Canadian Forces: Basic Roles and Structure

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Aug 30, 2007

The Canadian Forces, Canada’s formal military organization, provides many key domestic and international functions. This article presents the basic roles and structure of the Canadian Forces, both in the domestic and international context.

Introduction the Canadian Forces

Canadian Forces’ functions, personnel, and budget

Military Command in the Canadian Forces

Military command and leadership structures

Canadian Forces and the Federal Government

Civilian command and leadership structures

Canadian Forces in the International Context

Regional security, peacekeeping, and humanitarian activities

Article Sources and Links to More Information

Lists of article sources and links to more on this topic

Introduction the Canadian Forces

Canadian Forces’ functions, personnel, and budget

Functions of the Canadian Forces

The Canadian Forces represent Canada’s formal military or armed force. In this context, the Canadian Forces perform an array of basic functions:

  • National defence: The Canadian Forces’ primary function is to defend the country’s territory and citizens from foreign military attack, including defending against an armed attack by other nations or by foreign quasi-military organizations. In this capacity, the Canadian Forces cooperate with other domestic defence, policing, border patrol, and intelligence agencies.
  • Regional defence: The Canadian Forces also provide regional defence beyond Canada’s borders. The Canadian Forces work extensively with counterparts in the United States to provide security for the North American continent. They also participate in the defence of the North Atlantic region through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
  • See the Canadian Forces in the International Context section of this article for more information on the Canadian Forces and international defence regimes.
  • Internal stability: The Canadian Forces have also been used within Canada to promote internal stability and quell internal violence. During the 1970 October Crisis, for example, both the federal and Quebec governments dispatched Canadian Forces in the province to assist local and provincial police. During the 1990 Oka Crisis, the Canadian Forces were called in to deal with violent clashes with Quebec Aboriginal groups.
  • Peacekeeping: The Canadian Forces have also been used extensively in international peacekeeping and humanitarian initiatives worldwide. In this context, Canadian Forces’ activities are usually exercised through the United Nations (UN).

For more information on the Canadian Forces and peacekeeping:

  • Search and Rescue: The Canadian Forces are also instrumental in search and rescue operations, both within and outside Canadian territory. They work closely with other domestic and international search and rescue agencies and organizations.
  • Natural disasters: In some circumstances, federal and provincial governments will use the Canadian Forces to provide assistance in natural disasters, such as forest fires or flooding. Specifically, the Canadian Forces provide both manpower and equipment in cooperation with other federal and provincial natural disaster agencies and services. Furthermore, the Canadian Forces maintain a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), which is designed to be deployed rapidly anywhere in Canada or the world.
  • Criminal interdiction: In rare situations, the Canadian Forces assist federal (for example, the RCMP) and provincial police forces (that is, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Quebec Provincial Police) in the area of criminal interdiction and surveillance. For example, Navy and Air Force assets help track and stop drug importation through Canada’s coastal waters and airspace.

Personnel of the Canadian Forces

Canadian Forces personnel consist of two main groups: Regular Forces and Reserve Forces. Regular Forces, which represent the backbone of the military, include personnel who are enrolled for continuing full-time military service. As of May 2007, there were approximately 62,000 Regular Force members in the Canadian Forces (Department of National Defence, 2007). Reserve Forces, in contrast, include personnel that serve on a temporary or part-time basis, and may be activated whenever the military is in need of additional manpower. As of May 2007, there were approximately 25,000 Reserve Force members in the Canadian Forces (Department of National Defence, 2007).

Canada’s military is small relative to leading militaries in the world. The following table compares Canada to the top 10 military nations by total available military personnel.

Comparison of Available Military Personnel (2006)


Total Personnel








North Korea



South Korea









United States















*Includes active personnel, reserves, and units ready for mobilization.
(Source: Global, Total Available Military Personnel, 2006)

Budget of the Canadian Forces

The federal government spends billions of dollars annually on the Canadian Forces. In 2007, the federal national defence budget totaled CAD $15.1 billion (Statistics Canada, 2007). This represented approximately seven percent of the federal government’s total budget for that year. The following table provides Canada’s annual federal defence spending totals from 1997 to 2007.

