Since the federal Liberal government took office last December, the minister of national defence has spent much of his time musing about Canada’s military role in Iraq, the CF-18 replacements and a future role in peacekeeping operations.
As important as these issues are, the minister would be wise to spend some time on another file that is need of his attention: search and rescue. It’s an issue that doesn’t get much attention until something goes awry.
I often recount this story when discussing search and rescue, but it’s one most Canadians will likely remember. In October 2011, search-and-rescue technician Sgt. Janick Gilbert and his crew were called to fly to Igloolik, Nunavut, to rescue a young man and his father who were stranded on the ice. Thirty minutes before the sun set and total darkness fell, the SAR techs parachuted into waves that were more than three metres high. The temperature was -8 C and winds were gusting up to 60 kilometres an hour. Team leader Gilbert landed the farthest from the life raft and was found five hours later, floating lifeless in the water.
He was posthumously awarded the Star of Courage for his actions.
This is just one example of the more than 10,000 search-and-rescue incidents that occur each year — about 1,200 are considered life-and-death situations. The sheer number of annual rescues is compounded by the vast expanse of coverage SAR techs are called on to provide.
Canadian search and rescue operations are divided into three areas totalling about 18 million square kilometres. The largest of those areas — the Trenton, Ont., region — spans more than 10 million square kilometres, an area 15 times the size of France.
To do their jobs, SAR techs rely on a number of specialized fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, including the CH-149 Cormorant helicopter.
While the Cormorants are highly effective SAR aircraft, there are just not enough to go around in a country the size of Canada. The fleet of 14 Cormorants is spread between locations on the east and west coasts, leaving the largest region, Trenton, to rely on the inferior CH-146 Griffon helicopter for rescue operations.
The problem is that the Griffon is a converted civilian helicopter that was never designed to be used for search and rescue. It’s considerably slower than the Cormorant, has less lift capacity and has less than half the aeronautical range.
To make matters worse, the Cormorants are now almost 20 years old, meaning they are approaching their required mid-life refit. When the refit begins, the fleet will be even further thinned, with the Griffons likely being forced to assume an even larger role in SAR operations.
If anyone took a few minutes to focus on this issue, they would find that there is a cost-effective answer to this problem.
Canada has nine VH-71 helicopters (very similar to the Cormorants) sitting idle that we’ve already paid for. These helicopters were part of a fleet originally bought by the U.S. Marines to transport the president. When the Americans cancelled the program in 2012, the RCAF snapped them up, along with 800,000 spare parts, for pennies on the dollar.
The minister of defence should have already acted to secure the funds necessary to put these VH-71s into service. Despite this oversight, it’s not too late. The presidential choppers would require only new avionics suites and side doors to make them SAR-ready.
By doing so, we would be able to refit the Cormorants without diminishing search-and-rescue capabilities while the refit is under way. And after the refit, the new VH-71s would replace the Griffons and bring commonality to operations and provide better coverage in the largest SAR region in the country.
Now is the time for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to provide our pilots and our SAR techs with the tools they need to do their jobs and get home safely.
Senator Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.