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Retaining High Potential Operators in CANSOFCOM

For over 30 years, the Special Operations Forces (SOF) Culture has prioritized humans being more critical than hardware in their five truths. The individuals are at the core of all SOF truths, which values cooperation, quality, rigorous training of every force member, and competency (Berardinelli, 2018). The Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) has attained high potential operators through spending significant energy and time to recruit SOF members in a force generation process that is lengthy, defendable, and validated. However, despite efforts by CANSOFCOM, the retention problem of SOF members is a non-linear issue that has faced force over the years. The retention problem defines the unsustainable attrition rate of the high potential operators who exit the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) before attaining their mandatory age of retirement (Aral, 2018). The problem is significant enough to affect the military plans limiting its effectiveness to carry out assigned duties by the government. Similarly, it becomes challenging for CAF to fill all positions because of the problem, which then strains the operations and the training system (Wood et al., 2018). Studies into the problem have identified social policy problems as the cause ranging from working environment issues, pays and benefits, family support, and geographical stability. As a result, measures such as improving personnel health care, proper integration of hires into the military, ad building interpersonal relationships have been considered to solve the retention problem. Therefore, the current paper examines the retention problem among high potential operators in CANSOFCOM, contributing factors, and the possible solutions.


The inability to retain high potential operators in CAF creates an ugly and unpredictable environment where the military cannot conduct operations as assigned. However, this situation is caused by several catalysts that influence a member of the SOF to exit before their time is due (Aral, 2018). Canada was among the countries that reduced its defense forces after the Cold War. The country’s retention problem currently faced by CAF began as early as the 1990s, followed by reducing military strength in 1991 to reduce the personnel (Berardinelli, 2018). Members who made specific criteria were motivated by compensation packages that were considered part of the Force Reduction Program (FRP) to leave the force early. For about five years, by 1997, roughly 14,000 CAF personnel had exited, making CAF able to achieve their target of a downsized personnel force and further allowing the government to save money used as salaries through a large CAF budget (Huddleston, 2020). However, by 2001, CAF could hardly perform its operations because of a lack of experience and trained personnel. The FRP had set the stage for members of CAF to exit the service before attaining their retirement age which late became a significant issue.

As the retention problem increased in the CAF, investigations were conducted, including the 2016 CAF Retention Survey and the Auditor General (A-G) Reports. The investigations highlighted some of the factors acting as catalysts to influence CAF members’ decision to exit the service. The 2002 A-G report highlighted issues relating to the working conditions and leadership that cause military exit (Aral, 2018). The report also indicated organizational climate and the low morale due to the working conditions and many workloads stemming from the shortages in personnel are among the potential factors contributing to members of CAF choosing to leave the military. The Canadian government, the chain command of members, and CAF cause frustrations to the military personnel leading them to quit the force (Wood et al., 2018). Most of the frustrations recorded were linked to many aspects, including members of the military being unable to acquire adequate equipment. Communications dismissal, work/life balance conflicts, and the lack of direction based on the expectations and the organizational future are among the things that lead to the frustrations.

The 2016 retention survey conducted by CAF identified various internal and external reasons that led SOF members to exit the military. The considered internal reasons include pay dissatisfaction, poor or lack of geographical stability, occupational dissatisfaction, job dissatisfaction, and impact on children or spouses (Wood et al., 2018). The external catalysts included issues of the family, eligibility for pension benefits, and lack of motivation for change or break. Research has placed family considerations at the center of the organizational commitment of the CAF members and their continued submission to the service. There are those who cited lack of family support and how their life as CAF members affected their children’s education (Berardinelli, 2018). Besides the wish by the family for the members of the CAF to leave the military, some had identified personal reasons and other family issues as catalysts for their decisions to quit before time was due. Geographical instability means that military members have to keep moving from one location to another, either going along with their family, including children and wives, or along. The changes affect their children’s education and spouses’ employment, which sometimes force them to leave the military.

Canada’s new policy for defense has focused on pursuing CAF to improve on the current situation to allow high potential operators to be retained. The desired state is to see CANSOFCOM seeking new and improved processes that will attract and retain talented and skillful members. With the best members and operators onboard, the force to be created will be agile, responsive, and intelligent. Therefore, the influencing factors are considered and measures taken to limit the exit of the members from the military.


