Canada and the World

‘A REAL CHALLENGE’

Canada’s navy guards the American flank in the war against terrorism

MATTHEW FISHER February 18 2002
Canada and the World

‘A REAL CHALLENGE’

Canada’s navy guards the American flank in the war against terrorism

MATTHEW FISHER February 18 2002

‘A REAL CHALLENGE’

Canada and the World

Canada’s navy guards the American flank in the war against terrorism

MATTHEW FISHER

Hours after George W. Bush named Iran as part of “an axis of evil” on Jan. 29, four Canadian warships delicately skirted that country’s coast on their way from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea. The Iranians were paying attention. As the warships sailed by, their running lights out in the gathering darkness, the Iranian authorities politely hailed “the Canadians” by radio and the Canadians hailed them back.

The deployment to Afghanistan this month of troops from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) has received far more attention at home, but until now Canada’s biggest contribution to Bush’s global war on terrorism has been

Strait of Hormuz

provided by our navy. Canadian warships—at one point as many as six—have been operating across a 1,000-km-wide swath of ocean from the Persian Gulf in the west to the approaches to Karachi in the east. Their open-ended mission, called Operation Apollo: to help defend the American flank and to observe and, if necessary, intercept vessels suspected of carrying Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters to safe havens in the Middle East or the Horn of Africa. “A lot of people were killed on Sept. 11—some of them were Canadians,” says Leading Seaman Peter Martin of the HMCS Iroquois. “We cannot let anyone get away with this.”

The Canadian armada is one for the record books. Never in the navy’s 92-year history have its warships operated for so

long at sea. For sailors, a tour of duty in this mission can last six months. And by any measure, this has not been a token appearance. Of the 2,726 ships hailed by coalition navies by the end of January, the Canadian task group had handled more than 800 of them. Among other assignments, the HMCS Halifax kept a special watch on the approaches to Karachi, while the HMCS Vancouver monitored dhows leaving Pakistan, transmitting photographs back to a U.S. command ship.

When Pakistan and India began threatening nuclear war in December, it brought another level of tension to the area. Radar operators in the HMCS Charlottetown’s war room spent one day tracking a group of five Indian warships. “It suddenly

Canada and the World

became even more interesting around Dec. 24,” says Commodore Drew Robertson, the Canadian task group commander on the Iroquois. “We didn’t expect a shooting war but we were interested in tracking both sides. We invest in this because we have to know where they are. And we want them to know where we are, too—we don’t want any confusion.”

But the mission is testing the Canadian Forces’ limited resources. About 50 per cent of the 2,800 sailors from Canada’s Atlantic fleet are now in the area, and although virtually every Canadian in these complicated waters supports the country’s participation in the war on terrorism, patience sometimes wears thin. “This is good for our navy because navies are meant to be at sea, but our guys have been doing the math and they are justifiably concerned about how much sea time they may be get-

ting,” says Cmdr. Andy Smith, who serves as an engineer on the Iroquois. “Canada wants a deterrence presence here, but for a sailor who is, say, 45 years old and sleeping with 50 other guys on a mess deck for six months, he has to be asking himself if this is really what he wants.”

That is exactly what Leading Seaman Larry Adams is wondering. An 18-year veteran of the navy, the 41-year-old sailor on the HMCS Preserver has three children and a wife back home in Nova Scotia. “We all signed on for a reason,” he says. “If we have to take back-to-back sea missions, we might not like it, but we’ll do the job. But what this is doing is making guys wonder how much longer they want to stay in. When you are at sea so long you get a lot of time to think about your life and what you want to do with it—you think about moving on.” Rear-Admiral Bruce

MacLean, the commander of Canada’s Atlantic fleet, acknowledges that the navy is facing “some very real quality of life issues” because of the mission. “Canada is in this for the long haul, so what are our ratios going to be?” he says. “The number of days away from home has always been our biggest issue—we may not keep the same number of ships here.”

