AD Main Menu

Canada struggles to find cold-weather gear for Arctic military operations

The Canadian Press

Six years after Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared the Arctic to be a new operations area for the Canadian military, the army has struggled to find enough parkas, cold-weather tents, lanterns and heaters to equip forces that take part in its annual summer exercise.

The "critical equipment shortfalls" were so bad last year, the head of the army approved a request by area commanders to buy missing gear themselves, say internal briefing documents.

The briefings also show the army worried about running out of parkas, and turned to the air force for help.

The army is "required to affirm national sovereignty and conduct patrolling and surveillance operations," said a May 26, 2011, briefing note for Lt-Gen Peter Devlin, the country's top soldier.

The document was obtained by The Canadian Press under the federal access-to-information law.

Inadequate or incomplete equipment

The request to buy gear came from Land Forces Atlantic region units taking part in the annual Arctic exercise which the Conservative government has used as a showcase for its northern ambitions.

"Although the (land force areas) have received some equipment critical to achieving (initial operating capability), their equipment lists are inadequate or incomplete, and some immediate purchases are required in order to ensure mobility, survivability and credibility within the context of Op Amok 11."

Specifically, the units needed tents, trailers for all-terrain vehicles, cooking stoves, storage containers, lanterns and heaters for multi-day patrols that take soldiers away from forward bases and deep into the barren wilderness.

The briefing warned that without the trailers for equipment, patrol ranges would be limited. It noted the shortages were nothing new in the annual marquee exercise, which has seen the prime minister, the defence minister and chief of defence staff drop in for high-profile photo-ops.

"With respect to tentage, previous Op Nanooks have proven that the existing 4-man crew tents and Arctic tents are inadequate due to high winds encountered in the Arctic during summer months," said the briefing.

"The greater issue of Arctic equipment is being developed as part of the Arctic Mobility Project, however, this project is not anticipated to be delivering equipment in the near term, an interim solution is required."

'Outrageous' says expert

The army was asked for an update on the current condition of its cold weather gear, but no one at National Defence was immediately available to comment.

An expert in military affairs was surprised at the lack of basic equipment years after the Conservatives planted their flag in the Arctic, and with over half a decade of flush defence budgets.

"That is just outrageous," said Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary.

An earlier briefing note, dated Jan. 20, 2011, said a decision by National Defence headquarters to concentrate on buying combat coats and wind pants caused a shortage of parkas.

"To find they didn't have enough parkas, this is Canada for goodness sakes," said Huebert.

"The most likely scenarios they need to respond to are a ship going aground and an airliner going down up there. I mean, that can occur any day now, and so to say we don't have enough equipment, even to keep our own troops warm, says a lot about the priority the government places on the Arctic."

The army was required to raid the air force's stock of olive drab jackets and insulated bib overalls. The supply had been rationed in late 2010 to soldiers who were assigned to winter operations, those taking part in an exercise — or other training.

At the time the note was written, officials estimated it could take up to two years to deliver the necessary protective clothing to the army.

The report noted that the units operating in the north could end up wearing a mishmash of new army and air force gear.

But Huebert says it's a disturbing trend considering the bold promises the Conservatives made, including armed icebreakers and a deep water refuelling port in the inhospitable region.

The latest federal budget put off delivery of the Arctic icebreakers until 2018. As recently as Wednesday night, Defence Minister Peter MacKay refused to be pinned down during budget debate on when the base at Nanisivik, Nunavut, would open.

"Are we back to Mulroney's time period, when it was a lot of talk and no action?" said Huebert.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.