Canada National Defence Spending (1997-2007)


Spending ($Billions)























*Figures in $CAN
(Source: Statistics Canada, Federal, Provincial, Territorial General Government Revenue and Expenditures, 2007)

These figures place Canada within the top 15 in the world in terms of national defence spending. However, it is important to note the large discrepancy between Canadian spending and that of leading military nations, both in terms of absolute numbers and spending per capita. In 2005, for example, Canada spent US $13.5 billion in total, or US $414 per capita, on national defence. In comparison, the United States, the largest national defence spender, spent a total of US $528.7 billion or US $1,756 per capita. In total terms, the US defence budget is almost 50 times larger than Canada’s, while, on a per capita basis, the US spends four times as much as Canada. The United Kingdom, the second largest defence spender, spent a total of US $59.2 billion and US $990 per capita. Again, this represents a significant difference compared to Canada, both in terms of total amount and spending per capita.

However, if one excludes the three largest national defence spenders (the United States, the United Kingdom, and France), Canadian military spending is quite similar to other military powers, especially in terms of per capita expenditures. Canada spends more money on national defence per person than Russia, China, Japan, India, Brazil, and Spain, and only slightly less than Germany, Italy, and South Korea. The following table compares the world’s top 15 national defence spenders.

Comparison of National Defence Spending (2005)


Spending ($Billions)

Total Spending Rank

Spending per capita ($)

United States




United Kingdom




























Saudi Arabia








Korea, South




















[ ] = estimated figures
*Spending figures are in US$, at constant (2005) prices and exchange rates
 (Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, The 15 Major Spender Countries in 2006, 2007)

Military Command in the Canadian Forces

Military command and leadership structures

The Canadian Forces have both military and civilian command and leadership structures. This section provides an overview of military command and leadership in the Canadian Forces.

  • See the Canadian Forces and the Federal Government section of this article for information on civilian command and leadership over the Canadian Forces.

Environmental Commands of the Canadian Forces

The Canadian Forces are unified, and without independent branches or services. However, there are several command structures based on certain operational environments. Each of these commands has its own uniforms and rank structures, as well as its own military leaders (called “Chiefs”), who are responsible for general administration and long-term planning.

  • Maritime Command (or MARCOM) is the Canadian Forces’ naval command, and operates fleets on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts with bases in Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and Quebec. On the home front, MARCOM forces are engaged in the defence of Canada’s sovereignty and maritime jurisdictional interests, which includes assisting in the protection of North America in cooperation with the United States. MARCOM also provides support for fisheries enforcement to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and assistance to the Solicitor General and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the war against illegal drug smuggling. In addition, MARCOM participates in various international security operations involving the United Nations (UN) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
  • Land Forces Command (LFC) is the army component of the Canadian Forces. LFC is based at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa, with four geographically dispersed areas reporting to Headquarters: Land Force Western Area (British Columbia and the Prairie provinces, with headquarters in Edmonton); Land Force Central Area (Ontario, with headquarters in Toronto); Land Force Quebec Area (Quebec, with headquarters in Montreal), and Land Force Atlantic Area (Atlantic Provinces, with headquarters in Halifax). LFC is a multi-purpose, combat-capable force designed to protect Canadian territory, defend North America in cooperation with the United States, and contribute to international peace and stability through the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
  • Air Command (AIRCOM) is the Canadian Forces’ air force component. AIRCOM is responsible for all aircraft operations in the Canadian Forces. It enforces the security of Canada’s airspace, and provides aircraft for supporting the missions of Maritime Command and Land Force Command. AIRCOM is a partner with the United States Air Force in protecting continental airspace under the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD). It also provides personnel and equipment support to other government agencies in the areas of search and rescue and humanitarian relief.  

For more information on the environmental commands of the Canadian Forces:

Operational Commands of the Canadian Forces

In addition to the three environmental commands, the Canadian Forces also have permanent operational commands based on particular theatres of operation and force type. These operational commands have a military leader (with the title of “Commander”), each of whom is responsible for overseeing and conducting military operations under his/her particular jurisdictions.

  • Canada Command (Canada Command): Canada Command plans and conducts all Canada Forces’ operations within Canada and North America. This includes operations relating to the defence of Canada and North America from military attack, as well as dealing with natural disasters, search and rescue, and other domestic activities. The Commander of Canada Command has the authority to direct Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel in these domestic operations, and reports to the Chief of the Defence Staff (see below).
  • Canadian Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM): CEFCOM plans and conducts all Canadian Forces’ operations outside of Canada and North America, with the exception of those conducted solely by the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (see below). This would include combat activities abroad, as well as humanitarian and peacekeeping in other countries. The Commander of CEFCOM has the authority to direct Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel in these international operations, and reports to the Chief of Defence Staff (see below).
  • Canadian Special Operation Forces Command (CANSOFCOM): CANSOFCOM plans and conducts special forces operations in Canada and around the world, including those relating to Joint Task Force 2 (JFT2), the Joint Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence Company, the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, and the 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron. The Commander of CANSOFCOM reports to the Chief of Defence Staff (see below).
  • Canadian Operational Support Command (CANOSCOM): CANOSCOM is a joint, interoperable command designed to work closely in support of the three other operational commands. CANOSCOM provides a full range of operational support and services, including logistics, engineering, health services, and military police. As with the other operational commands, the Commander of CANOSCOM reports to the Chief of the Defence Staff (see below).

