COVER

BEHIND THE IRAQI LINES

CANADIAN PILOTS FLY INTO BATTLE

JOHN BIERMAN February 4 1991
COVER

BEHIND THE IRAQI LINES

CANADIAN PILOTS FLY INTO BATTLE

JOHN BIERMAN February 4 1991

BEHIND THE IRAQI LINES

COVER

CANADIAN PILOTS FLY INTO BATTLE

It was just after 8 a.m. last Thursday, the eighth day of Operation Desert Storm, when Canada became fully involved in the Persian Gulf war. Four CF-18 Hornet jets of the Canadian Desert Cats squadron, based in Qatar, took off in quick succession and streaked northwards, heading for occupied Kuwait. There, they swept the skies ahead of them to protect a formation of eight U.S. F-16 groundattack jets against any potential challenge from Iraqi planes. No such challenge came, and all of the U.S. and Canadian aircraft returned safely to their joint base near Doha, the Qatari capital.

The Canadians’ first offensive sortie made Canadian military history: not since the end of the Korean War had Canadian military personnel, serving under their national colors, gone to war. “It was a great privilege to do it,” said Capt. Scott Whitley, 29, of Ottawa, one of the four pilots to fly that first offensive mission. Added fellow pilot Capt. Arnold Tate, 29, of Toronto: “It made us feel part of the whole scene.”

Bombs: The Canadians’ controversial entry into the Gulf war as an offensive force was approved by Ottawa on Jan. 16 at the outbreak of hostilities. Then, the cabinet authorized the Desert Cats’ 24 jets to add sweep-and-escort duties to their original defensive mission of protecting coalition warships from aerial attack. But authorities blamed bad weather for delaying the debut of the squadron, which is part of the coalition’s 1,840-strong aerial armada arrayed against the forces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Commanding officers ordered, then cancelled, three sweep-and-escort missions because of poor visibility over the designated target areas in Kuwait. But by last Thursday morning, the low clouds had lifted, allowing a strike force of eight Doha-based F16 ground-attack jets from the U.S. 401st Tactical Fighter Wing to shower Iraqi lines of communication somewhere in Kuwait with antipersonnel cluster bombs. The day before, Iraqi ground fire had shot down one of the American squadron’s F-16s, although a U.S. helicopter rescued the pilot from the sea. But this time, there were no mishaps.

As the returning Canadian pilots described it later, their part in the operation, although vital, seems to have been oddly remote, as though

they had been taking part in some lethal computer game. “We were supplying some package support,” said Whitley, using military jargon—“package” denotes any ground attack or bomber formation as it proceeds on a mission. The Desert Cats did not even follow the same route as the other formation: they arrived over the target area a few minutes in advance on a route of their own in order to avoid surface-toair (SAM) missiles. Explained Whitley: “The bombers have to go into that stuff, but we like to keep clear.”

In fact, “that stuff” was the target of another element in the mission, a low-flying formation of American F-4G “Wild Weasel” jets, whose missiles are especially designed to destroy SAM sites. While the F-4Gs set about that task, followed by the F-16s with their cluster bombs, the Canadian planes, armed with air-to-air missiles, circled at high altitude, forming a protective screen between the ground-attack planes and any Iraqi jets that might try to interfere. Canada’s CF-18s can be equipped with air-to-

ground missiles, but officials in Ottawa decided that other aircraft with more sophisticated weaponry, such as the F-4G, were better suited to attack ground targets.

The Desert Cats did not see any sign of enemy aircraft in the first sorties. But Whitley and his comrades said that they were not disappointed by the enemy’s failure to try to intercept. “I was quite pleased, actually,” said Capt.

Jeffrey Tait, 26, of Richmond, B.C. Tait said that he felt “pretty excited” on making a safe return. “I’d said I’d kiss the ground when I got back, but I didn’t do that because of the cameras,” he added, referring to the presence of a Canadian Forces film unit that was on hand to record their return.

The leader of the Desert Cats’ first sweep mission, commanding officer Lt.-Col.