So far, though, Canada has more than 2,500 soldiers, sailors and airmen deployed around the region, a number that will increase (as well as the flotilla and troops in Afghanistan, some Canadian transport and reconnaissance aircraft are operating out of an undisclosed Gulf state). And few Canadians, politicians included, seem to realize that this mission in South Asia is bolder than anything Canada has attempted militarily since the Second World War. After decades of re-

CHANGING THE TUNE

Trying to blunt international criticism, President George W. Bush decided to apply the Geneva Convention to Taliban fighters held by the United States and classify them as prisoners of war. That designation is designed to protect prisoners from inhumane treatment by ensuring they receive such things as proper nutrition and medical care; allies and enemies alike had lashed out at the U.S. for refusing to classify captured Taliban fighters as POWs. But the decision will have no impact on the treatment of the 186 Al-Qaeda fighters being held at Camp X-Ray at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba. Even though the U.S. insists it is treating the Al-Qaeda prisoners fairly, it considers them to be terrorists, not POWs. Mean-

while, Canadian troops have been ordered to hand all prisoners over to U.S. forces.

Last week, the House of Commons voted to launch an investigation into Defence Minister Art Eggleton’s flip-flop over the capture of Al-Qaeda fighters by Canadian soldiers. The four-week inquiry begins on Feb. 18. At issue is whether Eggleton deliberately misled the House when he made contradictory statements about when he first learned that Canadian soldiers had taken the prisoners and turned them over to U.S. forces-at a time when there were no guarantees the detainees would be treated as POWs.

The continuing debate over how to handle prisoners came as Canadian soldiers—750 will be in place by mid-February-prepared to assume security duties around Kandahar airport. Before head-

ing out on patrol, several Canadian soldiers altered their forest-green uniforms by draping them with tan-coloured sand bags for camouflage (Eggleton has also been criticized for not providing troops with desert uniforms).

The whereabouts of Osama bin Laden remained uncertain. As U.S. planes bombed suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda positions in eastern Afghanistan, one attack triggered speculation that the elusive terrorist leader may have been killed. There were reports that a tall Al-Qaeda leader had met his death in the missile strike. Possibly bin Laden himself, who is believed to be as tall as six feet, four inches? At week’s end, officials in Washington said the missile hit its target but bad weather made it difficult to verify who had died.

Michael Snider

strictive military budgets, it represents a complex logistical challenge. “This has been our Achilles heel for years,” says one retired general who clearly remembers the difficulty he had moving a brigade of 5,000 men and 2,000 vehicles to Europe for a NATO exercise in the 1980s. “We should have seen this coming 10 years ago—the military can’t refuse the governments orders so as it downsizes and is given bigger missions, it stretches itself further and further.”

Acquiring bigger transport aircraft and updating the existing Hercules fleet would cost billions of dollars. This urgent requirement competes with the need for big money to buy badly needed supply ships and helicopters, upgraded radar and the equipment an army needs if it is to be thrown into combat missions such as the one that, potentially, looms for the Princess Patricia’s in Afghanistan. “We can keep this going,” says Lt.Col. Greg Smith, commander of the Hercules detachment based in the Persian Gulf. “But in order to ensure the long-term viability of our aircraft, we have to maintain rugged maintenance procedures. My job is to raise the flag and say, ‘This is too much.’ If I have to, I will.”

In the meantime, they carry on. “As soon as I heard about Sept. 11,1 said, ‘Let’s giddy-up and go,’ ” says Cpl. Robert Canning, who left his wife and two children for six months to help maintain the two Aurora maritime reconnaissance aircraft that are flying low-level missions over the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. “Working in the heat is a real challenge. Sand gets everywhere. We clean everything daily, we have minimal supplies, but we’ve got the best people there are. I would never say ‘No’ to a mission like this. It’s important.” For Capt. Julia Atherley-Blight, an airfield engineer whose husband quit his job as an electrician to take care of their three children during her tour in the Persian Gulf, equally important is the chance to work with locals. “We are getting a better understanding of each other’s lifestyles,” she says. “There are real rewards to this experience—it is an honour to be part of it.” E3