Canadian Aces over Kosovo

It has been a year since Canada’s fighter pilots fought in the NATO air campaign. For the first time, they talk about the excitement, fear and frustration of a war in which they were not allowed to strike at ‘the head of the snake.’

Bruce Wallace March 27 2000

Canadian Aces over Kosovo

It has been a year since Canada’s fighter pilots fought in the NATO air campaign. For the first time, they talk about the excitement, fear and frustration of a war in which they were not allowed to strike at ‘the head of the snake.’

Bruce Wallace March 27 2000
It has been a year since Canada’s fighter pilots fought in the NATO air campaign. For the first time, they talk about the excitement, fear and frustration of a war in which they were not allowed to strike at ‘the head of the snake.’


Lt.-Col. Sylvain Faucher remembers thinking as he walked to his CF-18 fighter jet on the tarmac at Aviano, Italy, to lead one of the first NATO bombing runs into Yugoslavia. Many of the ground crew would not meet his eyes. Others reached out to shake his hand as he approached his plane. “This place is like a church,” he thought. The final orders to the pilots last March 24 had been “Don’t walk late,” a warning to get to their planes on time so the carefully co-ordinate package of strikers and supporting fighters would take off on schedule. But once a technician strapped him into the CF-1 8’s ejection seat, Faucher found himself with time to spare, a rare moment alone with his thoughts. “How am I going to recognize a SAM?“ Faucher recalls wondering about the surface-to-air missiles in the Yugoslav arsenal. In 19 years flying fighter jets, Faucher, 42, from St-Roch-de-FAchigan, Que., had never seen live anti-aircraft fire; now, he was anxious about what it would look like up close.

In the cockpit of another CF-18 on Avianos congested runway, Maj. Alain Pelletier’s mind drifted to thoughts of his wife watching the countdown to war on television back home in Bagotville, Que. Because of a communications blackout, he hadn’t been able to talk to her before his mission. He thought about his two children, and about the Serb missile operators awaiting him on the ground and wondered what was going through their heads. And he, too, tried to picture what anti-aircraft fire would look like: if it would fill the skies with colourful tracers as it did in the TV clips from the 1991 war with Iraq, or “look just like I’d seen in old movies.”

It was twilight when Faucher and Pelletier, 34, roared off Aviano’s runways in their jets, heading southeast over the Adriatric Sea. By the time they had refueled in midair two hours later, the skies were inky black; and when they cut west into Yugoslav airspace, there was no mistaking the sparks of the antiaircraft artillery known as Triple A. “Like a twinkling Christmas tree,” Faucher recalls, thinking back on the deadly lights that crackled up from below. Then came the smoke trail from the engine of a SAM, fired without radar guidance to disguise its origins and capable of reaching far greater altitudes than Triple A. “No trouble seeing the SAMs,” says Faucher. “Seeing them is the worst part.” And on the radar: two MiG-29s, Yugoslav fighter jets 110 km off their nose and coming at them fast. An American airborne surveillance plane immediately tagged them “bandits.”

Two Dutch F-l6s patrolling the skies over the Kosovo capital of Pristina picked up the surveillance signal and intercepted the MiGs on the Canadians’ behalf. Pelletier and Faucher both saw the Dutch missiles streaking towards the Yugoslav planes, saw one MiG hit and the other pilot turn and flee. “I could hear the instructions to fire and knew the Dutch missiles were going past me,” recalls Faucher. “You could see one spark in the sky and then what looked like a shooting star.” That, he says, “is when I knew what we were doing was for real.”

The skies now swept clear of the enemy, Faucher and Pelletier located the airfield in Serbia that was their target. Centering the target in the greenish hue of their computerized imaging systems, the Canadians locked on and “pickled”— releasing their 500-lb. bombs and guiding them to the target with a laser beam. They were the first non-American NATO planes to hit targets inside Serbia. “Killing people does not go through your mind,” says Faucher, who commanded the Canadian squadrons in Aviano during the first weeks of the war and flew five missions. “From the air, the human factor doesn’t mean what it would to an army guy. When you are a fighter pilot, you don’t see eyes. You see things—a building, a truck, a bridge, a dam. It’s all so technological.

“I had no Serbian in mind,” he says of his thoughts as he went to war that first night. “I was shooting at a radar pulse.”

NO ONE REALLY KNOWS WHY Slobodan Milosevic ended his violent crackdown on the independence aspirations of Kosovar Albanians and their armed guerrilla movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army, last June. As long as the definition of victory is elastic, it can be argued this was a war won by air power alone. No pilots died. The NATO alliance held together. Milosevic withdrew.

