Theatre Activation – Transport – Engineering – Communications – Health Services – Policing – Maintenance
The days are long and sometimes crazy, but without them the Canadian Forces would not be able to operate overseas or at home. For the most part, the men and women filling these days—and nights—work behind the scenes and rarely get recognized for turning seemingly impossible tasks into reality. All of them fall under the umbrella of the Canadian Operational Support Command (CANOSCOM) and they have been extremely busy helping to close out Canada’s five-year combat mission in Afghanistan.
A major part of their work in the wartorn country involves bringing soldiers and equipment home, a massive undertaking that began months ago—well before the decision was made to switch Canada’s role from a combat mission, which will end in July, to a training mission. Over all, Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan stretches just under 10 years, an experience shared by thousands of military personnel and supported by CANOSCOM through everything from operational logistics, engineering, communications, equipment maintenance to health and military police services.
The person in charge of overseeing what has been dubbed CANOSCOM’s Mission Transition is Major-General Mark McQuillan, whose larger responsibility is planning and co-ordinating the entire logistics scheme for Canada’s far-flung military missions. McQuillan told Legion Magazine earlier this year that he and his staff have put in long hours finalizing details of this year’s transition. “Planning is progressing well,” he noted. “No doubt this summer and fall will be extremely busy. We are looking at moving several hundreds of vehicles and thousands of sea containers of equipment either north to Kabul in support of the training mission or back home to Canada.”
On a regular basis, CANOSCOM works with either Canada Command, which looks after domestic operations, or the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM), responsible for international operations, including Afghanistan. Regardless of where it is needed, the command has to be prepared to operate under a variety of environments with the overarching goal of ensuring that mission field commanders won’t have to worry about support logistics and can stay focused on their strategic objectives. “Lately we have been focused on the…transition that essentially sees us moving all materiel and vehicles out of Kandahar and back to Canada,” McQuillan added.
Every item [that is over there] will be looked at through a lens to ensure it is appropriate and cost-effective to bring home. Once that is done, our personnel will focus on the most cost-effective transportation. McQuillan and his team are bringing home everything from armoured vehicles and weapons systems to other major equipment the CF will most likely need for future operations. And where appropriate, CANOSCOM will support the disposal of—in theatre—any materiel that is not cost-effective to haul home. “If it costs me $10,000 to transport it back to Canada and it would cost me $2,000 to buy it, then it will be disposed of in theatre,” he explained. “When I suggest disposal, understand we will go through an assessment or decision cycle to confirm whether materiel will be declared surplus, gifted, donated or scrapped. Again, decisions are based on the nature of the materiel, its value and relative worth to support future CF operations.”
“We are training our personnel so they can be ready to go to Afghanistan, bring all the equipment that’s outside the wire inside [the wire], fully count the equipment, bar code it and then package it properly and send it back to Canada,” said command Chief Warrant Officer Serge Froment in February. He noted that personnel will repair any equipment in Afghanistan before it is brought back. “We could take all the equipment in Afghanistan and simply ship it to Canada and fix it all here, but I don’t think that would be as efficient and would create a backlog of work that could impact on our capability to deploy somewhere else.”
Moving major shipments from Afghanistan across thousands of kilometres to Canada is a daunting task, but when it is ready to go, the materiel can either be flown directly from Kandahar to Canada or moved more slowly by ground or sea through CF transportation hubs in Pakistan and Spangdahlem, Germany. “We will essentially conduct what we call an intermediate staging terminal in a third location to cross-load that materiel and return it to Canada,” explained McQuillan. “A good percentage of our equipment (like weapons systems), we plan to fly out and our intent is the sooner we can land and cross-load the shipping, the more cost-effective it is.”
The sudden closure of Camp Mirage in southwest Asia last November created an awkward glitch, but CANOSCOM found a way around the problem. “We had a great relationship with the United Arab Emirates and great support from them so when you move from what was a really good relationship, in a geographically ideal location, of course there is some impact, but at the same time we were able to respond,” explained McQuillan.
For nearly 10 years, the secretive Camp Mirage was home to the support element for CF forces in Afghanistan. When the CF was given 30 days notice to end its activities in the UAE, it—with the help of a CANOSCOM closure team—took stock and transferred, disposed of or packed up the entire inventory of materiel and equipment. At the same time, it maintained support for operations in Afghanistan. “In the course of about a month we moved out of Mirage and relocated the activities we had been running, initially to Cyprus and now to Spangdahlem,” said McQuillan. The closure saw the movement of 244 personnel, the packing and shipping of 54 sea containers, nearly 80 aircraft pallets and the transporting of 19 vehicles.
Overall, CANOSCOM’s responsibilities are in support of theatre activation, mission sustainment and termination. Within the command there is a full range of combat support and combat service support functions, including military engineering, health services, military police, logistics, land equipment maintenance, personnel support, resource management and communications and information systems.
Prior to the 2006 creation of CANOSCOM, each branch of the CF—the army, navy and air force—was responsible for its own operational support. This often created inefficiencies when they worked together in joint operations. Today, the command employs some 2,000 men and women, 700 of whom are civilian. “[This split] is crucial to our operations because the civilians provide a certain level of continuity within the organization and they are also extremely well trained and capable, and the soldiers, for the majority of our units, must be deployable on very short notice because not only do we sustain operations such as Afghanistan, but we also respond to emergency operations [elsewhere],” added Froment.
