January 02, 2005

Flightless DART

There's little to say about the tragedy of Canada's response to the tsunami tragedy that hasn't already been said. A lot of excuses have been bandied about for why Canadian soldiers weren't sent, when Australia, Taiwan, Israel, and other countries despatched forces early, and the American military launched its largest operation in the area since Vietnam to try to save lives.

In the end, though, the answer's pretty simple: 600 tonnes.

That's the amount of airlift required to move the DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team). Since Canada only has the 4 CC-150 Polaris (modified Airbuses) for strategic airlift, with a cargo capacity of 13 tonnes each, rapid deployment of DART anywhere outside the effective ferry range of our 30-odd additional short-range Herc transports (ie, off this continent) was a mathematical impossibility, without civilian airlift... and civilian airlift is in pretty short supply at the moment.

Whether to Bosnia or Afghanistan, the Canadian military flies overseas by chartered air now. Ottawa's political leaders would have had to move very fast to reserve some of the available transports (mostly Russian-made) before they were snapped up by other governments and NGOs. They didn't. (Canada, along with the other smaller NATO countries, tends to use Russian air carrier Volga Dnepr, which has refused to sign any agreement that "reserves" any of its airfleet to a given government in advance for these kinds of situations. Australia's military, by contrast, uses domestic air carrier Adagold, flying the same Russian aircraft, but with their own country's military as a "preferred customer.")

The lack of airlift was a conscious decision, based on the little remarked-upon shift in the tail-end Chretien period, during John McCallum's time as defence minister. His predecessor Art Eggleton, seemingly influenced by the Liberal interventionist wing (Richard Gwyn, Janice Steyn, Lloyd Axworthy et al), had attempted to reposition Canada as a "first-in, first-out" military, moving quickly to crisis areas with a rapid deployment force, but shunning long-term commitments anywhere.

McCallum rightly recognized that the Forces a) didn't have the people; b) didn't have the money, and c) would not have the public support for the inevitable Canadian casualties when the paratroopers dropped into Kigali, or what have you. Fully supported by the Prime Minister, he publicly switched the military's focus to a "last-in," stabilization-oriented force (or, admitted that was what we really had, if you prefer to think of it that way)... low-intensity conflict only, shipped by chartered air into countries with a sufficiently-stable ground picture that significant casualties were highly unlikely. Starting with the McCallum years, we officially became "hotspot" averse. (Regarding strategic airlift, his now famous line was "No one has yet been able to give me a single instance where the absence of this capability stopped us or significantly delayed us moving people or equipment from point A to point B." Well, we've got a single instance now.)

Unfortunately, as was commented on at the time, that mentality makes it now effectively impossible to deploy in natural disaster scenarios, as well. DART, an Eggleton "first-in" project, has atrophied to the point where it proved undeployable even to Haiti during the hurricanes last year. If all this makes you wonder how effective the CF might be if that earthquake had been off of Vancouver Island, instead of Aceh, well, you probably should wonder. It's certainly not encouraging. Hopefully the Americans will have an aircraft carrier free then, too.

(Current defence minister Bill Graham and prime minister Paul Martin mouthed some support for the UN/ICISS "reponsibility to protect" concept through 2004 (aka the "peacekeeping brigade"), although there has been no sign to date of any actual resource allocations to meet that commission's demand for "an effective expeditionary force, capable of engaging in low- to medium-intensity conflict, anywhere in the world." If the pendulum is switching back to a "first-in" concept, it's doing so very slowly, and the military recruiting and training crisis means actually meeting that goal would be something like a decade away at this point.)

"The world needs more Canada," Bono said. Well, it's unlikely at the moment to get it, at least not in the uniformed variety.

PS: The Canadian side of the tragedy is a classic example of political power abhorring a vacuum, by the way. With the federal government effectively paralyzed by vacation, the Toronto chattering elites have been looking to the city's mayor to have his "Rudy Giuliani moment" and sent planeloads of relief with a Toronto sticker on the side of the plane overseas. Mayor David Miller, by all accounts a sensible man, has avoided the challenge to date... one of his successors likely won't the next time, and the abrogation of federal powers by the provinces and municipalities will continue its Canadian snowball.

Posted by BruceR at 03:33 PM