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CANADA’S TASK FORCE MALI

 

Between 9 and 16 February 2019, several members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence (the Committee) travelled to Senegal and Mali as part of the Committee’s ongoing study on Canada’s contributions to international peace operations. Committee members were privileged to have the opportunity to meet Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members deployed on Operation PRESENCE, which is Canada’s contribution to the United Nations (UN) Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The trip included visits to the CAF’s Tactical Airlift Detachment and Operational Support Hub in Dakar, Senegal, and to the UN’s Camp Castor in Gao, Mali, which is where the CAF’s contingent deployed under Operation PRESENCE (Task Force Mali) operates. Committee members saw first-hand the professionalism and outstanding work that CAF members are doing in support of MINUSMA, which is one of the UN’s most complex and dangerous peace operations.

The United Nations’ Mission in Mali

MINUSMA is the third-largest of the UN’s 14 peace missions currently deployed around the world.[1] It is also one of the UN’s most deadly, with—as of 28 February 2019—195 personnel killed since the mission’s establishment in April 2013.[2] The situation in Mali remains precarious.

According to the UN Secretary-General’s December 2018 report about the situation in Mali, “the security situation [remains] of grave concern” as a result of “several complex attacks launched by violent extremist groups in the [country’s] central and northern regions.”[3] The report also noted that UN “personnel [continue] to face threats related to armed conflict and criminality, mainly in the central and northern regions, as well as terrorism-related threats across the country.”[4] As well, the report stated that “road travel for United Nations personnel … [remains] dangerous” in light of the “local conflict dynamics and the expansion of violent extremist armed groups’ activity in the north and central regions of Mali.”[5]

In Mali, armed group violence is rising, and attacks on UN personnel and infrastructure remain a reality. For example, the number of improvised explosive device incidents rose from 139 in 2016 to 217 in 2018.[6] Because these incidents cause casualties, increasingly, the UN has been relying on air assets for aeromedical evacuation (MEDEVAC), as well as the transportation of personnel and supplies.[7] Canada is among the countries providing such specialized MEDEVAC and aerial transportation services to MINUSMA.

Canada’s Task Force Mali

In March 2018, the Government of Canada announced its commitment to deploy an aviation task force to MINUSMA. The air contingent would consist of both CH-147 Chinook and CH-146 Griffon helicopters. The Chinooks would be available to conduct MEDEVAC, as well as other types of operations in support of MINUSMA, such as transporting troops, equipment and supplies. The Griffons would mainly serve as armed escorts for the Chinooks, but they could also be used for other missions in support of MINUSMA. The Government of Canada also indicated that the task force, which would be deployed for a period of 12 months, would be accompanied by a number of CAF members for support.[8]

On 24 June 2018, the first CAF members to deploy under Operation PRESENCE left Canada for Mali. The first Chinook and Griffon helicopters arrived in Gao, Mali on 15 July.[9] Canada’s air task force relieved the German and Belgian helicopter detachments based in Gao. The German and Belgian helicopters officially ceased flying operations on 30 June 2018, about a month before the Canadian air detachment became operational, and were withdrawn from Mali in subsequent days.[10]

Canada’s Task Force Mali reached its initial operating capability, and became available to conduct air operations, on 1 August 2018. The task force reached its full operating capability on 15 August and completed its first medical evacuation in support of MINUSMA on 11 September. It currently consists of approximately 250 CAF members and comprises three Chinook and five Griffon helicopters. As of 19 March 2019, Canada’s Task Force Mali had conducted eight MEDEVACS, airlifted more than 344,000 pounds of cargo, and flown more than 2,300 hours in support of MINUSMA . In addition, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF’s) CC-130J Hercules transport aircraft, which is operating from the Tactical Airlift Detachment and Operational Support Hub in Dakar, Senegal, has flown more than 958 hours in support of MINUSMA, airlifting about 2,100 passengers and approximately 1.65 million pounds of cargo.[11]

The Transition to Romania and its Challenges

Operation PRESENCE is scheduled to end on 31 July 2019.[12] A Romanian transport helicopter detachment will replace Canada’s air task force in Mali, although this detachment is not expected to be fully operational before 15 October 2019, at the earliest.[13] The Committee heard that Romania will not be ready before that date for reasons that include the training of its personnel and modifications to its equipment for the mission. Another reason pertains to Romania’s lack of a strategic airlift capability, which leads to a reliance on other means to transport its personnel and equipment into the theatre of operation.[14] While most of the individuals with whom the Committee met in Senegal and Mali described the contributions of Canada’s Task Force Mali as exemplary, and praised the professionalism and value of the CAF’s air detachment in Gao, several raised concerns about a significant capability gap of almost three months between the end of Canada’s mission on 31 July and the beginning of Romania’s mission on 15 October.

