Capt. Ashley Collette/Associated Press)

Canada's special forces hope to recruit more than just a few good women in the coming years, says the commander of the elite force.

Maj-Gen. Mike Rouleau said the special forces, the highly trained military units that hunt terrorists and conduct covert operations, are considering how they can recruit more women.

More than just a nod toward society's growing demand for gender balance, having more women in the unit would make it more effective, he said. 

This is the future, and it is a bit of James Bond, but if you want to defeat a [terrorist] cellular-based network, you need to be in front of that cell- Steve Day, former commander of counterterrorism unit

"Having female operators would allow us to be more flexible in the battlespace," Rouleau said in a recent interview. "It would allow us to be more under the radar in certain cases."

In certain countries, two men walking down the street might draw attention, but having a man and woman conduct the same mission might be less noticeable, Rouleau suggested.

A former commander of the country's elite counterterrorism unit, JTF-2, which is part of the special forces command, said the need for such mixed gender teams is something Canada's allies have already recognized.

The more special forces are called on to fight terrorists, the more they will have to act and fight like intelligence agents, rather "door-kicking" commandos, said retired colonel Steve Day, who is now president of Reticle Security.

"Our closest allies routinely deploy male and female alongside each other to do the softer, intelligence-gathering, sensor-type operations," he said.

"This is the future, and it is a bit of James Bond, but if you want to defeat a [terrorist] cellular-based network, you need to be in front of that cell, and at the moment, we're not there."

Clear criteria

Up to 14 per cent of the more than 2,200 Canadian special forces personnel are women, a percentage Rouleau said he wants to increase to 25 per cent.

That figure would be in line with the overall direction of the Canadian military, which has set the same goal.

"We're an equal opportunity employer," said Rouleau. "We'd love to have more women in the force."

Maj.-Gen. Mike Rouleau, commander of Canada's special forces, says having more women serving in the special forces would make it more successful. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It is, however, easier said than done.

Rouleau noted a handful of women currently serve in both the special forces command and the unit that responds to chemical, biological and radioactive incidents.

A few have even tried out for JTF-2, but none have gone on to take the training course, because they failed to qualify, he said. 

In order to be successful, Day said, a cultural change is needed within the special forces that recognizes not only the value of women in the field, but the fact that the elite troops are capable of doing more than assaulting a target.

The very first introduction of women into the special forces ranks in 2003-2004 "didn't go over that well because organizationally we were quite immature when it came to understanding what the selection process would be," said Day.

"There was a lot of pushback and no end of short-term grief."

The problem is not simply gender bias, he added.

The selection process of an "assaulter" — a soldier well-suited to combat — is well documented, he said, but the criteria for choosing the best people for more intelligence-based operations is not as well defined. That needs to change, Day said.

Rouleau acknowledged his organization can do more to get out the message that "female operators are not only welcome, but in many cases, they would make us operationally more successful."

Army under strain

The Liberal government's defence policy, released last spring, mandated the expansion of special forces by up to 605 personnel, presenting all sorts of challenges beyond the gender issue.

At the moment, troops can only join the elite unit through the regular forces, and up to 94 per cent of those transfers come from the army.

The wider military is having its own problems.

The army currently sits at 47,000, which includes regular and reserve soldiers, as well as Canadian Rangers, who patrol the Arctic. But the regular force is short up to 1,500 troops from its allotted strength of 23,100, according to Department of Defence statistics.

Members of Canadian Forces Special Operations JTF-2 unit storm a ship during a training mission off the shores of Churchill, Man. in 2012. The nature of operations for special forces is changing to include more intelligence gathering. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Senior defence officials insist they're hitting recruiting targets, but retention of highly skilled members is a problem.

Drawing from an army that is struggling to keep qualified soldiers "is a concern," said Rouleau, who acknowledged he and his staff are looking for a direct-entry model similar to a program introduced by the U.S. Army, known as 18-Xray.

"You can't come from the street to be a special forces operator," said Rouleau. "But that doesn't mean in the future we won't have a model that you can come from the street.

"I'm not saying that's where we're going. I'm saying we're looking at alternate options to today's model to make sure that we're both capturing the talent that's out there, but also try, if we can, to alleviate some of the pressure from the services."

The American system gives recruits the opportunity to "try out" for special forces right away.

U.S.officials say it does not guarantee a recruit will be accepted, only that they will be given the opportunity to demonstrate they have "the right stuff."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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