When 40 Rangers Canada swung into action in northern Quebec this week to set up a heated tent for COVID-19 screening and perform other tasks in their local community because of the pandemic, they form the most visible military response to the current crisis.
Rangers were mobilized in response to requests for assistance from the provincial government, the first for the federal government because of COVID-19. Thousands of soldiers standing, in this case, is not the last.
But what can actually Canadian Forces bring to bear in a fight with a pandemic? And how the commander will decide how to use the forces that once done, can find themselves infected, or quarantined, and taken out of the fight?
Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan announced last month that the military had mobilized up to 24,000 troops that would be able to respond COVID-19 as well as floods and forest fires which have become commonplace in the spring in recent years.
Equipment is being gathered in the main military bases such as CFB Borden in Ontario, but most of the troops had been instructed to isolate themselves to make sure they are clean of COVID-19 – to maintain their own health and that they do not infect the people they are tasked to assist.
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Warships have also been told to wait off each coast until called into action for the same reason: to make sure they are kept a clean crew of COVID-19. And while the aircrew continued to transport equipment and supplies to the mission here and abroad, only essential staff working.
Force is expected to largely play the role of support when it comes to COVID-19. While that may be included to help enforce a quarantine, it is more likely to need help with transportation, building shelters and facilities, communications and medical support arrangements.
“We have limited medical capability,” said retired Lieutenant General Guy Thibault. “The ability we have in the Canadian Forces is designed for the Canadian Forces. They are not designed to provide a significant enlargement of the medical service of the state.”
It remains unclear how many troops will be pulled into the fight COVID-19. Sajjan last week showed that the level of support will be based on the individual requests of the provinces and territories to help.
Where military commanders expect to need a large number of troops is to deal with spring flooding and forest fires. The disaster has increased in size and scope, and COVID-19 brand dealing with them especially hard this year.
Not only will the public be difficult to respond when practicing physical distancing, the military said senior commanders are worried that once the troops committed to a particular mission, they could be available for other tasks for a significant period of time.
Retired lieutenant general and former Liberal MP Andrew Leslie said the reality is that the current situation has many similarities with the traditional war – including the need for military commanders to account for the number of victims that will affect the future ability of the unit to perform the operation.
“This is war,” said Leslie. “Do not kid yourself. This is a war. There is a silent, invisible enemy who is trying to kill us. And you have to think clearly, you have to manage yourself.”
Chief of defense staff Gen. Jonathan Vance says the military is developing a plan to have up to 25 percent of power out of commission, sick or isolated.
The commander should assume that all troops deployed to the field, they have become “dirty” in the same way as its delivery to the war zone where chemical, biological or nuclear weapons have been used, said Leslie.
“But in this case, the largest carrier in fact the human body,” he said.
“And because there are no signs that would present themselves to five, six, seven days while you still can infect others … you’ll have to put them through a 14-day (isolation) cycle.”
Vance has said one of the military’s priorities is to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Canada.
The Department of National Defence said Friday that it would be “premature” to discuss what will happen to troops who are deployed on a future mission to help deal with COVID-19 or a natural disaster.
“That said, any post-deployment measures will be taken based on the advice and recommendations of official health authorities and will largely be task-dependent,” spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said in an email.
However, more than 100 Canadian troops who returned from Ukraine this week are in mandatory quarantine at CFB Trenton for the next two weeks to ensure they don’t have COVID-19 and are expected to return to duty when they are released.
While COVID-19 sets up a situation where senior commanders will need to weigh where and when to send the troops, retired lieutenant-general Michael Day said military personnel will have been directed to take necessary measures to minimize their exposure in the field.
And he strongly rejected suggestions the military might try to hold back from jumping into the fray when asked.
“This is not our first rodeo,” he said. “We understand what it means to go into high-risk areas with little materiel support. We have been doing that for decades around the world.”
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