Fears for the safety of the Canadian pilots and their families in Canada meant none were allowed to be identified during the war, nor could their faces be shown on television. Now, proud of what they did and aching to tell their stories, they spoke to Macleans, and painted a fuller picture of the late-20th century moment when Canada went back to fight a war in Europe. Theirs is a story of pride, reflection and some frustration. A year after the start of the 78-day campaign, many of the Canadian pilots and air commanders look back and wonder why they were sent out to hit the same targets over and over, or why NATO planes spent so much time trying to hunt and kill Serb tanks and troops in Kosovo rather than taking the fight to Milosevic in Belgrade.

‘I have nothing against the guy on the other end. He probably loves to fly just like me. Maj. Alain Pelletier, 34

Their opinions—and their stories—have never been widely told in a country that loves its peacekeepers but seems distinctly uncomfortable with the harder, nastier business of peacemaking.

HE HAD NEVER SEEN live anti-aircraft fire. He wondered how it would look up close.

THE POLITICIANS, AT LEAST, seemed to think the war would be a slam dunk, a quick and easy win. They wanted a demonstration of their resolve, to provide punctuation to the diplomacy aimed at stopping Belgrade’s ethnic cleansing. American envoy Richard Holbrooke had warned Milosevic on the eve of the conflict that air strikes would be “swift, severe and sustained,” and the prevailing belief inside NATO was that a night or two of bombing would be enough to rein in the Serb forces terrorizing Albanians. “My God, we’re really going to do this,” Col. Dwight Davies remembers thinking the night before the first strikes. Davies, 42, who comes from Moose Jaw, Sask., was in charge of the Canadian air contingent and counts himself among those whose “naïve gut feel” was that the war would be short. Canadian pilots not scheduled to fly until the third night of combat were kicking furniture at Aviano, thinking they would miss their chance at the real thing. As Davies recalls: “The guys not scheduled to fly the first night were the most crestfallen you’d ever seen.”

No one need have worried. During the 78 days the air campaign dragged on, 68 Canadian pilots would fly 678 sorties and drop 532 bombs. Most were guided with precision electronics, but the Canadians dropped 171 “dumb” bombs through the clouds as well, most aimed at bigger targets like airfields. In the end, Canadians flew roughly 10 per cent of NATO’s sorties, and the air force remains intensely proud of how Canadian pilots were given responsibility for planning a large proportion of the “packages”—the strike force of anywhere up to 50 planes—that carried out wide-scale bombing runs. Half of the packages that included CF-18s were led by Canadian pilots.

The Canadians flew and fired under strict limitations. The pilots kept their CF-18s above the NATO-ordered floor of4,500 m, which drastically reduced their risk of being shot down. Canadian Forces lawyers also vetted every target for its military relevance, and instructed pilots not to drop bombs where the potential for unintended civilian deaths—known by the infamous euphemism “collateral damage”—was high.

“The pilots would push and the lawyers would hold us back,” says Maj. Blaise Frawley, 34, who flew night-bombing runs in the last month of the war. Canadian lawyers, for example, vetoed plans to take out a Serb radio station that they did not believe had any military significance. On the other hand, Canadian pilots did get approval to strike the television station at Novi Sad, Serbia’s second-largest city. A similar NATO decision in which pilots (not Canadian) knocked out Belgrade’s TV station, killing several journalists and support staff-, remains one of the most controversial acts of the war.

Canada's fighter pilots have no doubt that those were exactly the kinds of targets they should have been hitting from the start. They share the view of U.S. Gen. Michael Short, the allied air force commander who has been an outspoken critic of how the war was fought, that air-power is best used “going after the head of the snake.”

“I was in a good seat to see Gen. Short gnashing his teeth over the directions he was receiving,” says Davies, who was part of the tactical planning meetings at air command headquarters in Vicenza, 60 km west of Venice. Short was so disillusioned by the political interference that he now refuses to even call it an air campaign, because it “is not a campaign in the sense that any professional would have carried it out.” Instead, Short calls what happened over Yugoslavia a “random bombing of military targets.”

Publicly, most Canadian pilots who flew into the Serb threat are reluctant to question the targets they were given or the missions they were asked to fly. “Were like a hockey team that only practices, and guys were just pretty happy to go out and do the real thing for a change,” says Frawley. But among themselves they wonder why the war went on so long. They ask the same questions that Short poses: did we risk our lives and those of innocent civilians on the ground for targets that had no great military value? And why wasn’t the war pressed home against Milosevic in Belgrade from the get-go? “Somehow, I don’t think Mr. Milosevic is still here,” Maj. Todd Balfe remembers thinking as he dropped his load of explosives on the presidential palace in Belgrade’s outskirts. That was May 31, and the bombs were among the last the Canadians would drop in the war.

