Section 4: The Attributes of the Profession of Arms in Canada

What follows describes the four attributes of the profession of arm — responsibility, expertise, identity and the military ethos — and their interrelationships in the Canadian context.


The core responsibility of the Canadian Forces is the defence of Canada and Canadian interests, and the country’s military professionals are collectively accountable to the government and the people of Canada for the successful execution of this primary duty. Central to this responsibility is the need for each individual to be held accountable for his or her performance, always acting in compliance with the law and maintaining the highest standards with respect to all the professional attributes. Since the community is compelled to ensure its security by providing its military with increasingly powerful weapons and other technologies, it is a professional responsibility to ensure that the highest standard of discipline, especially self-discipline, is maintained.

Members of the profession must ensure the care and well-being of subordinates. All leaders must understand, both professionally and personally, that this vital responsibility is the basis for fostering and maintaining an effective and cohesive force with high morale. This requires personal dedication to the ideals of the military ethos, the professional development of subordinates, the careful stewardship of resources, and administrative competency and accountability. All military professionals have the broader responsibility of maintaining the integrity and reputation of the military profession, ensuring that the Canadian values described in Section 3 of Chapter Two and the Canadian military ethos shape the conduct of operations and individual actions.

Beyond this responsibility for cohesion and high morale that every member of the Canadian Forces shares, each has additional responsibilities that derive from his or her specific appointment within the organization. These range from responsibility for the maintenance and operation of an individual piece of equipment to providing advice to the government on the commitment of forces. Therefore, every member has clear responsibility and accountability for the performance of his or her duties within the Canadian Forces chain of command.

In this regard, a fundamental division of responsibility in the Canadian profession of arms occurs between officers and NCMs. Today, the differences between the officer and NCM corps can be described in terms of competencies, authority and responsibility.Footnote 5  Through their commission, officers are given particular authority and responsibility for decisions on the use of force. These decisions, from the tactical through to the strategic level, set the context within which NCMs carry out operations.

The officer’s commission also signifies the right and privilege to command. Consequently, beyond the responsibility to effectively lead troops into danger, officers are empowered to command subordinates into harm’s way. In all situations, the officer in a command appointment is responsible for creating the conditions for a mission’s success, including a clear statement of the commander’s intent, and thereafter for leading all subordinates to achieve the objective.

The officer’s scope of responsibility is now broader than that of NCOs and warrant officers and typically gets larger as he or she rises in rank. Overseeing the regulatory functions that operate throughout the profession is a major responsibility of the Officer Corps. To meet these responsibilities, officers must acquire the skill of delegating tasks and authorities so that NCOs and warrant officers can accomplish themission without being micromanaged. Only by drawing extensively on the particular expertise of the NCM Corps can officers lead the force effectively and efficiently.

On the other hand, the Queen’s Regulations and Orders assign NCMs specific responsibilities to “promote the welfare, efficiency and good discipline of all who are subordinate to the member” and the authority to execute these responsibilities. In effect, they have been delegated the day-to-day responsibility for ensuring that subordinates are individually and collectively trained, prepared and capable of accomplishing all missions assigned to them. This includes acting as a close advisor to superior officers and commanders on all matters pertaining to these three broad responsibilities. In the case of inexperienced junior officers, this role of advisor takes on more of the role of a coach. Furthermore, chief petty officers 1st class and chief warrant officers are assigned by Warrant special responsibilities in the NCM Corps for the good order and discipline of all subordinates. In addition, they are the “custodians of the Corps’ overall well-being under the stewardship of the General/Flag Officer Corps.”Footnote 6  Increasingly, petty officers 1st class/warrant officers and above are employed in staff positions once reserved for officers at the operational and strategic levels. Their professional development system has been realigned to ensure that they are properly prepared for these roles.  

There is a strong interaction between responsibility and the other three attributes of military professionalism. The military ethos, for example, must clearly and emphatically express the duty of members to accept and meet all professional responsibilities. These responsibilities in turn help to define military identity by establishing professional roles and relationships. The attribute of responsibility directly affects military expertise through the body of relevant knowledge necessary for effective collective and individual action. Members then have a duty to acquire this knowledge and keep it current.

