Wednesday, July 27, 2005

We Might Have a Problem Keeping Hans Island

Our defence minister, Bill Graham, seems pretty confident about Canada's ability to keep that soccer-field known as Hans Island (tiny bit between Ellsmere Island and Greenland):

Hans Island (courtesy of The Globe and Mail)

On Tuesday the defence minister continued to portray his visit as an innocent drop-in because he happened to be in the neighbourhood.

Graham was touring Arctic posts, including Iqaluit, Pond Inlet and Alert, as part of the government's increased emphasis on northern sovereignty. He travelled by helicopter to Hans Island last Wednesday, just days after a Canadian Rangers patrol flew in, planted a Canadian flag and erected an Inukshuk, the traditional stone marker of the Inuit.

"They had helicopters available - quite often when you're in Alert, you don't," Graham told reporters in Edmonton, where he met with about 110 soldiers before they left for a reconstruction mission in Afghanistan.

"We'll talk to the Danish people about their position, but our position has always been clear: It's Canada, and I went there just as I would have gone anywhere else in the Arctic."

This is one of those funny stories that journalists and government officials like to pull during summer (there's a reason why journalists call the summer months "the silly season"). No doubt there's a lot of Danes who are chuckling over this as well.

But I wonder if Mr. Graham would keep his smile after seeing this report:

An Arctic military exercise crippled by bad weather last spring exposed weaknesses in the ability of the Canadian Forces to operate in the North, says an internal report.

The report into the exercise on Ellef Ringnes Island said air crews had neither the equipment nor the experience they needed, and also underlined the inadequacy of arctic military air support.

"Squadron members don't have a lot of experience nor the proper equipment to be deployed to the field for any length of time, especially in the severe winter conditions that were prevalent," says the report released Tuesday to The Canadian Press.

Last April, the Forces staged an exercise on the northern island's Isachsen Peninsula, about 2,800 kilometres north of Edmonton and only 150 kilometres from the magnetic North Pole.

However, Isachsen's notoriously bad weather - the cape scores 99 out of 100 on Environment Canada's climate severity index - altered plans from the start.

Visits to five nearby islands were downgraded to two in the face of winds powerful enough to rock the large trailers where the troops were staying. An airplane crash rescue exercise was cancelled.

The report says the bad weather was hardest for the crews of two Twin Otters from 440 Squadron, who were supporting 30 soldiers on the ground.

The report says such crews need heavier equipment such as tents and shelters for the aircraft. They also need larger heaters and generators.

The exercise was also hampered by the lack of portable radar or other instrument flying aids.

Squadron commander Lt.-Col. Paul Fleet acknowledged that 440 - the only military aircraft stationed in the Arctic - isn't set up to remain in the field.

"If you want to do this kind of thing in the future, we have to pursue more resources," he said.

Put this another way: if it came down to a fight in the North, our CF isn't exactly bristling with options. Landing troops via mass aircraft isn't going to be possible, not with the equipment the Forces currently have. Ditto landing them via sea; apart from the lack of suitable ports, the Navy doesn't really have icebreaking capability.

If the current government wants to be serious about Arctic sovereignty, then they'll need more than a token visit by a politician.