Image credit: CAF Image Gallery/ MCpl Jennifer Kusche
by Matthew Fisher
September 9, 2019
Table of Contents
Gao, Mali – Canada has developed a leading-edge medevac capability for the Mali peacekeeping mission that may have out-performed that of the legendary U.S. Army Black Hawk medevac crews who saved so many lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Canadians’ airborne ambulance can deal with more casualties at once than the Americans can and have the wounded treated by emergency room doctors while on their way to a military hospital in the rear.
There has only been one problem with Canada’s peacekeeping mission in Africa. Unfortunately, it is a big one, especially considering that the mission cost yet untold tens of millions of dollars.
The 230 to 260 Canadians in Mali (the numbers varied) saved few lives during their 13 months in the African desert. According to figures provided by the mission in Mali this September, Canadians serving with Operation PRESENCE were only called out 11 times by the UN to rescue 42 injured soldiers and civilians and take them to a German hospital at the Gao airfield.
To the Canadians’ chagrin, the UN usually called out a private Swiss air ambulance service that it had hired. Even when the Canadians were asked for help, it could take hours to get all the necessary administrative approvals from the UN. This made a mockery of the military medicine term, “the golden hour”. The term means that about 60 minutes is the maximum amount of time to get a patient to hospital to have a chance to save his or her life.
“On an individual basis, our relationship with the UN is good,” Lt.-Col. Mike Babin, an Afghan veteran who commanded Canada’s helicopter battalion in Mali from January until the end of the mission, said during an interview early in the summer. The difficulty was “where bureaucracy gets in the way. In one case, we could see we were the best platform, but we were not chosen. From our perspective, that is just wrong. We get really frustrated with this.
“The Swiss contractors are very good but they can’t go into a firefight without nighttime capabilities.”
“To know that the UN is taking five hours to take a decision is very demoralizing,” said Chief Warrant Officer Laurie White, Operation Presence’s top enlisted soldier during the second and last rotation. “This had a huge effect on morale.”
Babin added: “Imagine if we had injured in Afghanistan and it had taken five hours to pick them up.”
It was not that Mali was not dangerous or that the political and security situation was not exceedingly complex. By late this summer, more than 200 soldiers with the United Nations Multinational Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) had been killed by jihadis representing an alphabet soup of terrorist organizations. These included the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, which has been fighting for a Tuareg homeland, and the more notorious Ansar Dine, which has not only fought the government but other Islamic groups and favours the imposition of Shariah law. Although most of the country is extremely dangerous, most of the fighting has been to the north of where the Canadians were stationed at Gao. The country’s political elite tend to live at a fair distance in the relatively peaceful south.
“The level of violence” had accelerated rapidly in recent months as the warring factions learned to make more complex attacks, a Canadian intelligence officer said during a briefing at the Canadian headquarters beside the Gao airfield.
Canadians never went out on foot patrols in Mali, but other peacekeepers who did faced multiple hazards because ethnic hatreds are deeply entrenched in the country, the officer said.
The Canadian government’s stated ambition before the first tranche of troops arrived for their six-month tours last summer was to help stabilize Mali by having military medical personnel perform a niche role as lifesavers for the UN troops. The latter were mostly from Third World countries with few medical or logistics capabilities of their own. Ironically, despite being reluctant to tap the Canadians for medical rescue missions, the UN pleaded with Ottawa to keep its medevac crews in the Sahel beyond this summer.
The UN appeal, which fell on deaf ears in Ottawa, came amid reports that more than 600 civilians – many of them children – were killed during the first half of the year. That’s more than double the number of Malians killed in all of 2018.
Though there was frustration at not being used more, White said the Canadians’ “morale had been good”, and that those in Mali were happy to have had a UN mission. They remained highly motivated because “troops always want to do more. To fly more.”
Lessons learned included figuring out how to deal with malaria, blister beetles and the constant risk of dehydration. Babin said that because of the experience gained by flying helicopters, C-130J Hercules and C-17 Globemaster transports in the desert, “we’ve shown we can deploy into one of the most austere locations quickly and do the job.”
Doing so involved some unique challenges. As I sat in the jump seat of the cockpit about 1,000 metres down the runway on what was to have been a flight from Dakar, Senegal to Mali, the pilot of a C-17 Globemaster quietly but firmly announced to his co-pilot, “I think we have just had a bird strike.”
Less than a second later, there was a boom from one of the port engines. As what smelled like fried vulture suddenly wafted through the cockpit, the pilot quietly added, “We have had a bird strike.”
What followed in the next 30 seconds was dramatic and an extraordinary testament to the pilots’ training during an emergency. Seamlessly co-ordinating their actions, the two pilots immediately cut fuel to both port engines, powered the aircraft down and applied the brakes hard enough that they were able to stop the 128,000-kilogram aircraft a bit short of where the runway turned into grass.
Crisis averted, the pilots turned their four-engine jet off the runway and shut it down. With the 12 souls on board safe and the cargo – a C-147F Chinook transport helicopter – secure, two mechanics jumped out of the aircraft and onto the tarmac. They climbed a ladder to peer inside the port engine to inspect what turned out to be several badly bent turbine blades.
