11/07/2011 04:41 EST | Updated 01/07/2012 05:12 EST

DND Evacuation And Rescue Missions For Canadians In Trouble Becoming Priority: Documents

OTTAWA - Plucking Canadians out of the world's hot spots is a growing area of concern and study for military planners, who until a few years ago didn't have their own tools or the resources to carry out such missions.

Internal Defence Department documents obtained by The Canadian Press show that in the aftermath of the Libyan crisis, the Canadian military is examining not only its war-fighting skills, but its newly enhanced ability to quickly organize evacuation and rescue missions.

Planners have been quietly taking stock of the world's flash points and considering how to get military forces into those troubled regions, while at the same time smoothly getting civilians out of harm's way.

The evacuation of Canadians and other foreign nationals from Libya last spring, and the massive rescue effort from Lebanon in 2006, has brought a new focus — some would argue a new urgency — to such operations.

The Conservative government took a political hammering last winter with opposition parties expressing outrage over the fact over 200 Canadians hitched a ride out of the Libyan chaos with other countries.

Calls for an examination of the military's capabilities faded as the war to oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi settled into a bloody stalemate and the Harper government dispatched fighter bombers.

But internally at the Defence Department there has been angst about future evacuations, especially in light of expected budget cuts, suggest the documents obtained under Access to Information.

Among the most worrisome trouble spots is South Korea, where frequent and increasingly violent outbursts from the hermit kingdom in the North have military planners concerned and looking for guidance.

"With over 20,000 Canadian citizens resident in the (Republic of South Korea), in the event of a full-scale crisis (censored) the evacuation efforts required could significantly exceed those of the Lebanon evacuation," said a Nov. 30, 2010 briefing note prepared for Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

The note was prepared following an artillery exchange on Nov. 23 where North Korea fired over 170 rounds of artillery across the border into Yeongyeogn Island, which belongs to the south.

"A further North Korean attack or South Korean retaliation cannot be discounted. However, in the event of a military confrontation on the Korean peninsula, Canada would need to consider how best to respond."

The rescue of over 14,000 duel citizens from Lebanon — something that cost taxpayers almost $100 million — is often cited by planners because of its complexity and uncertainty.

Part of the cost was driven by the fact that Canada had to arrange for charter ships and planes.

The commander of the country's overseas forces, Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, said the arrival of four giant C-17 cargo planes into the air force inventory has given the military a capability it didn't have during the Lebanon crisis, when Israel and Hezbollah traded blows for several weeks in the summer of 2006.

"The capacity to be able to reach far with our aircraft is priceless," Beare said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

He said the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command has a baseline — or generic — plan for civilian evacuations around the world. It is tailored to a specific crisis when the need arises.

It is impossible, Beare said, for the military at an operational level to rehearse for every possible scenario.

One of the concerns at the policy level, according to the internal reports, is the possibility of the Canadian military having to fight its way into a region to retrieve civilians.

Beare said such a crisis would strain even the United States, the world's most advanced military power.