In sum, the legitimacy of the profession of arms in Canada essentially depends on members fulfilling their professional responsibilities in accord with Canadian values, Canadian and international laws, and the Canadian military ethos.


The expertise required by the military professional is determined by the direction, operation and control of a human organization whose primary function is the application of military force. Such an organization is supported by a sophisticated body of theoretical and practical knowledge and skills that differ from those in any other profession.

The foundation for this expertise resides in a deep and comprehensive understanding of the theory and practice of armed conflict — a theory that incorporates the history of armed conflict and the concepts and doctrine underpinning the levels inherent in the structure of conflict, ranging from the tactical and operational to the military strategic and political-military (policy) levels. Increasingly, the military professional, especially when advancing in rank, must master the domain of joint, combined and inter-agency operations and, in the highest ranks, have an expert understanding of national security issues. An understanding of how the law, both national and international, regulates armed conflict is also very important. As described in Canadian Forces leadership doctrine, this theory-based, unique body of knowledge is defined as the General System of War and Conflict.

The ordered application of military force requires not only specific knowledge and skills spanning all the combat functions of a professional military organization, but also and perhaps more especially a highly developed capacity for judging its use. Such judgement guides what force is used — and where and when, as directed by policy — and how force is employed, always in agreement with legal principles and other values of the military ethos. Providing professional advice to civilian authorities, and ensuring that it integrates the military capability with the other components of the national security apparatus, depends on this capacity for judgement as well. Clearly, members at all levels must exercise professional judgement to ensure mission success while providing for the well-being and safety of subordinates as much as possible. Finally, critical judgement is essential in allocating the means for the application of force according to the principles of discrimination, proportionality and military necessity.

Developing judgement requires not only the acquisition of knowledge, but also a great deal of practical experience in its application. In the Canadian Forces, this is the main objective of the professional development system, which is built on four pillars: education, training, self-development and experience. This system is the primary method by which all members, regardless of rank, develop their expertise as military professionals.

As military operations have become more complex in recent years, the body of professional knowledge that must be imparted through professional development has expanded beyond traditional areas of study (e.g., history and international affairs) to include many other disciplines not previously regarded as relevant to military operations. Tactical competencies and individual and collective warfighting skills remain the bedrock of military expertise but are not enough in themselves to define that expertise. Military professionals today require the abilities not only of the soldier-warrior, but also of the soldier-diplomat and the soldier-scholar. 

Traditionally, the degree of expertise was usually equated with rank and command authority. Modern conflict has increasingly devolved the authority and ability to apply escalating lethal force to more junior levels of leadership. The very nature of highly dispersed modern operations has also broadened and deepened the expertise required at junior levels. For example, the expertise, competencies and skills demanded of an infantry section commander employed in a modern peace support operation are far beyond the elemental skills needed in the highly controlled battles of the past. Similarly, in Her Majesty’s Canadian ships, petty officers 1st class now perform the duties of weapons directors, a job formerly held only by officers. The demands of modern conflict challenge military professionals of all ranks to acquire increasing levels of expertise in order to meet the requirements of the future battlespace.

Broadly speaking, the breadth and scope of the expertise possessed by the Officer Corps extends from the tactical level through the operational and strategic level to the political-military level, depending on both appointment and rank. The NCMs’ knowledge and skill have been oriented primarily to the tactical level. But the levels of conflict often overlap in today’s world, and NCMs, especially leading seamen/corporals and above, are increasingly required to be knowledgeable about every level to one degree or another, again usually depending on rank.

In addition, the distribution of technical knowledge tends to be more heavily weighted in the NCM Corps, while officers possess knowledge of a more general nature. Therefore, the officer’s expertise is used to marshalforces and direct their employment, whereas NCMs accomplish the task or mission through the direct application of their particular expertise. Increasingly, however, NCMs are employed at the operational and strategic levels.

Given the impact of technology and the complexity of modern conflict, the capacity for critical and creative thinking and sound judgement is increasingly required in both corps. This means further delegation to lower levels in the rank structure, though such delegation, together with the authority to make it effective, does not relieve the officer of the responsibility for directing successful operations.

