Skilful military logistics can seem indomitable on paper, but throw in some real-world factors such as lack of time, international politics and unexpected events, and an entirely different picture surfaces.

That was certainly the case for Operation VAGABOND, which deployed some 525 Canadian Forces personnel in 1988 to supervise the ceasefire and withdrawal of forces along the Iran-Iraq border. The situation was notably challenging: the arrangement was ad hoc, and the mission plan had to be devised and implemented in less than two weeks.

“We winged it,” recalls Lt.-Col. (Ret’d) John N. Stuart, OMM, CD of the operation.

In 1988, Stuart was director of the National Defence Movement Coordination Centre, and his role was to develop the plan for placing a group of military observers and a communications unit into Iran and Iraq.

Canada was formally asked to provide a group of 15 military observers to the United Nations Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group (UNIIMOG), following the UN’s announcement of a ceasefire that was to take effect on August 20. The UN also requested a signals squadron, which was provided by the Special Service Force Headquarters and Signals Squadron based at the Canadian Forces Base Petawawa (Petawawa, ON). Among additional support capabilities added was a long range communications terminal.

The deployed unit was to establish communications for the UNIIMOG headquarters and its observers, until UN civilian employees and their equipment could replace them.

Upon receipt of the Operation Order from National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) (Ottawa, ON) on August 11, NDHQ staff had only 12 days to plan and execute the airlift operation, aiming to close as soon as possible to the ceasefire date.

“Even though as a team in 1988 we had not done a major airlift since 1973 — we were able to sit down and figure it out,” Stuart says. “And quite frankly, when we started writing the plan, my boss said . . . ‘Just get a blank piece of paper here and start from that.’ We had no precedent to go on and we just went from there.”

A feasibility assessment by the Air Transport Group concluded that Canada could not achieve the airlift of personnel, vehicles and all associated materials in less than 45 days, Stuart recalls.

He says he recommended that Canada advise the UN that it could not undertake the mission without assistance. Two big players — the Americans and the Russians — were subsequently approached.

“The Americans said yes they would help us out, but they would not go into Iran,” Stuart says. “The Russians would not go into Baghdad. So it seemed to me pretty simple: the Russians go into Iran and the Americans go into Baghdad. You would assume that things would go like that, except the Russians couldn’t take part.”

While various problems did arise over the course of Operation VAGABOND, they were all overcome, and ultimately, the mission proved successful: the more than 500 personnel and 150 vehicles were deployed in what was the largest airlift operation that NDHQ had undertaken in 15 years.

Soaring to Success
Part of making things work meant having to respect international requirements, such as the need to obtain clearances from countries that the aircraft plans to fly over.

“We had to divert the aircraft from going into Cairo and all those arrangements had been made to go from Cairo north up into Turkey, which meant they had to go out over the Mediterranean and fly into Turkey and that was cleared very quickly,” Stuart notes.

He adds that such clearances normally take 48 hours or more, often stretching a trip out over several days. But the various participants were eager to bring the Iran-Iraq war — which had been going on for eight years — to an end.

The choice of aircraft also became an issue. Stuart points out that the C-5 Galaxy and the C-17 Globemaster III aircraft now used by the U.S. domain map Air Force are regarded as a strategic resource, so they can only be approved for use by the President of the United States.

“So, the Americans had in fact gone to the president and said, ‘Look, we would like to help the Canadians and also work to help the UN’,” Stuart explains, adding that part of the deal called for a decrease in the U.S. contribution to the UN by the amount it would cost for the airlift.

Today, Canada would unlikely meet the requirement to provide 10 CC-130 Hercules aircraft — as was achieved during Operation VAGABOND, when 10 of these aircraft were flown daily between Incirlik, Turkey and Bakhtaran, Iran, from August 21 until the airlift ended on September 1. According to Stuart, the age of the current fleet and its commitments would be cause for concern, as would the availability of trained crews.

In fact, he mentions, the originally intended use of the Hercules was not as a strategic airlift asset.

“It was intended to short haul into remote airfields, and it can land in gravel and it can land on roads if necessary and what it was intended to do was to haul about 40,000 pounds into an area,” he says. “When you go across the Atlantic, you’re really limited to about 25,000 pounds because of the fuel we have to carry.”

In contrast, the C-5 can be re-fueled during flight, and carry several crews, making it capable of going around the world.

“The Hercules can’t do that,” Stuart says. “But we opted for our Hercules fleet to do our strategic airlift.”

Another option is the Russian Antonov An-124, the only large aircraft that can be rented by anybody. However, they are being widely used even as they age, being unable to carry as much as they used to do, nor even land in many airports because of noise and pollution restrictions caused by dated engine technology.

What’s the Plan?
Stuart suggests that Canada and the U.S. have always had to rely on commercial airplanes. For instance, the U.S. has the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) program, which permits the country to quickly mobilize its airlift resources. Airplanes under this program have had their floors reinforced, so they could be taken over by the U.S. Air Force when aircraft are needed to carry extra weight, likely in the range of several thousand pounds.

“This is not a minor thing, and of course, because we have the extra weight, it decreases the range of the airplane,” Stuart says, adding that he recommended against turning to a civil fleet for Operation VAGABOND because it was not in the budget.

Overall, Stuart emphasizes the importance of proper planning. Movement by ship is a possibility, but one that is dictated by circumstances.
“We could have sent things by ship, both to Iraq and Iran because they both have usable ports, but we didn’t have time,” Stuart says. “But to send that mission over to Afghanistan, for example, that’s where we’re really going to have difficulty.”

And if you are carrying ammunition, he adds, many ports will not accept you until you off-load it. In the recent past Canada has not previously dealt with logistics for over-the-shore operations.

“We didn’t in World War II,” Stuart insists. “We didn’t do it in Korea. We’ve never done it anywhere else. website screenshots . Why do we need a ship that’s capable of that kind of activity?”

Meanwhile, airlifts like Operation VAGABOND remain idiosyncratic, involving unique circumstances and many different personalities and backgrounds of people. The essential planning, along with the impromptu changing of those plans, represents no small feat.

“The success of the mission was really dependent upon the professionalism of the people involved — everybody,” Stuart recalls.

Given today’s communications systems, options for renting aircraft, and the changed world of the 21st century, Operation VAGABOND would now look quite different if it had to confront the same time lines.

“Our Prime Minister would have to go to the president of the United States and say, ‘Look, we can’t do this ourselves, can you help us?’,” Stuart argues.

The answer would depend on whether the request reflected U.S. interests, or conflicted with other priorities.

“And right now their priorities are (to) act in Afghanistan,” he says. “And they don’t have enough aircraft to get their own job done.”

In light of the status quo, Stuart wants to prompt further discussion on how Canada would cope with a request for another airlift mission on very short notice. He is looking forward to hearing any feedback.

“I think the responses are going to be quite interesting,” he says.


By Deborah Komlos