The Trudeau government is keeping the door open to sending more helicopters to Mali to ensure the Canadian Forces can provide round-the-clock medical evacuations in what is expected to be a harsh operating environment.
Canada is preparing to send two Chinook transport helicopters and four armed Griffon escorts to the African nation this summer as part of a commitment to support the UN mission there.
Those helicopters and about 250 military personnel are scheduled to leave in July and begin work on Aug. 1, Col. Chris McKenna, the commander of the helicopter detachment, told The Canadian Press on Wednesday.
While the detachment will likely be called upon at times to move troops and equipment across the arid landscape as required by UN officials, their primary mission will be evacuating injured peacekeepers and others.
That will entail having one Chinook and two Griffons on “perpetual standby, 24/7,” McKenna said, “so our crews are essentially sleeping almost beside the aircraft ready to launch.
“We are focused on getting to an incident site as quick as we can to be able to provide life-saving interventions for both soldiers and anyone else that the UN would choose to medevac.”
Such medical services are especially important given the nature of the UN mission in Mali, which has seen dozens of peacekeepers killed or injured in ambushes and roadside bomb attacks by local militants.
While that high tempo alone could be expected to put a heavy burden on the detachment, the extreme heat and dust at the UN mission in Gao, where the Canadians will be based, isn’t expected to make life any easier.
Both the Germans and the Dutch have lost helicopters in the area over the last couple of years in crashes blamed on technical problems caused by the environment. The accidents killed four peacekeepers.
McKenna, whose detachment recently wrapped up several days of training at Canadian Forces Base Wainwright in Alberta, described the environment as “the biggest enemy.”
“We’re talking about operating state-of-the-art helicopters in the sub-Saharan Sahel region where the temperatures can reach 50-plus degrees and you see an enormous amount of dust,” he said.
“And as you know from our experience in Afghanistan, that can be quite tricky from a helicopter point of view.”
There are ways to manage those challenges, McKenna said, including making sure crews are familiar with the environment and setting up a stringent and efficient maintenance regime.
But the question of whether to send spare helicopters to Mali, either now or at some other point during the 12-month mission, is also on the horizon.
“I’ve been given leeway (to ask) for spares if we so think that is required,” he said. “And it is still being determined by government whether or not we’ll be able to bring spares.”
The Canadian helicopters and military personnel will replace counterparts from Belgium and Germany, the latter of which has been operating both transport and attack helicopters in Mali for several years.
Canada’s arrival in Mali comes only months after the UN Security Council authorized the peacekeeping mission there to provide medical evacuations and transport services to a multinational counterterror mission in the country.
When asked whether that means his force could be called upon to support the so-called Group of Five Sahel force, McKenna would only say that his role will be to support the peacekeeping mission’s mandate.
“We are having essentially no caveats going in,” he added, “so we work for that force commander and we execute what he asks us to do as long as it’s within our capabilities and our risk.”