For more information on the operational commands of the Canadian Forces:

Military Leadership of the Canadian Forces

The Canadian Forces’ highest-ranking military office is the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). The CDS commands, controls, and administers the Canadian Forces, and oversees military strategy, plans, and requirements (Chief of the Defence Staff, 2007). The CDS is also the central military liaison between the Canadian Forces and the federal government. The CDS is responsible (along with members of the Department of National Defence) for implementing government defence policy, as well as advising the federal government on defence matters. The CDS is appointed by the Governor General of Canada, on the advice of the Prime Minister of Canada.

  • See the Canadian Forces and the Federal Government section of this article for more information on the relationship between the CDS and the federal government.

The Armed Forces Council, the senior military body of the Canadian Forces, assists the CDS. The Council is chaired by the CDS and meets at least once monthly to discuss military matters pertaining to the command, control, and administration of the Canadian Forces. In addition to the CDS, the Council includes the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff and Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff; the Chiefs of MARCOM, LFC, and AIRCOM; and other senior military advisors. The operational commanders for Canada Command, CEFCOM, CANSOFCOM, and CANOSCOM report directly to the Chief of the Defence Staff and, in some cases, the Armed Forces Council.

For more information on the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Armed Forces Council:

Canadian Forces and the Federal Government

Civilian command and leadership structures

Federal Jurisdiction over National Defence

Under Canada’s Constitution, jurisdiction over national defence (and, in turn, the Canadian Forces) falls to the federal government. Section 15 of the Constitution Act, 1867, states the “Commander-in-Chief of the Land and Naval Militia, and of all Naval and Military Forces, of and in Canada, is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen” (Department of Justice, Constitutions Acts 1867 to 1982). Furthermore, Section 91(7) designates the “Militia, Military and Naval Service, and Defence” as falling under the exclusive legislative authority of the Parliament of Canada (Ibid). As such, only the federal government, as opposed to the provincial and territorial governments, may create a standing army, declare war, enter into international treaties and defence pacts, and make command, control, and administrative decisions regarding the Canadian military forces.

Executive Branch and the Canadian Forces

The federal government’s executive branch has authority over the day-to-day operation and administration of the Canadian Forces. The Canadian Monarch or his/her representative in Canada, the Governor General of Canada, is constitutionally recognized as the Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Forces. In practice, however, authority over the military is exercised by the federal Cabinet and, in particular, the Prime Minister of Canada. The Prime Minister and Cabinet have the power to appoint senior Canadian Forces’ personnel (such as the Chief of the Defence Staff), as well as to develop defence policy and strategy.

Within the federal Cabinet, responsibility for the Canadian Forces falls to the Department of National Defence (DND) and its political head, the Minister of National Defence. The Minister is the key civilian liaison between the federal government and the Canadian Forces. S/he meets regularly with Cabinet and the Prime Minister to develop defence policy and provide advice on defence issues. In addition, the Minister oversees senior military leaders, in particular, the Chief of the Defence Staff, to implement government policy and receive defence reports. The Minister also meets regularly with the defence leadership of key Canadian allies. In these activities, the Department of National Defence assists the Minister by providing research, analysis, and administrative support.

For more information on the Minister and Department of National Defence:

Parliament and the Canadian Forces

While administration of the Canadian Forces falls predominately to the executive branch of the federal government, the remainder of Parliament does perform some important functions. Central is Parliament’s responsibility for passing key pieces of legislation relating to the operation of the Canadian Forces. Declarations of war, international defence treaties and pacts, as well as the Canadian Forces’ annual budget, must all be passed by the House of Commons, the Senate, and the Canadian Monarch.

In addition, Parliament regularly reviews government policy pertaining to national defence and the Canadian Forces. Both the House of Commons and the Senate have standing parliamentary committees that review Canadian defence policy and strategy. These committees have the authority to call witnesses, review government documents (under certain conditions), and make recommendations to the federal Cabinet and their respective legislative houses. They do not, however, have the power to overrule the federal government’s defence decisions.

