COMMENTARY: Canadian Armed Forces prep coronavirus response plan, but no request for help yet

Plans are being developed by Gen. Jon Vance and his Strategic Joint Staff so that, if asked by Ottawa, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) would be in a position to quickly render a wide range of assistance to civil authorities directing what has become a war against the lethal coronavirus pandemic.

Among the options: sending troops to help isolated northern indigenous communities, to protect critical infrastructure in the High Arctic and elsewhere, to build field hospitals or to act as backup to police forces and Corrections Canada if police or prison guards fall ill from COVID-19.

Senior officers familiar with the intense planning and co-ordination taking place at National Defence Headquarters, Canadian Joint Operations Command in Ottawa and regional command centres stressed the military has always developed internal plans to be ready for potential crises and that the options being developed are speculative. But a few of the possible options to employ the troops were included in a directive from Vance to troops on Thursday.

No formal request for assistance has yet been received from the special federal cabinet committee responsible for dealing with the pandemic, which is led by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, or the lead ministry, Public Safety Canada, they said.

But requests of some sort are anticipated. Tasks might include providing hazmat suits and other medical equipment such as masks, respirators, ventilators and generators as well as tents.

A major factor being discussed is how to co-ordinate and triage requests as they are filtered through cabinet and Public Safety Canada down to not only the Department of National Defence but other ministries, the officers said. Such clarity was essential because it would assist what they described as “a truly whole-of-government” response to the pandemic.

While preparing to answer any government requests for help countering the new coronavirus, the officers emphasized that the Forces had to maintain core military capabilities and keep its 68,000 troops as healthy as possible so that they would be ready to deploy if called upon.

Essential core functions include having fighter jets ready to scramble to intercept Russian bombers and reconnaissance aircraft on Canada’s eastern, western and northern margins, as the Royal Canadian Air Force did again only last week; having search and rescue aircraft on standby across the country; sustaining important international missions in Latvia, Ukraine and Iraq; and continuing to counteract online disinformation campaigns by foreign governments and non-government actors.

The Forces must also have troops set aside to deal with non-coronavirus-related domestic emergencies such as forest fires and flooding around, for example, Lake Ontario, which has particularly high waters this spring.

The question of how the federal government intends to use the CAF to assist Ottawa with what has become a global health emergency arises because of questions from the Opposition about how the CAF will be involved. This follows plans announced by Italy, the U.S. and Great Britain to use troops to assist civil authorities in the battle to control the pandemic.

Italy has drafted tens of thousands of soldiers to provide a variety of critical functions for a medical community that has been under siege from the virus, with thousands of dead already. Because of overcrowding in cemeteries in northern Italy, the army began on Thursday to use convoys of military trucks to move the bodies of hundreds of COVID-19 victims to burial plots in neighbouring provinces.

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