Canadian Defence Insider

Title: Operation UNISON's achievements

Blurb: American officials had nothing but praise for Operation UNISON. But the CF's efforts to help Katrina victims taught us important lessons and raised interesting questions.

America's reaction to Operation UNISON, the Canadian Armed Force's initiative to help Katrina victims was nothing but positive. David Wilkins, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada gave a big thanks for "giving us your best when we need you the most."

The operation, which was winding down as the current edition of Canadian Defence News headed to press, included several key initiatives. About 1,000 CF personnel were deployed south of the border in short order. The Canadian Navy sent three ships, the Iroquois class destroyer HMCS Athabaskan and two Halifax class frigates, the HMCS Ville de Québec and HMCS Toronto. We also sent in helicopters, some dive teams and the coast guard also pitched in one vessel.

But, despite our key ally's plaudits, every military initiative deserves a post-op review and Operation UNISON is no exception. The armed forces, defence personnel, the emergency preparedness establishment and civilian stakeholders can all learn a lot from what worked and from what could have worked better.

The first thing that was abundantly clear in Operation UNISON's aftermath was the crucial role that a country's armed forces can play in disaster relief situations. While the Canadian military is primarily thought of in terms of its frontier-protection and peace-keeping roles, the New Orleans events, dramatically reminded Canadians of the need for having a strong and ready reserve force, coupled with the means to get them to the disaster area.

The Canadian armed forces have of course played key roles in numerous Canadian disaster relief situations ranging from flood relief in Manitoba, to the crucial roles they played in clearing roads in Quebec during that province's 1998 ice storm. But even though hurricane Katrina hit Americans, not Canadians, the episode stood out both in terms of its sheer scale and in the breakdown in civilian authority, which highlighted the military's role as the go-to organization when the going gets tough.

Yet despite the Canadian Armed Force's key disaster relief role, both domestically and abroad, questions abound about whether they are well enough equipped to perform the tasks that Canadians expect of them. For example military experts say that Canada's Joint Support Ships, which are still on drawing board and are not scheduled to be delivered for years, would have been better suited to the supply role they played during the Katrina episode, than the vessels which were actually used. Operation UNISION would give grist to those who say that JSS needs to be moved ahead sooner rather than later.

The breakdown in local law enforcement and emergency preparedness in the New Orleans incident also called into question how prepared Canada would be to handle a major disaster. For example it is not at all clear that in the case of a similar breakdown that Canada would have the reserve units available or the helicopter lift capacity to get soldiers into a danger zone in a remote area. As is usual in these operations, administrative sluggishness was also an issue, with departments not getting the right information to each other at optimal speed. Getting emergency preparedness stakeholders taking to each other better should be an additional priority.

There have also been questions raised about Operation Unison's costs. But these need to taken into perspective, especially when we consider how reliant we may be on our southern ally, should we ever have a similar breakdown up here. When your friends are in trouble, you help them. It's as simple as that.

When they are facing an emergency and people are dying, you get them as much help as you can, as fast as you can. You worry about the cost later. When it started to become obvious, that Katrina would be a lot worse than a typical hurricane, the Canadian Armed Forces rightly acted promptly. And for that, hats off to them.

 

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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