For more information on Parliamentary committees on defence:

Canadian Forces and Other Federal Defence Agencies

The Canadian Forces also maintain close links with other key defence agencies within the federal government, usually through the Department of National Defence. This would include, for example, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), which collects foreign intelligence that can be used by the Canadian government and the Canadian Forces for strategic warning, policy formulation, decision-making, and day-to-day assessment of foreign capabilities and intentions. Another key federal agency is Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), which provides science and technology services to the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces.

The Canadian Forces also work closely with domestic search and rescue agencies through the National Search and Rescue Secretariat. This agency acts a liaison for all agencies and partners dealing with search and rescue in Canada. The Minister of National Defence is the Lead Minister for Search and Rescue.

For more on Canadian Forces’ association with other defence-related agencies:

Canadian Forces in the International Context

Regional security, peacekeeping, and humanitarian activities

The Canadian Forces play a significant international role and maintain close relationships with foreign militaries and international organizations.

Canada-United States Defence Relations

Canada maintains close military relationships and agreements with several countries worldwide. Its closest foreign defence partnership by far, however, is with the United States. This is due to the close geographic proximity of the two nations, as well as their highly integrated political, economic, and cultural relations.

As of August 2007, Canada and the United States have more than 80 treaty-level defence agreements, more than 250 memoranda of understanding between the two defence departments, and approximately 145 bilateral forums in which defence matters are discussed (Department of National Defence, 2006). Moreover, Canadian and American forces often take part in combined operations, both in the context of training and actual combat. This interoperability is so effective that elements of the Canadian Forces will often be integrated into larger American combat formations. For example, Canadian Naval frigates regularly act as command and control centres for American fleet groups, and Canadian Army and Special Forces personnel often train and fight within larger American force groups.

Key institutions of Canada-US defence relations include the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), the Canada-United States Permanent Joint Board on Defence, the Canada-United States Military Cooperation Committee, and the Defence Development and Defence Production Sharing Arrangements.

For more information on Canada-US defence relations:

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

Another key international relation for the Canadian Forces is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Formed in 1949, NATO is a military alliance of 26 countries from North America and Europe, including Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. NATO’s primary purpose is to safeguard the security of its member countries through political and military means. NATO has also been the lead organization in several security operations around the world, such as Afghanistan after the 2001 US invasion and in the former Yugoslavia following its civil war in the 1990s.

For more information on Canada and NATO:

Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Operations

The Canadian Forces also actively participate on the international scene through peacekeeping and humanitarian activities abroad. In most cases, these activities are undertaken through the United Nations (UN). More than 125,000 Canadian military personnel have served on peacekeeping missions for the United Nations. Canadian military leaders have often taken part in the planning and command of United Nations peacekeeping operations.

For more information on Canada and United Nations peacekeeping:

In 1996, the Canadian Forces created the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to provide international humanitarian relief. DART consists of several hundred Canadian soldiers that have the capability to provide short-term emergency aid to areas devastated by natural or other disasters. This includes providing basic medical care, producing safe drinking water, and repairing basic infrastructure. The federal government makes the decision on where to send DART after it receives a request from a country or the United Nations. DART does not enter into areas where it will face organized resistance.

Sources & Links to Further Information

Lists of article sources and links to more on this topic

Sources Used for this Article

  • Middlemiss, D. and Sokolsky, J. Canadian Defence: Decisions and Determinants. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Canada. Toronto: 1989.
  • About DND/CF.” Department of National Defence. 25 May 2007. 05 August 2007. <>
  • Backgrounder: Canada-United States Defence Relations. Department of National Defence. 27 July 2006. 05 August 2007. <>
  • Total Available Military Personnel”. 05 August 2007. <>
  • Federal General Government, National Defence (31-Mar-1989 to 31-Mar-2007)”. Table 3850002 – Federal, provincial and territorial general government revenue, for fiscal year ending March 31, annually (Dollars). Statistics Canada: 2007.
  • The 15 Major Spender Countries in 2006.” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.  2007. 05 August 2007. <>
  • About the CDS: Responsibilities.” Chief of the Defence Staff. 04 November 2005. 05 August 2007. <>
  • Armed Forces Council.” Chief of the Defence Staff. 07 July 2007. 05 August 2007. <>
  • Constitution Acts 1867 to 1982.” Department of Justice Canada. 05 August 2007. <>

Links to More Information