McQuillan said a large part of CANOSCOM’s effort is sustainment. “So that is the materiel provisioning, the backbone of which is based on our materiel depots, and infrastructure and distribution systems in Canada, but clearly we spend a good part of our time managing the materiel flows from Canada to wherever our deployed operations are.”
Working with an annual budget of $91 million, the command has 19 units across Canada, plus a series of depots, including the Canadian Materiel Support Group responsible for materiel management in Canada. They have a depot in Montreal, another in Edmonton, and four ammunition depots at Rocky Point on Vancouver Island; Dundurn, Sask.; Angus, Ont.; and Bedford, N.S.
Also beneath the CANOSCOM umbrella—providing communications and information systems—is the CF Joint Signals Regiment and the CF Joint Support Group with its movement, supply, contract and postal services capabilities. On the engineering side, McQuillan has a specialist engineering unit at Moncton, N.B, whose professionals often support theatre activation and are quite adept at providing “boots-on-the ground” project management. Working within the command is the Military Police Services Group that co-ordinates the policing and security responsibilities for deployed operations worldwide. Meanwhile, the health service side of CANOSCOM has had a vital role in the Afghanistan mission as the command is in charge of the troop decompression location, situated in Cyprus. Canadian Forces personnel are required to spend time there following their mission. “We conduct the mental wellness briefing and provide some leisure time,” added McQuillan. “It’s an opportunity for our men and women to recalibrate themselves as they come out of a high-intensity combat type of environment to a domestic one. We see it as a really important part of the reintegration of our soldiers, air men and women and sailors to go back to their families.”
Froment said the command has matured and become recognized around the world as an efficient organization, noting that with each mission it is learning and improving. “We are often asked by other countries how we do business and how we organize so they can go and possibly mirror our organization. As far as I’m concerned, that alone is a way of getting a little pat on the back.” Early in 2011, Froment attended a NATO conference and while there was told by representatives from three countries that they were watching how Canada was leaving Afghanistan to see if they could learn from the Canadian experience.
Colonel Martin Girard, CANOSCOM Chief of Staff and chief adviser to the commander, explained that it is set up to respond quickly. Immediately following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, CANOSCOM and CEFCOM examined Canadian requirements and with the help of the air force, a CF reconnaissance team and medical support was on the ground within 12 hours of the earthquake. The Canadian navy’s assistance was also of vital importance, and the team went from a cold start to troop deployment within a two-week period for Operation Hestia. CANOSCOM was particularly busy supplying manpower and equipment for Operation Podium during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. For this operation, the command deployed 400 personnel. They started opening the theatre in November and were in charge of a medical component of 120 people, which acted as a mini hospital. They supported logistic support, transportation, communication, information, engineering, infrastructure, environment and military police for security. “We had the earthquake a couple of weeks before the Olympics started, therefore it was crazy here for us,” said Girard. “We were trying to support a new crisis, but at the same time support the Olympics, so it was busy. I was happy the Olympics were quiet for us, from a crisis point of view.”
One good thing about the two events coinciding, said Girard, was that the planning for Operation Podium was complete and in the sustainment phase, so more focus could be put on the operation in Haiti. “Op Hestia was incredible, because it was an earthquake. I’ve lived through four hurricanes in Haiti, but you see them coming, an earthquake, you don’t. We worked hard and long hours the first month to plan and get the right capacity in theatre, the right vehicles, field hospitals, search and rescue, urban search and rescue, water purification. It was just crazy, but at the end of the day it was just another very successful story, from our point of view.”
During Hestia, CANOSCOM established a staging base in Barahona, Dominican Republic, to move vehicles and other supplies into Haiti. “To fly all the way would have been too expensive, so we had two strategic sealifts that brought vehicles, equipment and sea containers into Barahona,” said Girard.
Operation Hestia saw CANOSCOM commission approximately 174 military and charter flights during which more than 1.8 million kilograms of military cargo and 545,000 kilograms of humanitarian assistance cargo moved by air. In addition, more than 4.2 million kilograms of cargo moved by ship.
Girard said the main difference between planning for international and domestic operations is the reliability of resources. In places like Afghanistan and Haiti CANOSCOM has to be fully sustainable, but for domestic operations resources are already in place. The only domestic region that doesn’t fall into this category is in the North, where CANOSCOM will be heading to from Aug. 6-26, 2011, for Operation Nanook. “We are supporting Canada COM for that operation. We will go and open the theatre, doing bed downs and infrastructure, food, etcetera and then will do back and forth, providing sustainment for the operation.”
The tempo of work does change, but the command will remain busy while closing Kandahar and opening a theatre in support of the training role. On top of that, the command has to support Canada’s role during the crisis in Libya. “We never know what is going to be next,” added Girard, “but we have to be ready. That’s the great thing about us, is everybody is counting on us to deliver…and we do deliver.”
Girard enjoys his job and the people he works with. “Of course we don’t have enough resources, no one has enough, but as a team we are managing, and to be honest I’ve been here for the last four years, and with three different organizations that do operational support before that, and from a reward point of view this is the best command to work with because you are doing the real stuff that supports our troops and that’s very satisfying. I feel this is a very young, successful, organization. Internally and externally we need to improve our processes, but there is always room to improve. I’m very proud of this organization.”
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