Military to test new Arctic search-and-rescue to respond to crashes, spills

The Canadian Forces is planning its first test of a disaster response team that would speed to the site of an airplane crash, environmental incident or shipping accident in the North.

The Canadian Forces is planning its first test of a disaster response team that would speed to the site of an airplane crash, environmental incident or shipping accident in the North.

The Rapid Reaction Force North is to make its first deployment next week as part of annual Arctic training manoeuvres, said Lt.-Col. Gino Chretien, who will be commanding Operation Nunalivut from Resolute, Nunavut.

“It’s a project to try and get troops up as fast as possible if an incident happens up here in the North,” said Chretien.

With thousands of passenger airplanes and dozens of ships passing through Canada’s Arctic every year, search-and-rescue capability has long been a concern — especially as climate change makes the North more accessible. As well, Canada is about to sign an international treaty obliging it to take responsibility for a vast section of the Arctic that is difficult to get to and tough to work in.

One of the military’s own analysts has acknowledged the problem. In January’s Canadian Military Journal, Maj. Tony Balasevicius said there has been little improvement since 1991 when a Hercules transport place crashed 30 kilometres from Alert on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island.

“Unfortunately, in terms of actual capability, little has changed,” wrote Balasevicius, who works for the Directorate of Future Security Analysis. “Currently, any attempt to mount even a small-scale operation would be difficult.”

The new reaction force is an attempt to address the issue, said Chretien.

The Force’s main component would be the Rangers, largely aboriginal reserve units that exist in almost every Arctic community.

In case of emergency, the nearest available Ranger patrol would head to the scene using snow machines or locally available private aircraft. Communications and headquarters officers would be scrambled from Yellowknife to set up shop in the closest community and co-ordinate rescue attempts from there.

Arctic rescues are currently co-ordinated out of the Search-and-Rescue Centre in Trenton, Ont.

The goal, said Chretien, is to get boots on the ground almost anywhere in the Arctic within six hours.

“We might be talking six hours for the first group, 12 hours for the second wave and 24 for the third,” he said. “It’s something that we still need to refine.”

Nor is it clear what help the Rangers would be able to provide beyond basics such as first aid, translation, polar bear security and “comfort.” Chretien said there are no plans right now to create rescue supply caches for Ranger patrols.

Arctic historian Whitney Lackenbauer, who has written extensively on the Rangers, said the military shouldn’t rely too heavily on them.

“We need to keep our expectations of the Rangers realistic,” he said. “Turning to the Rangers for everything is setting them up to fail.”

The proposed rapid reaction force is a long way from the search-and-rescue capability outlined in the Balasevicius paper. He calls for improved satellite surveillance, a network of ready-to-use airstrips and ports and supply dumps that would be able sustain an operation for days and weeks.

“Defence must develop a greater capacity to operate in the North for extended periods,” writes Balasevicius, who was not available for interviews due to the military’s policy of not commenting on future plans during an election.

Lackenbauer agreed, adding anything like the plans the major outlines are five to 10 years away.

The military “is striving to get towards an initial Arctic operating capacity,” he said.

Balasevicius points to a rescue in 2009 in which a hunter stranded on an ice floe was located by a private airplane, which also dropped supplies. The Twin Otter was based in Iqaluit, about 725 kilometres from the hunter’s home. A military Hercules flew out of Winnipeg, 1,800 kilometres to the south.

Quoting another author, he writes: “So why does (Defence) insist on basing (search and rescue) at bases skirting the U.S. border?”

For now, the Forces will focus on developing the rapid reaction force, Chretien said.

“It’s just a question of mobilizing and doing with what we have right now.”

The deployment will be part of Operation Nunalivut, which will involve aircraft from Comox, B.C., and Greenwood, N.S., in addition to regular army staff from Yellowknife and Ranger patrols. The Forces will conduct land and air patrols April 6-22 between Resolute and the Isachsen Peninsula on the northern tip of Ellef Ringnes Island.