Officers, master seamen/master corporals and above are all expected to possess expertise in leading people and leading the institution.  Leading people involves a great deal of personal contact and is generally task-oriented. Leading the institution involves organizational and strategic leadership and is focused on long-term results in objectives or organizational culture. The Officer and NCM Corps practise both kinds of leadership, but the distribution of time and effort on them varies with rank and appointment. At the strategic level, more time is spent on leading the institution, while at lower levels, more time is spent on leading people.  CF leadership doctrine is described and explained in two manuals: Leadership in the Canadian Forces: Leading People; and Leadership in the Canadian Forces: Leading the Institution.

For the most part, expertise is determined by the roles and tasks that militaries are assigned by the government and is shaped by the explicit and implicit responsibilities of military professionalism. Such expertise in turn plays an important role in shaping the identity of its members, units, branches and environments, respectively.


Canadian Forces personnel derive a collective unity and identity from the unique function they perform. In the Canadian case, the core of this function revolves around three concepts with which all members identify: voluntary military service; unlimited liability; and service before self.

Canadian military personnel are aware as well that they are an integral part of an important national institution. This entails an acceptance of the basic bilingual nature of the country, which is enshrined in law, an acknowledgement of how Aboriginal history has shaped our nation, an understanding of Canadian multiculturalism, and an appreciation of Canadian values. Environmental identities are further formed within the context of a unified and integrated force that socializes new members in the Forces’ training and education establishments, and uses a common set of badges and symbols of rank to designate NCMs and officers.

A wide range of customs and traditions associated with membership in the Canadian Forces, including branch and environmental affiliations, form the distinguishing characteristics that bond its members together. These customs and traditions produce special social structures that contribute to a sense of organic unity and military identity. This is further reinforced by the Canadian military ethos that provides members with a common understanding of the values that guide individual and collective action.

Military identity is shaped by two other attributes of the military profession: responsibility and expertise. As members’ understanding of their professional responsibilities changes and evolves, so too will their identity. For example, during the Cold War, the focus was largely on conventional war in Europe, and other military activities were seen as subsidiary. As the peace support operations of the 1990s became more dangerous, complex and central to international security and stability, members’ views began to change.  Missions such as Afghanistan have reinforced the inescapable fact that the core role of the Canadian military professional is the ability to engage in combat and prevail. With full acceptance of these new roles, expertise has expanded to meet the operational imperative. Consequently, members inherited new sets of responsibilities in respect to rules of engagement, international law, and humanitarian activity, which in turn expanded the concept of military identity far beyond the simplistic understanding that had prevailed for decades.

Given the current distribution of responsibilities and expertise between officers and NCMs, each corps has a distinct identity. These respective identities are reflected in the insignias of rank that visibly denote responsibility, authority and specialized expertise, and in such traditions as separate messing and marks of respect. Commissioned officers identify themselves as potential commanders and leaders, both direct and institutional. NCMs identify themselves as those responsible for the effective and efficient accomplishment of all tasks, always with an eye on the immediate welfare of individual subordinates. They know that their leadership and discipline of physically fit subordinates are absolutely essential to the professional effectiveness of the force as a whole, as well as the accomplishment of missions.

Military Ethos

The military ethos embodies the spirit that binds the profession together. It clarifies how members view their responsibilities, apply their expertise and express their unique military identity. It identifies and explains military values and defines the subordination of the armed forces to civilian control and the rule of law.

The military ethos also accommodates the separate identities of the Officer and NCM Corps, but acts as a unifying force by insisting that the officer/NCM relationship represents a strong, integrated team based on a common understanding of the primacy of operations and the shared beliefs, expectations and core values of military service. Both corps are dedicated to the national values of the country they are sworn to defend.

Ultimately, it is the ethos, which incorporates fundamental Canadian values, that distinguishes a member of the Canadian profession of arms from ill-disciplined irregulars, mercenaries or members of another armed force that lacks defining values.

Legitimacy in the eyes of the government and Canadian society is largely contingent on the application of the military ethos and the structure it gives the other attributes of the military profession, but this affords the profession considerable scope for self-regulation to ensure professional effectiveness. Beyond directly supporting the profession’s ability to meet its core responsibilities, the military ethos serves to shape and guide conduct, especially in the face of ethical dilemmas. A full and detailed articulation of the military ethos is the subject of Chapter Two.

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