‘It’s sad that guys had to die. But they were the ones creating the problems down there.’ -Lt.-Col. Yves Tessier, 36

SHORT HAD WANTED to open the campaign with a massive, lethal bombing of Belgrade, taking out the Serbs’ air defenses, power grids, bridges and command centers. It was a higher-risk strategy, sure to meet greater resistance from Serbia’s reasonably state-of-the-art air defences. In a pep talk to the assembled NATO pilots and crews at Aviano, Short had warned they might lose three to five planes a night (“Jeez, why'd he do that,” muttered Canadian commander Faucher, who had spent a lot of time trying to soothe his pilots’ nerves by downplaying the risks).

But Short did not get to wage the war he wanted. In June, 1998, he had two American officers draw up detailed plans for his strategy, but the document was shelved by Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO’s supreme commander. Instead, Clark asked NATO planners in Belgium to devise an incremental bombing campaign that would be more palatable to the alliances 19 governments. Many NATO countries were jittery about attacking a country that did not appear to threaten any member of the ostensibly defensive alliance. And they worried that high casualty figures on either side of the conflict would undermine domestic support for the war. That was why Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, like U.S. President Bill Clinton, ruled out ground troops from the start. Their strategy was based on the belief Milosevic would concede after a few waves of NATO jets.

Milosevic fooled them. Rather than throwing his own forces into a fight he could not win, the Serb leader played for time. He constantly moved and hid his military assets, gambling that the longer the war lasted, the greater the political strains would become inside NATO. As a result, nothing became more important to NATO leaders than keeping the alliance together. “Our objective throughout the campaign was to show a consolidated NATO front,” says Lt.-Gen. Raymond Henault, Canada’s deputy chief of defense staff.

That meant the use of air-power would be restrained. When the pilots looked at their first three-day set of orders, there were just 91 approved targets. With a few exceptions, almost all were THE PILOTS FELT THAT MILOSEVIC was not threatened by their careful campaign south of the 44th parallel—in Kosovo, not Serbia proper. NATO pilots hit them all. The expected blizzard of Triple A fire and SAMs never emerged. And the Serbs seldom locked their SAMs onto the NATO jets, which would have exposed them to return fire.

With NATO not pressing the fight to Belgrade and with Milosevic seemingly indifferent to the losses being inflicted on his marauding forces in Kosovo, the prospect of a short war quickly faded. “Obviously, if you’re hitting 200 miles from Belgrade, Milosevic doesn’t feel threatened at all,” says Canadian pilot Pelletier. By Day 4, Davies had scrawled “Think long haul on the board at Aviano, and restlessness with the choice of bombing sites—NATO was ordering its pilots to hit the same targets again and again—quickly set in. “Forget the myth of the cavalier commander sending men off to die,” says Davies. “You do not sleep well when you’re sending people into harm’s way.”

The colonel was hobbled by a broken leg during the war, suffered after slipping on an icy Italian hill. But he still drove 100 km from Vicenza to Aviano on the first two nights of the war to be at the base when the Canadians returned. Now, by the end of the first week with the Canadians being ordered to repeatedly attack the same targets, Davies came within a day of telling Short the Canadians would not fly any more missions. “The value-added of destroying the last outhouse on the last base was so low from a tactical point of view that it became questionable accepting the risk for the pilots to go do it,” says the no-nonsense colonel, sitting in his office in Bagotville, where he now commands the Canadian Forces’ 3 Wing.

At the end of the first week of air strikes, Davies picked up the phone and called Henault in Ottawa. I m having difficulty continuing,” Davies told his boss. If we don't get new targets of value, I don't think I can allow Canadian forces to be employed.” Henault told Macleans last week he never brought the issue up with NATO planners— we trust NATO to pick the targets,” he said—but assured Davies he could make the call on whether to fly or not. You've got the hammer,” he told his colonel. The hard decision was averted when new targets were set.

Other complications emerged. One was the lousy Balkan spring weather: overcast skies that made the precision-guided weapons useless. In another of his frequent calls to Henault, Davies asked for permission to change the Canadian rules and allow pilots to drop “dumb” bombs through the clouds. Henault was back to him with an approval in 30 minutes. The Canadians also upgraded their weapon of choice from 500-lb. bombs to 2,000-pounders, which did significantly more damage to targets.

But the biggest problem for NATO was political. Milosevic had responded to the bombing by unleashing death squads and herding tens of thousands of Kosovar Albanians into buses and trains, and driving them across the mountainous border into neighboring Balkan countries. The images of so much mayhem and violence horrified Western politicians. They demanded Short and his aircrews do something to stop the ethnic cleansing. CF-18 pilot Pelletier was the Canadian operations officer and remembers a meeting where Short said: “I’m under pressure here. I need to slow down the mobility of the Serb forces on the ground.” -- for more photos and links.

The pilots and planners went to work on April 4, a Sunday afternoon, starting after church services. Short lowered the altitude floor to 3,000 m so planes could better spot small targets like tanks and Serb paramilitary forces. Pilots refer to this phase of the war as “tank plinking,” and they say it with derision. Targets were terribly hard to find. It was easy for the Serbs to park a tank inside small buildings, and troops could easily disperse into the woods. “It was a horrible mission and we hated it,” says Balfe.