When Committee members visited MINUSMA Headquarters in Bamako, Mali, senior UN officials highlighted the capability gap between the Canadians’ departure and the arrival of the Romanians. Senior UN representatives characterized the gap as dramatic, and said that it could cause serious problems “on the ground” if UN personnel are attacked and injured, and cannot rapidly access adequate MEDEVAC during that period.

MINUSMA officials commented that, between the Canadians’ departure and the Romanians’ arrival, the UN plans to fill the capability gap with contracted civilian helicopters and aircrews—its so-called “white fleet” helicopters—at disproportionate expense to the UN, but emphasized that this solution would not fully compensate for the use of military helicopters like Canada’s Chinooks and Griffons. They explained that military helicopters and aircrews can fly at night, and can operate in riskier and more dangerous environments than their civilian counterparts because they are armed and use more sophisticated technology and equipment; the risk tolerance of civilian aircrews is lower than that of military personnel. MINUSMA officials repeatedly praised the value and sophistication of Canada’s Chinooks and Griffons, and spoke about the ways in which these air assets can perform tasks that civilian helicopters cannot. They also acknowledged the high levels of training and professionalism of CAF members, and the valuable contributions that these members are making to MINUSMA.[15]

The Committee was told that, in an effort to limit risks to UN personnel, the UN would likely have to scale down operations during the capability gap between the Canadians’ departure from, and the Romanians’ arrival in, Mali. It was explained that, without an aeromedical capability, UN ground troops would have to significantly reduce the range of their patrols, as well as the services they provide in the communities. A senior UN official said that it would be greatly appreciated if Canada could prolong its mission as long as possible in order to minimize the gap.[16]

However, in making its announcement, the Government of Canada made it clear that Task Force Mali would have a duration of 12 months, and Canadian military officials emphasized the need to repatriate the Chinook and Griffon helicopters and aircrews in July 2019 to avoid a domestic operational capability gap. Committee members were told that the mission is putting a strain on Chinook aircrew training in Canada because the aircrews that fly the Chinooks in Mali are also the trainers for such helicopters. Committee members also heard that the helicopters need to be repatriated for maintenance purposes and to upgrade software.[17] Also, prolonging the mission would further affect force generation and force employment in Canada.[18] Extending Canada’s mission in Mali would also give rise to other challenges. For example, Mali’s summer months are extremely hot and humid, which puts a severe strain on both personnel and equipment. The Committee also heard that, during the rainy season, the tempo of operation is generally reduced. Because of humidity, temperatures often reach almost 50 degrees Celsius, and flying conditions could be hazardous because of extreme and unpredictable rainy or dusty conditions.[19]

That said, because there is insufficient space at Camp Castor in Gao to accommodate both the Canadian and the Romanian air detachments at the same time, a short period of time is required between these two missions; the missions must not overlap. Committee members were informed that, for logistical reasons, a gap of several weeks is needed. Canadian military officials noted that, in summer 2018, there was a transition of about one month between the German/Belgian and Canadian missions; the UN used civilian helicopters during that period. A similar gap needs to exist between the handover from Canada to Romania.[20]

Canadian military officials indicated that, between 31 July and 15 October 2019, the UN could use contracted civilian MEDEVAC helicopters operating out of Timbuktu, Mali, which would be escorted by MD-500 armed helicopters from El Salvador’s Gao-based air contingent. However, because these civilian helicopters would not have the capability to carry out a MEDEVAC under fire, the UN would likely reduce its operations during the period between the Canadian and Romanian missions to mitigate risks while limited military aeromedical capability is available.[21]

Managing the Transition to Reduce the Capability Gap

While a gap of several weeks between the Canadian and Romanian missions in Mali is required for logistical reasons, Canada could take actions to reduce the capability gap that would exist between 31 July and 15 October 2019, and to facilitate—and possibly accelerate—the transition to Romania.

On 15 February 2019, Committee members spoke with a Romanian official in Dakar, Senegal about actions that Canada could take to assist Romania. The Committee was told that Romania is looking to Canada for advice, assistance and suggestions about ways to facilitate the handover and reduce the capability gap between the two missions. While the Romanian official had no immediate suggestions to make regarding the assistance that Canada could provide, the person noted that the issue has been discussed in Romania, and that the Government of Romania will provide specific information and suggestions to the Government of Canada.[22]

Although Canada is officially scheduled to cease flying operations in Mali on 31 July 2019, the repatriation of equipment and CAF members is expected to occur within the following five to six weeks. Consequently, there will be limited Canadian assets and people in Gao that could be used to help close the capability gap and assist Romania during the transition period between the countries’ missions. Although Romania is expected to begin flying operations on 15 October, its personnel and supplies will enter the theatre of operation in summer 2019, and Canadian assets in Gao could be of assistance.[23]

