COVER

VAN DOOS AND DESERT CATS

CANADIAN FORCES ARE AT TOP ALERT

ANDREW PHILLIPS January 21 1991
COVER

VAN DOOS AND DESERT CATS

CANADIAN FORCES ARE AT TOP ALERT

ANDREW PHILLIPS January 21 1991

VAN DOOS AND DESERT CATS

COVER

CANADIAN FORCES ARE AT TOP ALERT

Over a lunch of greasy spaghetti at a windblown airfield in the Persian Gulf sheikdom of Qatar, two Canadian fighter pilots were discussing the prospect of war. Capt. Robinson Cox, a 27-year-old native of Vancouver, said that when there is no conflict, “you do wonder how good you are.” He added: “Imagine if you were a doctor all your life but you never had a patient because everyone was healthy. You’d kind of like to see a sick person.” Said 28-year-old Capt. Emile Calderon of Toronto: “It’s more like being an undertaker with no work to do. I can live with that.” Despite their easy banter, there was increased apprehension last week among the 1,700 Canadian sailors, soldiers and airmen stationed in the Gulf region as part of the 30-nation multinational force arrayed against Iraq. And as time swiftly ran out for the UN-imposed Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to withdraw its forces from Kuwait, the troops came closer than any Canadian servicemen since the 1951-to-1953 Korean conflict to being caught up in a war.

In tiny Qatar, temporary home to Cox, Cal-

deron and 576 other pilots, groundcrew and support staff from the 439 and 416 Tactical Fighter Squadrons, based in Baden-Söllingen, Germany, and Cold Lake, Alta., respectively, the mood was particularly tense. If war breaks out, the CF-18 pilots who have been patrolling the northern Gulf will likely be directly involved. The 18 Canadian fighters in Qatar have been providing defensive air cover for allied naval vessels, including the Canadian ships Terra Nova, Athabaskan and Protecteur, since early October. In war, they would likely encounter Iraqi F-l Mirage and MiG fighters. Still, there were no public plans last week for the Canadian fighters to take an offensive role in the war.

Victors: Col. Romeo Lalonde, the taciturn 28-year air force veteran who commands the Qatar-based squadrons, said that the CF-18s would continue to fly their patrols over the northern Gulf during a war. “The mission is to support the UN embargo against Iraq and protect the ships,” Lalonde said in his makeshift office beside the runway that the Canadian fighters share with Qatari and American war-

planes. His voice occasionally drowned out by the thunder of jets overhead,

Lalonde, a native of Penetanguishene, Ont., added:

“As for a follow-on mission, that will be decided by our Canadian politicians.”

But the Canadian pilots voiced confidence that if they have to battle Iraqi fighters, they would be the victors. In addition to flying air cover for allied warships in the Gulf, they also engage in mock air combat with Qatari pilots who fly French-made F-l Mirage fighters, one of the main aircraft flown by the Iraqis.

Those training sessions have enabled the Canadians to improve their skills against one of their main potential enemies, to learn firsthand how the Mirage performs and how best to defeat it.

In all those practice fights, which usually last two minutes and which the planes’ electronic equipment records for later analysis, the CF-18s have emerged victorious. That performance, the pilots said last week, has strengthened their confidence.

Lt.-Col. Ronald Guidinger, who runs the control centre that co-ordinates the CF-18 flights, talked about a conversation that he had recently had with a Qatari F-l pilot. Guidinger, 37, said that the Qatari pilot told him: “Whenever I have to fight a CF-18,1 feel so stupid. I know I’m going to die.” The F-l, according to the Canadians, is much less manoeuvrable than the CF-18, known as the Hornet. Added Guidinger: “Any Iraqi F-l who wishes for a long and happy life is not going to stick around and fight with a CF-18. It’s a very superior aircraft.”

