Canadian military cargo plane finally ready for UN operations

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has announced a Canadian air force cargo plane — with 25 personnel — will soon deploy to Uganda to support UN mission missions in nearby South Sudan and Congo.

Deployment of C-130J Hercules initially promised at 2017 peacekeeping conference

Canada is deploying a Hercules C-130J aircraft, like this one, to Uganda to assist UN operations in neighbouring countries. (Steve Rennie/Canadian Press)

A Canadian military cargo plane is expected to begin operations in Africa this month to support two United Nations peacekeeping missions, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Thursday.

The announcement of the one-year deployment of a C-130J Hercules to Entebbe, Uganda, is the fulfilment of what was thought to be one of the easiest pledges made by the Liberal government almost two year ago.

A small detachment of 25 pilots, ground crew and security will accompany the aircraft, which will be used up to five days a month in support of UN missions in Congo and South Sudan.

The Liberal government hopes other countries will consider signing up to provide similar support service for field missions once Canada's deployment ends.

"This capability will play an important role in helping supply military and police personnel on UN peace operations in the region, with critical resources," Sajjan said in a statement. "We look forward to working with other member states to turn this flexible capability into another smart pledge rotation."

The cargo plane commitment was highlighted in November 2017 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Vancouver during a star-studded international conference where the Liberals unveiled a laundry list of so-called smart pledges.

Finding agreement with the UN on how and when the aircraft would be utilized proved to be a tortured process, and senior government and defence officials made repeated assurances over the last 18 months that they were close to an arrangement.

Mali withdrawal

The new deployment comes as the Canadian air force prepares to withdraw a helicopter contingent from Mali, where it has been flying medical evacuation and transport flights for the UN in that troubled country.

The year-long Mali deployment of two CH-147F Chinook helicopters and four armed CH-146 Griffon helicopters — along with 250 pilots, ground crew and medical technicians — was also among the promises made in Vancouver. 

Trudeau also pledged to deploy a 200-person rapid reaction force of troops to support a UN peacekeeping mission and provide military trainers to help improve the quality of forces contributed by other nations.

There has been no sign of either one of those pledges. 

"Right now, we are focused on our current missions," said Sajjan.

Sajjan said the C-130J is an "excellent example" of a smart pledge, demonstrates Canada's support and fills "critical gaps in UN peacekeeping."

The upcoming deployment, however, not something the UN had requested — or even considered until it was proposed by Canada, the country's top military commander told CBC News in a year-end interview last December.

In defending the amount of time it was taking to make arrangements, Gen. Jonthan Vance, chief of the defence staff, said it was a new and innovative idea that required extensive discussions. 

Sajjan, at the announcement Thursday, also defended the amount of time it has taken to negotiate a deal.

"It's very complex supporting multiple missions and working through the UN system to make sure it's done well," he said.

The Liberals campaigned in the last election on reinvigorating Canada's involvement in peacekeeping and went on to pledge up to 600 troops for international operations.

Walter Dorn, a professor of defence studies at the Canadian Forces College who tracks UN data, said in an online post that at the moment the number of uniformed military personnel assigned to peacekeeping is greater than when the Conservatives ended their tenure in 2015.

But at 192 troops, it is still far short of what was promised.