Two days later, the C-17 was repaired and back in the air, completing its 7,500-kilometre journey from CFB Trenton in Ontario to Canada’s base at the United Nations compound in the Sahal. While out in the desert, I watched a RCAF Chinook make a spectacular landing in a swirl of gritty orange sand during a training exercise. Door gunners on a pair of RCAF CH-146 Griffon helicopters shot up a ridge with heavy machine guns to defend several of the medevac crew and several Van Doo infantrymen charged with rescuing two soldiers who pretended to be seriously injured.
It is simply “amazing”, what Canada’s newish Chinooks had been able to do during landings where blowing sand creates hazards something like whiteout conditions, a pilot said. Meanwhile, maintainers had to constantly deal with what sand and heat can do to engines and airframes.
Maj. Marie-Andrée Lavoie, who is a surgeon, said that the experience Canadian doctors had in Afghanistan was in her mind when she joined the Canadian Forces. For her, the Mali mission was the opportunity of a lifetime.
To get the doctors, nurses and everyone else in the 13-member medevac crew to work as a team and apply their different skill sets had taken a tremendous amount of training, she said.
Some of the 13 Canadians who make up a Chinook medevac crew, including a doctor, work on a patient with a serious chest wound and other injuries during a very life-like training exercise after being picked up in the Malian desert. Patients end up at a German-run military hospital where the Canadian aviation battalion had their headquarters at Gao. Photo credit: Matthew Fisher
Echoing Babin and White, the doctor said: “To be honest, I’d like to be busier. I know that there are a lot of injured out there. Ideally, we could be going out more. We have a good product. To go a month between missions makes it difficult to keep your expertise. There is some frustration because we hear and see flash reports on all these casualties.”
This dissatisfaction, which was almost universal, had nothing to do with what they were tasked with doing. Speaking to many of the Canadians in Gao and at the logistics hub 1,000 kilometres away in Dakar, there wasn’t anyone who did not want to be in Africa. What they badly wanted was for the UN to have given them more taskings.
The other part of the equation is that despite months of negotiation, the Canadian government had been unable to sort out the question of how much the medevac crews would be used in Mali.
If “Canada is back”, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said early in his four-year term – which included promises to return in a big way to its traditional leading role of helping the UN with peacekeeping – that certainly did not happen in Gao. Despite initial promises from Ottawa that 600 troops would be deployed to Africa, and after dithering for nearly three years about exactly where to send them and in what context or role, the government finally decided to send fewer than half that number. Interceding in the war to save Malian lives was never part of the mission. Only UN troops were to be offered Canadian medical assistance.
According to UN calculations, Canada did not even figure among the top 10 contributing nations to MINUSMA and it ranked even lower in the number of peacekeepers it provides to UN missions worldwide.
What this means for Canada’s chances to secure Trudeau’s dream of a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021 is anybody’s guess, though that remains the government’s stated goal. Despite the grandstanding, it is unlikely diplomats in New York or leaders elsewhere will be impressed with the brief and relatively small contribution that Canada made in Africa which, incidentally, has more votes (54) at the UN than any other continent. A further complication in terms of winning those African votes is that most of the continent has become heavily dependent on Chinese money, and Ottawa’s relations with Beijing are notoriously bad at the moment.
Nevertheless, it was inspiring to watch Canada’s medical teams work on the two fictitious patients inside the Chinook as it clattered back to Gao. Doctors, nurses and medics moved around in the din of the crowded fuselage like dancers in a carefully choreographed ballet, some using leading-edge technologies to monitor patients while others worked to stabilize wounds. Even the heavily armed Van Doos, no longer required to guard the exposed Chinook and the rescue team on the ground, helped by fetching medical instruments and holding up bags of intravenous fluids.
What Canada is left with after just more than a year in the shifting sands of equatorial Africa is a world-class military medevac capability and a unique cadre of highly trained, highly motivated medical practitioners. This is a wonderful asset to have, but only if it is used. As there is no political discussion today about Canada undertaking another peacekeeping mission of any kind in Africa or anywhere else, the expertise learned here will likely be squandered because the skills acquired will begin to atrophy.
That an affluent G7 country whose citizens, pollsters consistently say, regard themselves as peacekeepers above almost all else, can only dispatch a relatively small medical team to one of the most troubled places in Africa, and for only 13 months, is shameful. What little Ottawa finally decided to do in Mali suggests that whatever romantic myths Canadians harbour about themselves and peacekeeping, they are as risk-averse and as self-satisfied as their political leaders.
Mali deserved better. So did Canadian taxpayers and those Canadians sent halfway around the world with incredible skills that they mostly had little chance to use.
Matthew Fisher is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He was born in northwestern Ontario and raised there and in the Ottawa Valley. He has lived and worked abroad for 34 years as a foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail, Sun Media and Postmedia. Assignments have taken him to 171 countries. An eyewitness to 19 conflicts including Somalia, the Rwandan genocide, Chechnya, the Balkan Wars, Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, the two Gulf Wars and Afghanistan, Matthew was appointed as the first Bill Graham Centre/Massey College Resident Visiting Scholar in Foreign and Defence Policy in 2018.