Roto Zero Theatre Activation Team: First boots on the ground

There are large black boxes of equipment and a round satellite dish
An Army Communications Information System Specialist with Operation PRESENCE-Mali sets up the Land Force Portable Satellite Terminal at Camp Castor in Gao, Mali on June 26, 2018. (Photo: Canadian Forces Combat Camera 
)

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By Captain Thomas Edelson, with notes from Captain Karine Rondeau Lavaute

Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) operations are frequently opening or closing overseas. Most citizens and even some soldiers don’t give it much thought; their focus is on the execution of the mission. When the soldiers arrive in theatre, there are places to sleep, food to eat, water to shower, doctors if needed, phones to call home, rifles, paper for the printers, computers for work, desks, chairs, bandaids, sometimes ice cream, bootlaces, ammunition storage, fridges, generators, forklifts, plywood…. The list goes on and on for a very long time.

The Government of Canada announced on March 9, 2018 that the CAF would take on the significant role of Forward Aeromedical Evacuation in the United Nations Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). About 100 days later, the first troops put boots in Malian sand.

The logistical and movements complexity of this mission is unusually high.

Mali is a land-locked country, about 7000 km from Trenton, Ontario, with developing infrastructure, one unreliable railway, and very challenging roads sometimes littered with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). There’s also no easily accessible internet and limited cell phone reception. During the rainy season in June and July, the temperature heat index nears 50 degrees Celcius. When the first CAF members arrived, they landed on a dirt runway because the main runway was closed and being resurfaced. This dusty environment will be the Canadians’ home for the next year.

“The basic objective of a Theatre Activation Team is ensuring the incoming Task Force can do its job as quickly as possible with as little effort as possible,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Murphy, Commanding Officer of the Joint Task Force Support Component. “Our biggest challenge was the lack of time between when we arrived and when the Task Force arrived. Normally we have about 6-8 weeks to set up but here we had only 24 hours.”

So, how do you ensure that when troops arrive, they can move to their accommodations, eat, get a shower, and grab some sleep before starting their work the very next day?

This challenging task falls to a Theater Activation Team, generated from personnel and equipment from Canadian Forces Joint Operational Support Group based in Kingston, Ontario, and 2 Air Expeditionary Squadron from Bagotville, Quebec. Put all the words and letters together and you have the Joint Task Force Support Component (JTFSC), a team of about 100 proficient and experienced personnel drawn heavily from trades like logistics, signals, medical, engineering, and Military Police.

Fortunately, the area where the Canadian contingent lives and works, known as ‘Camp Castor’, was already well-established for real life support by previous German and Dutch contingents. But small issues can add up to big challenges. Conversion into a European power supply, no commercial internet, and scorching temperatures so hot they can paralyze communications equipment, are examples of problems that were addressed to set up for operational success.

“From a logistics perspective, this place is the Wild West,” said Captain Patrick Dornan, Mission Support Element J4. “We showed up with a small team with the minimal material required to start work and the rest you just try to figure out during the activation. It is a lot of problem solving and a lot of relationship building as fast as you possibly can, but you realize how important relationships are not just within the TAT but with all the other allied nations, the locals and the UN.”

A cardinal rule for the military is if you think you need it, you better be prepared to bring it with you. For Operation PRESENCE – Mali, this proved to be more that 1.4 million pounds of equipment – all of which had to be moved from Canada by air.

Using an Interim Operational Support Hub on the West Coast of Africa, CC-177 Globemasters lifted huge amounts of equipment, including disassembled helicopters. From the support hubs, a CC-130 Hercules crew worked tirelessly to move personnel and equipment. The prioritization and coordination for the delivery and reception of this mountain of cargo fell to members from 3 Canadian Support Unit and 4 Canadian Forces Movement Control Unit; getting the right equipment in the right order is key to enabling operations.

“As soon as you’re here, you want to do everything in your job, everyone wants immediate success in their jobs, but the material just wasn’t arriving quick enough,” said Master Warrant Officer Nick Côté, the JTFSC Camp Sargent Major. “The challenges weren’t from poor planning either. Working with a runway that was under maintenance, the weather cancelling flights, all the other factors were hard but our competence was never a question.”

Further, working in this extreme heat can seriously hurt people if they aren’t aware of the signs and symptoms. The TAT medical staff treated numerous cases of heat-related sickness and constantly reminded all personnel to drink far more water than one would think possible. It was typical for a soldier to initially consume around 10L of water with salt-dextrose tablets each day. With time and awareness, personnel become acclimated to the temperature.

Additionally, there are scorpions, poisonous snakes, and giant ‘camel spiders’. To top off the austere environment, there are sandstorms called a ‘Haboob’ which is literally a wall of sand picked up by heavy winds several hundred feet tall that roll onto the base from time to time. They appear with minimal warning and surprising speed, blacking out the sun, blinding and choking anyone caught out in them.

The heat and sandstorms impacted the equipment as well as the troops. Members from Canadian Forces Joint Signal Regiment were constantly challenged by operating and maintaining equipment in the heat. They found creative solutions, like using modular tents and an air conditioning unit to keep equipment temperatures within normal range.

No matter how prepared and experienced a unit is, there is no better teacher than adversity. Every ‘Roto Zero’ deployment in the CAF is sure to be filled with unexpected challenges; how these challenges are met and overcome are the test which must be passed. As the TAT prepares to leave theatre and the Task Force begins executing their mission, the sound of Canadian helicopters flying in Mali speaks for the result.

Image gallery

  • A helicopter is put into the back of a large plane
  • A woman has large chains strung over her shoulder
  • A cargo plane lands on red dirt. There is a lot of sand in the air.
  • Two soldiers dig in the sand with a shovel and a pickaxe
  • There are large black boxes of equipment and a round satellite dish
  • Military members help each other to carry a long black helicopter rotor
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