COVER

FLYING INTO NEW DANGERS

WHY CANADA IS IN AN ATTACK ROLE

E. KAYE FULTON March 4 1991
COVER

FLYING INTO NEW DANGERS

WHY CANADA IS IN AN ATTACK ROLE

E. KAYE FULTON March 4 1991

FLYING INTO NEW DANGERS

COVER

WHY CANADA IS IN AN ATTACK ROLE

The general in charge of running Canada’s war effort was blunt: coalition forces in the Persian Gulf had a war to win, and Canadian bombs would help them. Last week, following Ottawa’s announcement that Canadian CF-18 fighter jets in the Gulf would begin bombing Iraqi targets, Gen. John de Chastelain explained to Maclean’s the reasons behind that decision. Bombs left behind in Germany when CF-18s first arrived in the Gulf last October with no assignments for air-toground duties could be transported in a day to the Canadian airbase in Qatar. Fresh crews of pilots from the CF-18 base at Bagotville, Que.—scheduled to relieve colleagues in the Gulf by the end of February—had been primed in the latest techniques of dropping bombs on enemy positions. The Iraqi air defence was diminished. Other coalition forces were adapting aircraft to join the bombing missions over Iraq and Kuwait. But above all, said the gener-

al, coalition forces would need more support during the ground war. Added de Chastelain: “It would have been very difficult for us— knowing that we had aircraft to do this role— not to at a time when coalition forces might be dying for lack of an all-out effort from the air.” Unavoidable: That escalation of Canada’s air operation in the Gulf received cabinet authorization at midweek. Some of the 26 CF-18s in the Gulf will be ready for a ground-combat role within days. The rest of the fleet will become operational as the refitting is accomplished and pilots retrained in air-to-ground warfare are stationed there. The Canadian dual-purpose fighters, which until now have been flying sweep and escort missions for U.S. bombers, could help demolish Iraqi military installations and supply lines. Although de Chastelain called the Canadian Forces’ traditional peacekeeping role “noble,” he said that the shift to an air-toground campaign was unavoidable. “There is something that is too cute about Canadians who want to be involved in the war, but not too involved,” he said. “That was not the basis on

which you went into this war.”

Still, opposition critics were clearly uncomfortable with Canada’s new commitment. Until mid-February, the Conservative government repeatedly insisted that the CF-18S were unlikely to be used to bomb ground targets. But according to senior officers who asked not to be quoted, extensive consultations on changing Canada’s air role were taking place bez tween coalition members and g Canadian commanders in the

1 Gulf at the same time. NDP

2 defence critic John Brewin, I for one, condemned the govg emment for what he called its â “despicable decision.” The

1 new offensive role, he said,

2 erodes Canada’s peacekeepa ing status and makes the lt; country “complicitous with u [Iraqi President] Saddam

Hussein in the killing of tens of thousands of people.”

But there was little doubt, even among critics, that the CF-18 Hornets are well equipped to perform in an offensive capacity. In fact, the $25-million fighter—the centre of controversy from the moment Ottawa ordered 138 of the sleek, U.S.-built jets in 1980—has exceeded defence department expectations in the Gulf. Its performance has clearly provided a welcome relief for the military. Four CF-18 crashes last year brought to 11 the number that have gone down since Ottawa began acquiring the fleet—and led to renewed debate about the safety of the aircraft and the effectiveness of Canada’s fighter-pilot training program. But in 21 weeks on active duty in the Gulf, the planes have successfully completed more than 2,000 missions.

Officials say that the aircraft require only minimal adjustments to prepare for their missions. The first shipment of air-to-ground rockets and bombs arrived in the Gulf from Germany on the day of Ottawa’s announcement. Meanwhile, pilots from Germany—who will join Bagotville pilots in relieving flyers now stationed in the Gulf—are expected to complete refresher courses within two weeks. They will then be ready to fly aircraft carrying as many as six bombs and rockets. Among the available weapons: Canadian-designed CRV-7 rockets with armor-piercing warheads, and Rockeye cluster bombs made up of 247 socalled bomblets. The CF-18s are also equipped with 20-mm Vulcan-nose cannons capable of destroying tanks. “You will not win the war with our aircraft,” said de Chastelain. “But we might win a battle or two.” For many Canadians, that was enough cause for a swell of pride. But, for others, it was an unnecessary erosion of the nation’s peacekeeping reputation.

E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa