Military brass push for heightened disaster preparedness

Summer snafus produce review of armed forces strength in North



Canadian Armed Forces stationed in the North need more equipment, more specialized soldiers, and a more localized plan on how to deal with major disasters, according to a review of an ambitious military exercise in Nunavut this summer.

In a draft report, military brass concluded that Canadian Forces Northern Area, the division in charge of the North, should be better equipped to deal with emergencies such as a satellite crash, or sovereignty violations by another country.

They based their recommendations on setbacks experienced during Exercise Narwhal, a two-week operation that the army, navy and air force held in Panniqtuuq in August.

During the exercise, the military faced numerous challenges, such as sudden storms.

The heavy fog and rain grounded Griffon helicopters, and Twin Otter planes, even though civilian planes continued to fly. At one point, hundreds of soldiers had to jump on a navy battleship to travel from Iqaluit to Panniqtuuq because they couldn’t fly as planned.

Northern realities got the upper hand again, when sun-spotting sabotaged military communication links between Nunavut and command posts in Halifax and other southern cities.

But not all the setbacks were technical. The draft post-exercise review, obtained by Nunatsiaq News under access to information requests, also described problems that the joint-task force ran into while organizing the event.

These involved different levels of command in different divisions misunderstanding their role in coordinating responses to mock disasters.

The report said that without “almost extraordinary measures” from the exercise planning team in Ottawa, “it is highly likely that this exercise would have stumbled badly out of the starting blocks.”

Lt. Col. Sandy Robertson, a senior member of the group that oversaw the exercise, said the logistical strain of the exercise showed political leaders in Ottawa that they should increase their military strength in the North.

“The [northern] headquarters is undermanned,” Robertson said in an interview this week.

Robertson said the exercise stretched the military headquarters based in Yellowknife beyond its staffing capacity, leading to poor judgment on issues like how often their planes and helicopters were available to fly in bad weather.

Robertson said he was particularly concerned that CFNA headquarters had to shut down its day-to-day operations, such as surveillance of suspicious activity in the North, in order to participate in a military exercise like Exercise Narwhal. That means they would also have to abandon their daily duties in the event of a major disaster, or search and rescue mission.

Moreover, military based in Yellowknife isn’t able to react as fast as they could, because they currently have to call Ottawa headquarters for back-up in coordinating a round-the-clock response to an incident.

Robertson said protecting Canada’s sovereignty over the North requires a more independent base in Yellowknife. That means giving it more funding for more strategic, logistical and dedicated communications staff, and dollars for training.

As well, Robertson believes they need more computers, tents, generators and radios to make a portable emergency headquarters for handling emergencies in far-flung corners of the Arctic.

The pumped-up expertise and equipment would transform the northern headquarters into a “deployable command and control suite,” which means the CFNA leadership would be capable of coordinating an emergency response from any corner of the North, on short notice.

Plus, the new staff and equipment would mean that daily operations wouldn’t have to shut down in order to handle surprise problems.

Col. Normand Couturier, commander of CFNA, said he’s been reassured by military planners in Ottawa that he will receive the funding he needs for extra staff and training, after finishing an internal analysis of what they have now.

“I was told there would be no problem in getting the resources,” he said. “The government of Canada, in particular this government, has raised the profile of the Arctic.”

Couturier pointed out that the increase in funding will allow him and staff to develop emergency plans for the North, instead of using guidelines developed in the South.

Couturier said the new plans would increase their response time to emergencies.

The next military exercise in the North will likely be in Inuvik in 2006.

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