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The Globe and Mail

Ottawa eyes new Caribbean staging base in talks with Jamaica

Ottawa is negotiating an arrangement with Jamaica to allow the Canadian military to stage out of the Caribbean island in the event of trouble — or even natural disasters in the region.

The two Commonwealth partners have been quietly developing closer ties, something that recently manifested itself with the deployment of three CH-146 Griffon helicopters to back up the Jamaican defence force.

"We have a great partnership in the region," said Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, who's in charge of Canada's overseas military force. "Geographically, it's in a perfect spot."

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He said the country's position — centrally located in the Caribbean — puts it at "an interesting crossroads" in the region, which has suffered its share from disasters ranging from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to repeated hurricane devastation.

The Defence Department has been quietly scouting locations around the world to establish staging bases, small-scale depots that can be quickly expanded to support operations should the need arise. Defence Minister Peter MacKay recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Kuwait to create such a hub to support military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Defence experts have said that, closer to home, Canada's response to the Haitian disaster was complicated by the absence of such a long-term arrangement. They cite as an example the fact that military equipment had to be off-loaded in the Dominican Republic and flown into the quake-ravaged nation.

Much like the talks with Kuwait, negotiations over the Jamaican base are running in tandem with talks to expand trade.

Military co-operation between the two countries extends back years and includes training for Jamaican commandos who helped end a dramatic hijacking a few years ago. Canada also assisted in the construction and development of the Jamaican Military Aviation School.

It is unclear when a deal will be struck.

The deployment involving the Griffon helicopters is close to winding down and Lt.-Gen.Beare said the majority of the missions have been medical evacuations.

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Canadians were asked to provide the aircraft during hurricane season to replace Jamaica's search-and-rescue plane while it was put into a major overhaul.

The Griffon crews, involving 65 members from bases in Goose Bay, NL; Bagotville, Que.; and Trenton, Ont., were on standby 24/7, said Lt.-Gen. Beare.

The mission allowed the military to reclaim a critical skill set that had fallen by the wayside during the Afghan war. The deployment allowed crews to conduct intense training for downed jetfighters, something they'd not be able to do during multiple rotations of Griffon helicopters in Kandahar.

"At our fighter bases, whenever you lose an airplane, you have the capability to go find them and recover our people," said Lt.-Gen. Beare.

"We've been able to recreate the level of search and rescue capability with those aircrew and SAR teams in four months, where it would have taken a year-and-a-half under normal circumstances in Canada."

It also gave Griffon pilots from Trenton extra search and rescue time in the air. The utility helicopter has been deployed in Central Canada to replace the Cormorants.

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