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Flying by the Seat of Our Pants: Canada’s Rental Response to Disaster

Ottawa Citizen - January 7, 2005
The Gazette - January 10, 2005
Windsor Star - January 12, 2005

By Colin Kenny

Canada’s response to the Asian tsunami disaster is too important an issue to be trivialized by the media. There were lessons to be learned by every country in the world this week, including ours. 

The only way Canada is going to learn these lessons is to focus on how our nation can increase its capacity for quick and efficient response to disaster at home and abroad.

Were senior Canadian government officials on vacation during the holidays? Of course. Were they quick enough in scrambling to ramp up Canada’s response? To those Canadians who felt so helpless watching the bleak images on their TV screens, no response was good enough – everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. 

There may have been a bit of early stuttering in Ottawa, but, in fairness, nearly every government in the world was mesmerized by the scope of the disaster – including those directly affected. We weren’t alone.

Within a few days, the federal government made some excellent decisions. The government was one of the earliest to vastly expand its financial commitment – to $80 million – and it encouraged Canadians to dig down when it quickly offered to match private donations.

After early resistance, it also deployed the Canadian Forces Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART). The DART is expensive to mobilize and its field hospital capacity is far from a cost-effective response, but the DART does have a water purification capacity. Providing 50,000 liters of fresh water a day won’t be much more than a drop in a very huge bucket.  But it should also save some lives. 

But, getting back to learning important lessons, Canadians should be scrutinizing how we are deploying the DART, and how, in fact, we are forced to deployed Canadian military assistance in all kinds of emergency situations. 

Too often, Canadian Forces either have to hitch-hike, or take a cab.  In this case, they are taking a cab – Canada has rented Russian Antonov cargo planes to ship DART equipment. 

The Canadian military hasn’t had a large lift capacity for some time now. In 1992, we relied on the U.S. Air Force to transport some of our armoured vehicles to Somalia. In 2002, we used civilian rentals and U.S. military aircraft to deploy infantry to Afghanistan.

During the 1998 ice storm in eastern Canada, Canada rented planes and turned the Americans to move our troops and equipment across our own country.

Canada does have planes that can carry troops and equipment. But these aircraft are relatively small. The Canadian military has between 16-24 Hercules tactical lift transport planes (out of a fleet of 32) available on any given day. 

It takes 26 separate Hercules lifts to move the Disaster Assistance Response Team, compared to the six lifts it would require if Canada operated the Boeing C-17s used by the United States and Britain.  It has been estimated that hundreds of pieces of Canadian military equipment won’t fit into a Hercules without being dismantled.

The most elderly of our Hercs, which first flew for us in the 1960s, constitute the oldest operating Hercules used for military purposes anywhere in the world. Canadian military people shudder to recall the deployment of Canada’s peacekeeping force from Canada to East Timor several years ago – the plane was forced to return to base three times because of faulty equipment before finally lumbering to its destination. Think of the Hercs as the next Sea Kings.

Hercs don’t have the range to get our troops to far-off places quickly. So, if they can’t hitch a ride, the Canadian armed forces rent transport planes – often old, rickety planes from suppliers in Russia and the Ukraine, mostly Antonovs. There aren’t many Antonovs still flying, and those that are don’t have much life span left. Moreover, they have uncomfortable similarities to the Yakovlev-42 that crashed in Turkey last year, carrying 62 Spanish peacekeepers to their death.

It would only take one crash like that one to wipe out more of our troops than have been killed on a single deployment since the Korean War. 

Canada requires large, new, military transport planes.

The Boeing C-17 is the best option. Unlike the incipient European Airbus A400M, it is already in production, and has proven its value. 

The net annual cost of acquiring ten of these planes on a lease arrangement (based on 800 annual flying hours per plane) would be quite low – around $30 million a year.

The ten C-17s would cost us $340 million annually, including crew and maintenance costs. We could mitigate these costs by retiring

our entire fleet of Hercs, saving about $265 million a year.  We would no longer be forced to rent commercial strategic lift, saving another $50 million a year. 

This is pocket change compared to the overall amount that Canada should be spending to modernize its military. 

The U.S. Air Force would likely wedge us into the order line so we could have these planes flying for us in two years. They did so for the British recently.

Few countries have a strong airlift capacity. All kinds of countries need to get their troops from place to place to perform UN missions. They, like Canada, are forced to rent. We could rent to them and make a little money, while offering them a safer option than the Antonovs and Yakovlevs.

Having a formidable airlift capacity would mean that Canada would feel less pressure to come up with ground troops when crises arise. We would be able to help – and help quickly. We would not only look good to our allies and the rest of the world, we would look good to ourselves.

Canadians have demonstrated their generosity this week, with a very emotional response to tragedy. But if Canada is going to play a useful role in the world, we need to run on more than our emotions. We need to formulate intelligent response systems. Improved air lift should be a big part of what we have to offer.

Senator Kenny is chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence he can be reached via email at