While in Senegal and Mali, the Committee heard that Canada could facilitate the handover and help to ensure that Romania’s air detachment is fully operational by 15 October 2019. CAF members have experience “on the ground” and could transfer some of their knowledge to the Romanians. There were also discussions about the extensive administrative processes that troop-contributing countries must engage in at the UN and how Canada could help Romania expedite those processes with its experience. The Committee also heard that the CAF could also use its resources to help the Romanians move some of their personnel and equipment to Mali. It was noted that, unlike Canada, Romania lacks a strategic airlift capability. Thus, Canada could support Romania by helping to transport personnel and equipment to Gao using the RCAF’s CC‑177 Globemaster strategic transport and CC-130J Hercules tactical transport aircraft. The CAF’s Operational Support Hub in Dakar could be used for that purpose.[24]

The Committee’s Thoughts and Recommendations

As Committee members heard in Ottawa and during their visit to Senegal and Mali, there are several ways in which Canada could help facilitate and accelerate the handover to Romania. Canada and Romania are North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and have maintained strong military relations for many years. Military cooperation between the two countries is not new.

In light of what Committee members learned while in Senegal and Mali, the Committee recommends:

Recommendation 1

That the Government of Canada adhere to the one-year withdrawal deadline of 31 July 2019 for Operation PRESENCE that was announced in March 2018.

Recommendation 2

That the Government of Canada examine the full range of actions that could be taken to expedite the transition of the air detachments in Gao, Mali from Canada to Romania. In identifying these actions, the focus should be on minimizing the operational impact of the transition in the theatre of operations.

Recommendation 3

That the Government of Canada, on a best efforts basis, support the transition in the deployment of Romanian forces as Canada’s successor in Mali.

Recommendation 4

That the Government of Canada provide logistics and heavy lift air assistance to the government of Romania to facilitate the delivery and transition of operational personnel and equipment to Mali.

Recommendation 5

That the Government of Canada provide to Parliament a thorough explanation of how Operation PRESENCE serves Canada’s national interest.


[1]              In June 2018, the UN Security Council adopted UN Security Council Resolution 2423, which set out the following “priority tasks” for the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA): supporting the implementation of political and institutional reforms, particularly the restoration and extension of state authority and the rule of law throughout Mali; supporting defence, security, stabilization, reconciliation and justice measures; protecting civilians; promoting and protecting human rights; and providing humanitarian assistance. See: United Nations [UN], “Security Council Extends Mandate of United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, Adopting Resolution 2423 (2018),” 28 June 2018. Also see: UN, “United Nations Peacekeeping: Troop and Police Contributors.”

[2]              UN, “United Nations Peacekeeping: Total Fatalities since 1948.”

[3]              UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation in Mali, 28 December 2018, p. 6.

[4]              Ibid., p. 13.

[5]              Ibid.

[6]              Department of National Defence [DND], “Task Force – Mali: Briefing to the Standing Committee on National Defence (NDDN),” Document Distributed to NDDN Members for Their Visit to Task Force Mali in Gao, Mali, 14 February 2019.

[7]              UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation in Mali, p. 12.

[9]              DND, “Operation PRESENCE – Mali,” 14 March 2019.

[10]            NDDN Visit to Task Force Mali, Gao, Mali, 14 February 2019.

[11]            DND, “Operation PRESENCE: Interim Operational Support Hub (IOSH) Dakar” and “Operation PRESENCE: Tactical Airlift Detachment Capabilities Brief,” Documents Distributed to NDDN Members for Their Visit to the Tactical Airlift Detachment and Operational Support Hub in Dakar, Senegal, 11 February 2019; DND, “Task Force – Mali: Briefing to the Standing Committee on National Defence (NDDN),” Document Distributed to NDDN Members for Their Visit to Task Force Mali in Gao, Mali, 14 February 2019; DND, “Operation PRESENCE – Mali”; and NDDN, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 28 February 2019.

[12]            DND, “Operation PRESENCE – Mali.”

[13]            Global Affairs Canada, “Romania to Replace Canada in Mali Peacekeeping Mission,” 31 January 2019.

[14]            NDDN Visit to Bamako, Mali, 13 February 2019; and NDDN Visit to Dakar, Senegal, 15 February 2019.

[15]            NDDN Visit to MINUSMA Headquarters, Bamako, Mali, 12 February 2019.

[16]            Ibid.

[17]            NDDN Visit to Bamako, Mali, 13 February 2019.

[18]            NDDN, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 28 February 2019.

[19]            NDDN Visit to Bamako, Mali, 13 February 2019; and NDDN Visit to Task Force Mali, Gao, Mali, 14 February 2019.

[20]            NDDN Visit to Task Force Mali, Gao, Mali, 14 February 2019.

[21]            Ibid.

[22]            NDDN Visit to Dakar, Senegal, 15 February 2019.

[23]            NDDN Visit to Bamako, Mali, 13 February 2019; and NDDN Visit to Task Force Mali, Gao, Mali, 14 February 2019.

[24]            NDDN Visit to Bamako, Mali, 13 February 2019; and NDDN Visit to Dakar, Senegal, 15 February 2019.