UN says Canada needs more helicopters to fully meet its peacekeeping commitments in Mali
El Salvador to provide critical aerial cover for ground troops in Mali during Canadian deployment
Canada is taking over a key role in the peacekeeping mission in Mali, but United Nations officials worry it may not be able to fully implement its mandate because it plans to send limited helicopter support.
Ottawa has said it will supply two CH-147 Chinook transport helicopters for logistical support and medical evacuations and four armed CH-146 Griffon helicopter to the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission Mali (MINUSMA).
The UN, meanwhile, is expecting that two Chinooks will be available at any given time — which means Canada would need to send more than two to Mali.
''A helicopter is not like a car. They have planned maintenance,'' said a UN official familiar with the talks. ''Therefore, in order to have two available on a daily basis you would need three."
The UN will meet with a delegation from Canada on Wednesday to discuss the mission's operational requirements, including the availability of two transport helicopters on a daily basis, the official told CBC News.
Germany, which Canada will be replacing in Mali, deployed four NH90 transport helicopters to make sure it had two operational on a daily basis. But that may have had more to do with the fact the NH90 is so new and had never been deployed into the desert, the official said.
The Chinook, on the other hand, is a workhorse that's been in operation for decades. Its quirks and reliability issues in harsh conditions are well known.
Deadliest peacekeeping mission
The four Griffon helicopters Canada is sending to Mali are armed, but they are not full-scale attack helicopters and won't be providing critical fire support from the air to secure convoys and troops on the ground.
This is not a frivolous requirement: the mission in Mali is currently the UN's deadliest. Since it was established in 2013, 166 soldiers have been killed.
The peacekeepers are also dealing with a growing terrorist threat and a peace accord that the country has been struggling to implement for more than two years.
Germany currently has four Tiger utility helicopters in Mali to provide protection for troops on the ground. The Netherlands had four Apache attack helicopters and three Chinooks when it was in theatre from 2014 to 2017.
Canada's military, however, doesn't have attack helicopters. The role of the Griffons will be to escort and defend the Chinooks, not protect ground troops.
According to the Canadian military's standard operating procedures, whenever a Chinook is dispatched in a hostile environment, it must be escorted by two armed Griffons for protection.
El Salvador to provide firepower
Instead, El Salvador will provide ground troops with aerial cover. The small Central American nation is supplying six U.S.-built MD500 attack helicopters — two air-cover units consisting of three helicopters.
One of the units has been operating out of Timbuktu in the country's north since 2015. Another trio will deploy in July and is expected to work alongside Canada at the UN mission's base in Gao, in northeast Mali.
The UN would also like Canada to allow the Griffons to do double-duty as light transport helicopters, with El Salvador providing the escort. That request is also expected to come up at Wednesday's meeting.
Germany, meanwhile, will continue to have soldiers in Mali providing ''intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance'' confirmed Peter Neven, a spokesperson at the German Mission to the UN. But the country's helicopter contribution will come to an end June 30.
Canada has said its aerial task force won't be operational until August.
Sources within the UN's peacekeeping department have said contingency plans are already in place, and that arrangements have been made with private contractors to fill any operational gaps that month.
''I hope they can come to an agreement, so there is no gap between the Germans' departure and the arrival of the Canadians,'' said the head of MINUSMA, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, during a media briefing at UN headquarters earlier this month.