The Operation SOPRANO Task Force: Strength and numbers
By Dawnieca Palma, Canadian Joint Operations Command
Wearing the blue beret entails experiencing many new landscapes, people, and cultures. Sometimes, Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members deployed on UN missions have other CAF colleagues present to share these experiences. Sometimes, they may be the only Canadian deployed. For the Canadian troops contributing to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), it’s a little bit of both.
UNMISS is one of the largest UN missions presently taking place with a troop ceiling of 17 000, and military and police personnel from 69 nations currently participating. Among this goliath force of peacekeepers stands the Operation SOPRANO Task Force, a team of ten CAF members.
“We’re a small team of ten task force members, but we’re confident that our numbers don’t necessarily detract from our contribution to the mission,” explains Lieutenant-Colonel (LCol) Mano Thangarasu. In addition to providing logistic support as the Deputy Chief of the Mission Support Centre, LCol Thangarasu is also the Task Force Commander for Operation SOPRANO.
The ten CAF members are divided into two critical roles. Half of them are Military Liaison Officers (MLO). In addition to other specialized tasks, they conduct patrols, carry out liaison tasks with local authorities and opposition forces, and report human rights violations. The other half, Staff Officers, are subject matter experts in a variety of fields.
“While we’re a small team, it should be noted that Operation SOPRANO members are quite often seen as punching above their weight, mainly as a result of their training, previous operational experience from military occupations back home, as well as their planning and communication skills,” adds LCol Thangarasu. “This is particularly evident in our MLOs. It is not uncommon to see them get assigned leadership roles or challenging tasks almost immediately upon their arrival.”
Each MLO is deployed as a team member of a forward UN unit to different locations among the state capital sites across the country. Staff Officers may also find themselves separated from their Canadian colleagues while working in the different headquarter sections. This situation permits the group flexibility and better situational awareness of the large South-Sudanese environment. Presence in the different ends of the country facilitates protecting the people of South Sudan, supporting the peace process, and creating ideal conditions to deliver humanitarian assistance. Essentially, having eyes and ears across the extensive landscape is an asset.
However, this team is not without its challenges.
“One of the difficulties that Operation SOPRANO members face is that we operate independently from one another as part of our day-to-day work. At times, we may not see each other physically for weeks or even months on end,” elaborates LCol Thangarasu.
But the task force eases this obstacle with the use of other communications mediums, such as emails, phone calls, or even chat applications.
In UN missions, positive relationships with international partners is an ingredient that contributes to success. However, because of the dispersed nature of the Canadian members, rapport and relationships with other nations are extra emphasized.
“It’s everything, especially in a multi-national environment,” answered LCol Thangarasu when asked about the necessity of building rapport with non-Canadian colleagues. “A good part of our training and past personal experiences prepares us to work as part of a multi-national environment. Finding common ground and common traits regardless of nationality helps us see each other for our individual strengths and it brings the team together.”
As the Operation SOPRANO Task Force shows, capability is not dependent on numbers. Being deployed on one of the largest UN missions employs many of the same qualities as any CAF operation: efficiency and effective teamwork. LCol Thangarasu concludes with a humbling thought. “It brings us great pride knowing we’re making a real difference in the mission despite our small numbers.”
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