As efforts are in place to achieve the desired state of retaining members of the military especially high potential operators, the process is faced with various challenges and opportunities. The number of those members leaving CAF has continued to rise over the years despite efforts to lower this number. Though the findings remained almost similar between 2006 and 2016, CAF continues to face understaffing. By the year 2018/19, the CAF targeted 68,000 members though A-G’s report found this target unrealistic considering the rate of decline with only 66,400 members in 2016 (Wood et al., 2018). More barriers between the current state and the desired state based on the running of the force. The individual in leadership positions or higher-level entities is always the ultimate decision-makers with planning from the CAF only following the organization’s chain of command. Therefore, those at the base of the military have a limited role to play in ensuring that high retention is achieved. Similarly, there must be the chain of command approval to implement the policy suggested by the members of the chain command (Huddleston, 2020). It means that even if these members suggest good policies that would increase retention and limit exit, such policies may be thrown away by the command chain.

Similarly, all Canadians benefit from CAF, and besides providing national security, it extends to North American and even internationally. As a result, to build a suitable force, the Canadian government has set such a process to be time-intensive and expensive. Therefore, the situation has undermined the process of attempting to retain enough well-trained personnel so that CAF can conduct their missions. Also, like other countries, Canada faces global security as a pressing issue, including an unstable security environment. It faces terrorism threats, damaging climatic effects, civil unrest, and heightening tensions from China, North Korea, and Russia (Huddleston, 2020). In addition, the COVID-19 crisis currently facing the world and the US’s change of approach to international affairs is among the issues that contest the Canadian security environment making the entire process to retain members of CAF a challenge.

However, even with these challenges, there are many opportunities to leverage. Besides the military operations that have formed the basis for many exits, there are many missions such as supporting care centers and responding to disasters that CAF can conduct. Such missions are not as involving and terrifying as fighting terrorists or criminals, and CAF should consider having more members working in these areas (Wood et al., 2018). At the same time, CAF strongly partners with the US as a North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) member. The partnership provides then an opportunity to work together and address some of the issues leading to the retention problems. Thus, the identified barriers have played a significant role in facilitating the continued retention problem in the CAF, especially among the high potential members.


There is a need for an approach towards appropriate actions to overcome the challenges that have hindered achieving optimal retention of CAF’s highly potential operators. The action plan also needs to acknowledge the opportunities and leverage them to limit the number of military members leaving the force (Huddleston, 2020). There is a need to increase the number of women’s representation within the CAF if the desired state has to be achieved. Besides, the indigenous Canadians and the visible minority groups need to increase their numbers to the desired percentages (Taillon, 2005). According to the current state, the identified groups are unfairly represented, making it hard to replace those who left as specialized members.

Consideration should also be given to increasing the recruitment and training capacity of the members of CAF. The approach should focus on reviewing the recruitment process and making additional staff to address the issues of shortcomings. During this phase of recruitment, there is a significant need to improve the experience of the new recruits and those still training (Day & Horn, 2010). The action towards improving the process of recruitment and training equally impacts retention since members develop the resilience to remain within the military regardless of the circumstances. Similarly, it makes it easier to replace members of CAF who leave the military for any reason, even though they are highly trained operators (Huddleston, 2020). In the long term, such actions can increase the strength of personnel in CAF, considering that the new recruits are well-trained and already working in the department.

A critical action approach involves improving the tracking mechanisms of occupation. The new action plan in place would allow tracking the needs for recruitment, progress monitoring, and making the appropriate adjustments (Day & Horn, 2010). As a result, it makes it easier to identify internal and external issues to calculate the requirement for annual intake to address any deficit due to exits. Similarly, tracking personnel numbers allows making necessary changes on policies and processes to address some of the issues leading to members leaving the military.


Therefore, the investigation into the CAF shows that retention of the high potential operators is a major problem faced by CANSOFCOM. Retention problem occurs as a result of members of the military exiting before they attain their mandatory age of retirement. Many factors, including organizational climate and the low morale due to the working conditions and many workloads stemming from the shortages in personnel, have been identified to contribute towards members of CAF choosing to leave the military. Inability to acquire adequate equipment, communications dismissal, work/life balance conflicts, and the lack of direction based on the expectations and the organizational future also are critically leading to frustrations. The need to increase the number of women representation, the indigenous Canadians and the visible minority groups within the CAF, and increasing the recruitment and training capacity is significant in solving the issues associated with retention.


Aral, S. (2018). The new CANSOFCOM recruitment and retention model: the targeted approach. JCSP 45 Service Paper.

Berardinelli, A.C. (2018). Retention in CANSOFCOM: motivation to stay. JCSP 45 Service Paper.

Day, D. M., & Horn, B. (2010). Canadian Special Operations Command: the maturation of a national capability.

Huddleston, A. (2020). Canadian Armed Forces retention: a wicked problem?.

Taillon, D. J. P. D. B. (2005). Canadian Special Operations Forces: Transforming paradigms.

Wood, V., Urban, S., MacDonald, T., & Charbonneau, D. (2018). Spousal Attachment and Marital Functioning Following Deployment Reunion. The Homefront, 59.


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