Introduction to the Canadian Armed Forces

Archived content

This page was proactively published to meet the requirements of the Access to Information Act. It is a historical record which was valid when published, but may now contain information which is out of date.


  • This briefing note provides an overview of the Canadian Armed Forces, including its leadership and rank structure, organization, relationship with the Department of National Defence, and core missions.


  • The National Defence Act (NDA) establishes the Department of National Defence (DND) and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) as two separate and distinct legal entities. The NDA stipulates that the Minister of National Defence (MND) has the management and direction of the CAF and provides authority for a Deputy Minister and Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). The CAF is comprised of approximately 68,000 Regular Force (establishment, 65,000 is the actual number) and 27,000 Reserve Force members, increasing to 71,500 and 30,000 respectively under Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE), Canada’s defence policy, as well as 5,200 Ranger Patrol Group members.


Leadership and Rank Structure

  • The CDS, who, subject to the regulations and under the direction of the MND, is charged with the control and administration of the CAF. Unless the Governor in Council otherwise directs, all orders and instructions to the CAF that are required to give effect to the decisions and to carry out the directions of the Government of Canada (GoC) or the MND shall be issued by or through the CDS. The Vice Chief of the Defence Staff (VCDS), who is appointed by the CDS, has the control and administration of the CAF in the event of the absence or incapacity of the CDS.
  • Military members’ positions in the command structure are determined by their rank. Rank reflects a level of ability, capability, experience, and knowledge. Military members are categorized as commissioned members (officers) and non-commissioned members. It is important to understand the special relationship that exists between officers and non-commissioned members. Although, officers are higher in the rank structure than non-commissioned members, experienced non-commissioned members play a vital role in the development and training of young officers, and often act as advisors and disciplinarians.
  • The CDS is the highest ranking member of the CAF. All other members of the CAF serve under the CDS’s chain of command, regardless of their location and type of employment (although some organizations have more of an arm’s length relationship to the CDS, such as legal services and the military police).
  • The CAF is comprised of Regular and Reserve Force Members. All Regular Force members are employed full-time in the CAF and make up the bulk of personnel employed domestically and abroad on operations. Regular Force Members are posted to bases and wings across the country, depending on their trade, career progression, and environment (sea/land/air/special operations).
  • Most Reserve Force members are employed part-time in the CAF, typically working one night per week and one weekend per month; these members are known as ‘Class A Reservists.’ The Reserve Force exists to augment the Regular Forces, meaning that it contributes trained personnel to operations at home and abroad to help sustain and support Regular Force activities. To do so, some Reserve Force members are employed on non-operational (Class B) and operational (Class C) full-time employment contracts. Class C reservists can be employed on routine and contingency operations both at home and abroad; the CDS determines which operational scenarios warrant Class C service. Most Reserve Force members are employed with designated Reserve units in the Canadian Army, however, there are Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Canadian Air Force, and Special Operations Reserve Force members and units as well.

Relationship with the Department of National Defence

  • While the NDA establishes DND and the CAF as two separate and distinct entities, the two cooperate closely together in the delivery of the Defence mandate. The Deputy Minister (DM) of National Defence, as head of the department, and the CDS, as commander of the CAF, each have their separate and complementary set of authorities and responsibilities, nested in the fundamental separation of civilian and military power.
  • In contrast to the CDS’s roles and responsibilities outlined above, the DM provides the Minister with the broadest possible expert advice and support needed for the Minister’s portfolio responsibilities, and undertakes the day-to-day management of the department on behalf of the Minister. The DM supports both the individual and collective responsibilities of their Minister and is accountable for a wide range of responsibilities including defence policy-making, resources management, program delivery, interdepartmental coordination, public affairs, and international defence relations.
  • Together, the DM and CDS manage the integrated civilian/military headquarters, drawing on the complementary skills of civilian and military personnel to carry out the business of the two organizations, and ensuring that all Defence activities are coordinated as effectively and efficiently as possible. Mutual respect and common understanding of the defence mission ensure that all elements of defence—policy, military strategy, economic/ financial, military/civilian professional development and technology—are coordinated as required and as effectively and efficiently as possible.
  • The DND leads the development of defence policy, informed by the advice of military professionals and continuous dialogue between civilian officials and CAF leadership. The CAF then develop the necessary forces, and plan and conduct military operations, in constant coordination with DND officials, in alignment with policies in place and with the Government’s national defence objectives.
  • While the MND presides over the DND and has the management and direction of the CAF and of all matters relating to national defence authority, all direction from the Minister of National Defence to the CAF is executed through the office of the CDS.
  • A detailed examination of the accountabilities of the MND, the DM and the CDS, as well as the legal framework and authorities of each can be found at Tabs 2 and 8, respectively.

