The new marine commando regiment

Amidst the hoopla surrounding the leaked Conservative Canada First Defence Strategy and the subsequent series of articles by David Pugliese, one overlooked item was the proposed creation of a 250 member Marine Commando Regiment (MCR) based in Comox, BC. As described by Pugliese, the MCR will be a dedicated maritime Special Operations Force (SOF), with a primary mission of countering sea-based terrorist incidents. (That the Marine Commando Regiment will in part be designed for rescuing Canadians trapped in war-torn nations accessible by sea is fairly ironic, given that, as Eric Lerhe pointed out previously, the decision to pay off the Protecteur-class replenishment ships early will mean these commandos won't be able to rescue anyone using Canadian ships, but I digress...)

The unit's creation was first suggested in June when RAdm Roger Girouard commented that plans were in the works to create a special forces base in BC, although at the time it was thought a SOF unit in BC might be staffed by naval members of JTF2. The creation of a maritime SOF capability comes on the heels of the creation of Canada Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) and a new battalion sized Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR).

The new MCR will fill commitments made in the 2005 Defence Policy Statement to provide "supporting maritime forces" for a Special Operations Group. (One of the Transformation initiatives, that is, arguably, actually transformative) Furthermore, this group might help fulfill the Conservative campaign pledge to restore an army presence in BC, (albeit fudging slightly on the details) and would give the military a standing SOF capability in BC in advance of the 2010 Olympics. Given the ongoing vulnerability of oil platforms, commercial shipping, and our seaports to terrorist threats, a dedicated maritime Special Operation Force unit makes sense. After all, responding to a maritime based terrorist threat would presumably require more than a basic ability to get in and out of boats, so dedicating one force to operating in and on the water seems prudent.

The unit's creation raises several unanswered questions, however.

First, why have a capability on only one side of the country?
Presumably, fiscal restraints allow for the creation of only one unit, and the decision to base the unit in BC makes sense if it is driven primarily by shipping considerations; the west coast boasting a larger volume of commercial shipping. However, if protecting offshore oil platforms is a requirement, the east coast would seem a more appropriate choice. Either way, there surely remains a requirement for a similar capability on Canada's Atlantic Ocean.

Second, what will its relationship be to JTF2?
JTF2 currently has responsibility for maritime counter-terrorism.Will the new MCR take over JTF2's maritime counter-terrorism role? Will it be a "Tier Two" maritime response, with JTF2 remaining Canada's "Tier One" maritime SOF unit? Better yet, what will its relationship be with the army pathfinders that were practicing submarine operations last July?

Third, to what extent will the MCR operate out of, and with, submarines?
At the moment, HMCS Victoria, the west coast's lone sub, is not operational, and won't be back online until mid 2009. The east coast, however, features our current operational submarine, HMCS Corner Brook, in addition to HMCS Windsor, the submarine that previously conducted training missions with the aforementioned pathfinders (although the boat is currently out of service). Although it is currently unclear when the MCR will be stood up, the submarine question alone makes the decision to base the unit on the west coast curious.

Fourth, who's paying for all of this? As Eric Lerhe has pointed out, SOF units don't come cheap, in terms of equipment, personnel and training budgets. Whose budget will this come from, and at the expense of what?

Finally, and perhaps most important, how will this regiment be staffed?
In June 2006, RAdm Girouard described a unit comprised of naval personnel. If this is the case, where will the not-insignificant 250 people come from? As written in the Winter 2007 CNR Editorial, the overall CF personnel situation is murky at best, and the navy in particular seems hard pressed to retain its current strength. Alternately, the MCR might simply steal some, or all, of JTF2's maritime counter-terrorism personnel. Any of these options must ultimately fit into a rapidly expanding CANSOFCOM, which is slated to expand to 2,300 personnel by the end of the decade (Pugliese, pegs the current size of JTF2 at 600 and the CSOR at over 300, and CANSOFCOM also includes a Special Operations Aviation Squadron and a Joint Nuclear, biological and Chemical Defence Company)

In the current threat environment, SOF have become a hot commodity, and Canada is not alone in expanding is capability. The 2005 US Quadrennial Defence Review calls for across-the-board increases in US SOF units, including a 33% increase in Army Special Forces alone. This has occasioned a minor controversy in professional American military publications, with many repudiating such a rapid increase without a proportional increase in the overall size of the US military. Critics assert this will result in a watering down of the SOF talent pool, especially given recent initiatives to allow direct, off-the-street recruiting into SOF units, rather than selecting from within military ranks.

It remains to be seen how the CF, recently forced to shelve its planned expansion, will be able to find, train and equip 250 highly capable marine commandos.