Donald Matthews, was not on hand to brief journalists. But his subordinate officers said that all the Canadian pilots have great confidence in their $35-million Hornets and in their rigorous training for combat. Said Whitley: “The Hornet is the best fighter in the world, so far as we’re concerned. And the Canadian training program is second to none.” And when asked how they viewed the prospect of killing or being killed, the young pilots expressed a kind of remoteness from war’s grim realities. Said Tate, matter-of-factly: “If you’re worried about being killed, then you can’t do the job.” As for killing others, he said: “When I’m shooting another aircraft down, in my mind I’m not killing a person, I’m destroying a piece of equipment.”

Confidence: While the Desert Cats wait on their airbase, dubbed Canada Dry Two, to go on more sweep-and-escort missions, one of their peripheral concerns is the state of public opinion back home. According to an Angus Reid/Southam News poll last week, a slight majority of respondents is against Canada’s active participation in the war. But Tait declared: “I’m proud of my country for standing up against aggression.” The other pilots said that they shared those sentiments. Said Capt. Douglas Carter, 31, of Prince Albert, Sask.: “Every pilot would like to think that everyone at home feels he’s doing the right thing.” Maj. Russell Cooper, 39, of Hamilton, the squadron’s second-in-command, said: “In fact, we’ve had tremendous support from the people back home. Tons of letters.” And Capt. Reginald Décoste, 37, of Jonquière, Que., dismissed the assertion of some antiwar protesters that the war is being fought for oil. “I believe there are deeper reasons,” said Décoste. “I have full confidence in our political leaders.”

The pilots, however, have a more immediate concern. Like millions of noncombatant television viewers around the world, they have seen Iraqi TV footage of captured coalition flyers, some of them with severely bruised faces, making stilted antiwar statements under apparent duress. Asked how they felt about Iraq’s

treatment of the POWs and how they would conduct themselves in a similar situation, a number of the Canadian flyers downplayed their fears, saying that they had been trained to deal with being prisoners of war. “We have sessions with military legal advisers,” Carter said. “We talk about the Geneva Convention

and what our rights and [the enemy’s] responsibilities are if we become POWs.” Under the Geneva Conventions, last codified in 1949, a POW is required to give his captors only his name, rank and serial number. The captors are forbidden to put prisoners on public display or make them utter statements against their beliefs and wishes. Décoste said that he would give the Iraqis “only enough so that I can survive—I am no better than the men you have seen on camera.” Added Tait: “Your biggest thing is to stay alive and get back home to your family.” Combat: Along with the American planes, the Desert Cats share the Qatari airbase near Doha with a force of eight Mirage F-ls from the French air force. Because û F-ls are also in service with « the Iraqi air force, and be“ cause friendly aircraft could I mistakenly shoot down the g wrong F-l, the French planes o are not allowed into the com" bat zone. As a result, the French pilots are flying only defensive patrols over Qatar, far from the scene of battle. Observers have said that French official attitude towards the Gulf war is ambivalent. French Defence Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement favored a diplomatic solution to the crisis. And one Western diplomat in Doha said last week that the French military attaché had acknowledged that his country’s Mirages were in Qatar “for public relations.”

Raid: By contrast, the Desert Cats’ host, the tiny but oil-rich emirate of Qatar (population 500,000), struck its first military blow against the Iraqis last week. The deeply conservative Qatari authorities were characteristically tight-lipped about the matter, issuing a brief statement saying only that their warplanes had “carried out combat missions by striking at specific targets in occupied Kuwait.” But the U.S. military command in Saudi Arabia disclosed that the Jan. 22 attack involved Frenchbuilt Alpha jets of Qatar’s 300-man, 24-plane air force, which are normally armed with AM39 air-to-ground missiles.

The successful raid appeared to evoke mixed feelings of pride and apprehension among Qataris: pride that the little state was playing its part in the multinational effort to liberate Kuwait, and apprehension that the Iraqis might retaliate. Although 400 miles from Iraq’s southern border, Doha—and its force of U.S., Qatari and Canadian jets—is clearly within range of some of Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles.

JOHN BIERMAN