Organization of the CAF

  • The CAF are divided into Force Generators and Force Employers. Oversight and command of these elements is provided by the CDS and VCDS, supported by the Strategic Joint Staff and Judge Advocate General.
  • Force generators ‘own’ the soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen of the CAF. They are responsible for their training, career progression, welfare and are the subject matter experts within their environments. Force Generators include both Regular Force and Primary Reserve units.
  • The Force Generators within the CAF are:
    • Royal Canadian Navy;
    • Canadian Army;
    • Royal Canadian Air Force;
    • Chief Military Personnel;
    • Assistant Deputy Minister (Information Management) (for cyber capabilities);
    • Canadian Forces Intelligence Command; and
    • Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM, both a force generator and force employer).
  • Force Employers are assigned personnel from the Force Generators to perform specific missions and operations. They employ the Force Generators’ personnel to achieve the mission objectives. Force Employers are responsible for the planning and conduct of operations, as directed by the CDS, in order to meet GoC requirements.
  • The Force Employers within the Canadian Armed Forces are:
    • Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC);
    • CANSOFCOM; and
    • North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
  • CJOC is responsible for conducting full-spectrum CAF operations at home, on the continent of North America, and around the world. With its integrated command-and-control structure, CJOC directs these operations from their earliest planning stages through to mission closeout, and ensures that national strategic goals are achieved. The only CAF operations in which CJOC does not engage are those conducted solely by CANSOFCOM or NORAD.
  • CANSOFCOM is an agile, high-readiness Special Operations Force capable of conducting special operations in defence of Canada both at home and abroad. They are uniquely postured to respond to asymmetric threats to Canada across all domains. As noted earlier, CANSOFCOM is both a force generator and a force employer.
  • NORAD is a binational military command responsible for aerospace warning, aerospace control, and maritime warning. As a binational command, the NORAD Commander is appointed by and responsible to Heads of Government of both Canada and the United States. NORAD acts as the cornerstone of Canada’s defence relationship with the United States, and provides both countries with enhanced continental security.

Core Missions of the CAF

  • SSE outlines eight core missions which the CAF must be capable of performing, possibly simultaneously. Ensuring the CAF has the capabilities, equipment, and personnel to perform these missions is central to the organization, functions, and activities of the DND and CAF. The core missions of the CAF are:
    • Detect, deter and defend against threats to or attacks on Canada;
    • Detect, deter and defend against threats to or the attack on North America in partnership with the United States (US), including through NORAD;
    • Lead and/or contribute forces to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and coalition efforts to deter and defeat adversaries, including terrorists, to support global stability;
    • Lead and/or contribute to international peace operations and stabilization missions with the United Nations, NATO and other multilateral partners;
    • Engage in capacity building to support the security of other nations and their ability to contribute to security abroad;
    • Provide assistance to civil authorities and law enforcement, including counter-terrorism, in support of national security and the security of Canadians abroad;
    • Provide assistance to civil authorities and non-governmental partners in responding to international and domestic disasters or major emergencies; and
    • Conduct search and rescue operations.
  • The core missions of the CAF contribute to the vision of SSE. The CAF conducts various activities toward this vision, some examples include:
    • In Canada:
      • Patrolling coastlines;
      • Monitoring airspace;
      • Surveillance and control in the Arctic;
      • Leading aeronautical search and rescue missions;
      • Assisting civil authorities with disaster relief;
      • Supporting major international events in Canada; and
      • Support to counter-terrorism.
    • In North America:
      • Surveillance of maritime and air approaches in cooperation with the US; and
      • Coordination through NORAD.
    • Abroad:
      • Combat operations;
      • Regional security operations;
      • Peace-support and stabilization operations;
      • Training and advisory operations;
      • Humanitarian operations; and
      • Non-combatant evacuation operations.
Report a problem or mistake on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, contact us.

Date modified: