Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Canada in Iraq: U.S. General sad to see CF-18s leave Mideast

Written by Matthew Fisher, National Post 

US General would welcome back Canadian fighter jets if they returned.


The American general running the coalition air campaign against ISIL jihadists in Iraq and Syria says Canada’s CF-18s, which the Trudeau government ordered home last week, are welcome to return to the fight at any time.
Photo: Getty Images / Don Mackinnon

While Belgium and Denmark brought their fighter jets home, they did so for financial reasons, Matthew Fisher writes. Canada pulled its jets because of a campaign pledge.

“Ideally, I would like the Canadians to come back at some point, but I know that there are local decisions that have to be made in Canada for that to happen,” Lt.-Gen. Charles Brown told the National Post from his headquarters at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

“It is kind of sad to see them go. I realize that for your operators who fly the F18s, your pilots, I think they are a little disappointed because I know if I was one of them at the squadron level and much younger, I would probably be feeling the same way.”

The three- star U. S. air force general, who commands several hundred attack aircraft, spy planes and in-air refuellers spread across half a dozen countries in the Middle East, found out Canada’s new government intended to withdraw its jets from Kuwait while watching CNN.

“It was kind of news to me. I wasn’t watching the campaign to understand all the dynamics,” the former F-16 fighter pilot said. “But I understand. We welcome them back if the opportunity presents itself, if the minds there change and the political leadership changes its mind.”

Judging by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent statements, there is virtually no chance of that happening. But Brown noted Canada was not the first country to bring its fighter jets home. Other countries, such as Belgium and Denmark, had done so because of the size of their air forces or for financial reasons.

While it was not “a foregone coalition” that they would return, “it was their intent to come back,” he said.

Canada’s decision to withdraw its fighters was not based on financial considerations. Rather, it was to honour a Liberal campaign pledge to end the combat mission. But having fighter jets drop precision-guided high-tech weapons is a hugely expensive undertaking.

Without saying which countries he was talking about, Ashton Carter, the U. S. secretary of defence, said in January some U.S. allies were “free-riders” in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant because of their unwillingness to commit combat forces to the fight against Islamic extremism.

But he might as well also have been speaking about how deeply disappointed the U.S., Britain and France are at how little Canada spends on defence.

NATO’s target for defence spending is two per cent of gross domestic product. Canada spends less than half that, the least of any major nation in the 28-country alliance. With a budget deficit that will likely grow from nearly zero to as much as $30 billion this year, it is highly unlikely Canada will increase what it spends on defence any time soon.

Nonetheless, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s modest contribution of six CF-18 Hornets has been useful because Canada was “one of a handful of countries” to allow its aircraft to launch airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria, Brown said. “Because of their flexibility ... we were able to act on specific targets and in specific areas.”

It was good for the coalition Canada was keeping two spy planes (CP-140 Auroras) and an in-air refueller (a CC-150 Polaris) in the Middle East and increasing the number of its trainers in Iraq.

“With time we understand this adversary (ISIL) more and more,” Brown said.

“We have gone very hard against them here the past several months at their ability to resource themselves, hitting some of their oil facilities as well as some of their bank facilities and cash collection points. I know for a fact from the ‘intel’ that this is hurting them. When they have difficulty paying their fighters, their morale gets lower.”

Canadian and other coalition aircraft have been “pounding these guys so hard,” ISIL has been unable to launch any major offensives since last spring and is slowly losing territory in Iraq, he said, adding as a result resistance on the ground has been less than had been expected.