‘Ugly’: Still, the Canadian pilots appeared more apprehensive than eager at the prospect of testing their skills in life-or-death confrontations. None of them was boasting, and they all seemed gravely conscious of the unromantic realities of war. Declared Guidinger: “First you have to remember that compared with the Americans, we are a small player here. If we talked about cleaning their clock, we’d be talking bigger than our britches.” Flying in a war, added Calderon, includes the possibility of being forced to parachute over Iraq or Kuwait and ending up as a prisoner. He added: “There are a lot of ugly stories about what might happen.”

Few of the Canadians currently in Qatar have been there for more than a month. The g combined force from the 439 and 416 squad02 rons, whose members call themselves the Desert Cats, replaced the original force, the 409

Tactical Fighter Squadron, based at BadenSöllingen. Infantry from the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment in London, Ont., who accompanied that squadron to guard the two camps, were replaced at the same time by 100 members of the 1st Battalion, the Royal 22nd Regiment—the legendary Van Doos. The new force was posted to Qatar for a tour of 12 to 14 weeks, although that may be extended indefinitely if war breaks out.

At the two Canadian bases in Qatar, nicknamed Canada Dry One and Canada Dry Two, the 543 men and 33 women cite the policy of rotating the force out after three months as a principal reason for their high morale. In contrast, the 1,000 Americans of the 401 Tactical Fighter Wing, who fly F-16 fighters out of Qatar, arrived in late August and, like all American forces in the Gulf region, their posting may last until the crisis is over. Their morale has clearly suffered as a result. The Canadians’ spirits have also been buoyed by literally tons of mail from home—about 3,000 lb. every four days.

A few of the thousands of letters addressed to “Any Serviceman” have been hostile, accusing the troops of being warmongers. Sgt. Michel Joly, a 44-year-old native of Montreal’s tough Point St-Charles district who is the base’s postmaster, said that he has tom up some of those letters but a few have gotten through. In response, some members of the

squadron have written back saying that they are proud to be in the Gulf to counter Iraqi aggression.

Still, some of the Canadians privately express doubts about aspects of their mission. Several of them said that it seems ironic that they are defending democracy from a base in Qatar, a conservative sheikdom ruled by members of the al-Thani family, including the emir, Sheik Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani. Only about 100,000 of the sheikdom’s 375,000 inhabitants are of Qatari descent. The rest are mainly immigrant workers from other Arab countries, Pakistan and the Philippines, and they have few civil rights.

Scared: The Qatari authorities are highly sensitive to criticism, and leaders of the Canadian forces in the country say that they strive to avoid offending their hosts. But some Canadians expressed negative feelings about the Qataris. Capt. André Samson, the Van Doos’ Roman Catholic chaplain, who has developed contacts with some Catholic immigrant workers in Qatar, said that many of them “are treated practically like slaves.” Added Samson: “We aren’t here to defend democracy, that’s for sure. I tell myself that it’s for the principle of international law, that one country cannot be allowed to attack another country.”

Although it is the CF-18 pilots who face the most direct threat in case of war, other Canadians on the ground in Qatar could be at risk as

well. Compared with the massive array of firepower in eastern and northern Saudi Arabia marshalled against Iraqi forces, the allied forces in Qatar are relatively small, and the sheikdom’s airbase is not considered a prime Iraqi military target. Still, it is within range of Iraq’s Scud-B missiles, which are believed to be capable of delivering a chemical warhead 300 miles. The Canadians there carry gas masks nearly all of the time. As well, during a war, terrorists sympathetic to Iraq might try to attack Western bases or groups of Western servicemen in Qatar.

Canadian authorities at the base have advised their military personnel to avoid going to the Pizza Hut in Qatar’s capital, Doha, on Thursday nights. Said Gary Stewart, a 46year-old communications specialist from Belleville, Ont.: “That’s PLO bowling night. The local PLO guys go bowling and then go for pizza, so we keep away.” The threats, said Stewart, made all those at the base jittery as the Jan. 15 deadline approached. He added: “Everyone wonders, what if Hussein doesn’t get out? How’s it going to affect us and the ships? It’s like the first time you jump out of an airplane— if you’re not a bit scared, you shouldn’t be here.” For the Canadian forces in Qatar, anticipating the danger may soon be the least of their problems.

ANDREW PHILLIPS