*Photo credit: COMBAT CAMERA

This is the third in a new series of blog entries exploring the work of emerging voices examining Canada’s armed forces and defence and security issues. In “Search and Rescue: A Moral or Legal Duty?” Major Jean Leroux of the Royal Canadian Air Force reflects on both the ethical and economic reasons why the Canadian government invests in Search and Rescue capabilities nationwide.

It is a timely moment to discuss the importance of SAR with news this week from The Hill Times that the RCAF is testing “radio technology to be mounted on search-and-rescue aircraft that communicates with mobile phones of lost or missing people in areas without cell coverage.” 

Canadian citizens work hard for their money and expect the Government of Canada to make wise and responsible decisions when it comes to spending their tax dollars. Some decisions are minor but others involve massive investment in both financial and human resources. One extensive endeavour that has gained momentum in recent years is the strengthening of our military’s Search and Rescue (SAR) capability. This article explores two reasons why the Canadian government makes military SAR such a priority. One reason is domestic in nature and is relatively well-known.  The other, which is perhaps the true anchor for investment, and has a direct impact internationally, is obscure to most Canadians.


The first element of SAR is the government’s responsibility to protect Canadian citizens. Public Safety Canada is responsible for Canada’s security and owns the National SAR Program (NSP), whose “objective is to prevent loss of life and injury”.[1] Canada’s unique size, geography and resources require a multi-agency approach. No single agency has both the resources and qualifications to solve the SAR equation by itself.[2] SAR in Canada is not delivered or executed by a single organization but rather by the combination and co-operation of multiple federal, provincial, municipal and volunteer organizations.


One of the key players in the national SAR program is the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). To highlight this, the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the Minister of National Defence (MND) dictated that the CAF’s overarching goal is to protect Canadians.[3] SAR represents an essential way to accomplish this mandate. Released in 2017, Strong Secure and Engaged outlines clear roles and missions, with one of the established core missions being to conduct SAR operations.[4] CAF SAR resources are used in a number of ways to relieve suffering and assist Canadians in emergencies, but the largest proportion relates to the primary mission of providing SAR service to aviation and marine communities.[5]


The first element described above is the moral duty to protect, while the second element is a legal duty to provide a safety network to all commercial aircraft and marine traffic transiting through Canadian territory. Canada participates in several international organizations, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and the Arctic Council, and has agreed to adopt SAR standards and practices in accordance with the conventions.


Annex 12 of the ICAO convention states that “contracting states shall arrange for the establishment and prompt provision of SAR services within their territories to ensure that assistance is rendered to aircraft in distress regardless of the nationality”.[6] The IMO has similar standards outlined in the Maritime SAR convention for Safety Of Life At Sea.[7] Looking north, the Arctic SAR Agreement is the only binding agreement for the Arctic Nations under the Arctic Council.[8] In practical terms, this means that local government will render assistance if a marine vessel from Canada gets into trouble on the UK coast. Based on the same principle, if a commercial airliner from Japan has an emergency over the Canadian Arctic, Canadian military SAR force should be activated. These agreements provide a safety net for the entire marine and air transportation system globally.


How much of an impact does this have on the Canadian economy? Canada enjoys the convenience of having an extended road-accessible border with the United States, its primary economic partner to the south. But elsewhere, vast oceans make shipping and air transport the only means of trade. As Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau has affirmed, a “safe, secure and reliable transportation system is essential to our economic wealth.”[9] The four largest Canadian trading partners after the US are China, Mexico, Japan and the United Kingdom, which account for approximately $377 billion every year.[10]


According to ICAO reports, airlines worldwide carry 3.8 billion passengers and 53 million tonnes of freight annually.[11] The major air traffic highways between North America and Europe go through the eastern part of Canadian airspace. Additionally, the ICAO traffic flow forecast for 2040 shows the Canadian Arctic airspace use will expand dramatically as the range of commercial aircraft increase and allow for more direct routes.[12]


Sea transportation is showing similarly impressive economic statistics. The United Nations reports that because “over 80 per cent of global trade by volume is being carried on board ships, the importance of maritime transport for trade and development cannot be overemphasized.”[13] Canada’s share of sea shipping freight might also see a dramatic increase with the European Union-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, which is scheduled to come into effect in 2021-2022.[14] When these numbers are combined, there is an enormous potential for emergency situations.  The vastness of Canada’s water and the oftentimes inhospitable climatic conditions add considerably to the risk.


The Canadian government has a moral duty to protect Canadians in its territory. The military SAR force deploys more than a thousand times a year and saves hundreds of lives in the process.[15] On a global level, Canada also has a legal duty to provide a safe environment for countries doing business with Canada using air and water to move merchandise. Canadian investments, such as $2.4 billion for a new fixed Wing SAR fleet, the UK’s $2.8 billion for a 10-year SAR helicopter contract, and the Norwegian All-Weather Search and Rescue Helicopter programme (expected to be about $3.7 billion), all seem quite expensive.[16][17][18] However, these investments need to be contextualized alongside the obligations of their respective countries to provide a safe environment for air and sea trade. These agreements represents the backbone of the world economy.


Major Jean Leroux is an experienced RCAF Search and Rescue (SAR) aircrew with over 5000 flying hours on both fixed wing aircraft and SAR helicopters. He is an Aircraft Commander on the CH149 Cormorant and has conducted over 350 rescue missions across Canada and in the Arctic. His last operational post was as the Commanding Officer of 103 (SAR) Squadron based in Newfoundland and Labrador. He is currently based in Ottawa as a Project Director under the Directorate of Air Requirement for the RCAF. 

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