Davies didn’t like it either. He kept the CF-18s above 4,500 m and did not authorize them to hunt targets, although the Canadians did take out a couple of Serb artillery pieces during this stage of the war. Without any troops of its own on the ground, NATO could not lure Serb forces out of hiding. “It is not that hard to avoid being bombed,” says Balfe, 35, from Cold Lake, Alta. “If we had Canadian forces on the ground and had to support them, absolutely we’d fly lower.” Without that, the Canadian mission orders were to keep the risk low. “We knew whatever bombs we fired would be a drop in the bucket, ” says Faucher. “So we said: put a priority on your survival and make sure you don’t kill any innocent people on the ground.”

To Short, it was inevitable NATO would drop a “bad bomb.” On April 14, an American pilot flying over Kosovo mistook a tractor for a tank, and hit a column of refugees. The carnage was terrible: 75 dead and another 26 wounded. For the Canadian pilots, it confirmed the need for caution. “There was so much pressure to be precise,” says Pelletier. “We asked ourselves: do you want to be the guy on TV, your face blacked out, just your voice saying, ‘I didn’t mean to kill those civilians’? ”

IN A REPORT RELEASED last month, New York City-based Fluman Rights Watch put the number of civilians killed in the air war at 500. The Canadians say they made a clear distinction between the acceptability of killing civilians and killing combatants. “It’s sad that guys had to die,” says pilot Lt.-Col. Yves Tessier, 36. “But they were the ones creating problems down there.” The pilots watched the horrific images of the refugee exodus on CNN from their mountainside hotels outside Aviano, and though Tessier admits he might have cursed the Serbs as “bastards” a few times, he says he never felt anything as strong as hatred. Pelletier even expresses some sympathy for the enemy. “I have nothing against the guy on the other end,” he says. “Fie probably loves his airplane and loves to fly just like me.” But the pilots agree they had reconciled themselves to the killing long before they got to Aviano. “If a guy can’t live with himself, he shouldn’t be here,” says Frawley. “Because our job is to blow things up.”

THE CANADIANS WERE PROUD of what they did in supporting the NATO cause

By late April, Short received permission to take the fight deeper into Serbia in order to increase the pressure on Milosevic directly. The number of sorties increased to almost 1,000 a day, and Ottawa sent another six CF-18s to Aviano to bring the total number to 18. Henault says the planes were “absolutely” needed to fulfill a NATO request for more air-power. Not everyone in Aviano, where the base was already crammed with planes, was convinced. “Where in Italy do you want me to put your six planes?” the harried American colonel in charge at Aviano asked Pelletier.

But the Canadians were soon hitting the new targets deep inside Serbia, flying in over Bosnia and Fiungary instead of Kosovo. “Coming in from the north, all of a sudden you’d fly into total darkness,” recalls Frawley of the night missions. “It reminded me of movies about the London Blitz. It would be all black, and then you’d see explosions in the distance. And you’d know our planes were there even though you couldn’t see them.”

The Canadians did not drop any bombs in the last 10 days of the war. Diplomacy had resumed, and mission after mission was scrubbed. The pilots called their situation Groundhog Day, after the movie in which Bill Murray’s character is doomed to repeat the same day over and again. Balfe was at home on leave when Milosevic called it quits on June 10, and thought “Thank God, I don’t have to go back.” But he also felt a sense of relief that NATO had prevailed. “I certainly thought for a period that we weren’t going to win this thing,” he says.

Many of the Canadians who flew over Kosovo have since left the military, lured away by the better pay at commercial airlines and the appeal of living somewhere other than the out-of-the-way bases at Cold Lake or Bagotville. “The campaign came along at just the right time for us,” says Balfe. “The technology in the CF-18 was not completely obsolete, and we had pilots nearing the end of their careers who had trained in the days when budgets allowed us to fly more hours.” But to a man, the Canadians say their training prepared them perfectly for the Balkan situation. “Sure we need to make a serious investment in our pilots and planes,” says Davies. “But our guys were very good at their jobs. Canadians should be terribly proud of them.”

Tessier, for one, says he’s proud of what he and his fellow pilots did last year. Fie never expected big parades or hero treatment upon his return: “At the time, I was thinking about my security and was happy that people didn’t know who we were.” Behind him at Bagotville, a CF-18 blasts into the sky, a Kosovo veteran taking off with a little extra thrust and a steeper climb to mark his last flight before leaving the air force. “But someday, maybe in 10, 20 years when it settles down over there, I’d like to go back, see the targets I hit,” says Tessier softly. “Go back with my family,” he adds, “just like one of those vets from the Second World War.”