The National Post
It is kind of sad to see them go. I realize that for your operators who fly the CF-18s ... 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. We are pounding these guys so hard, once the folks on the ground show up, what you have is a skeletal force in different locations. —Lt.-Gen. Charles Brown, Commander, Air Force component, U.S. Central Command
The strikes varied from something that was very intense to others that were more routine. There were a lot of moving parts that involved a lot of co-ordination. There has never been a dull moment. This was one of the best moments of my career.
— unnamed RCAF pilot
Up to 10 times a month, Canadian pilots flying out of a scorching hot airfield in Kuwait struck ISIL in and around Iraq’s second-largest city, targeting everything from bunkers and artillery to vehicles and car bomb factories.
While the political debate continues over Trudeau’s decision to ground the CF-18s in favour of more training, the analysis of Canadian Armed Forces airstrike data answers a more pragmatic question: what exactly did Canada’s fighter jets do?
Figures show that the six CF-18s conducted more than 230 airstrikes — all but five of them in Iraq. The vast majority targeted what the military described as fighting positions. The attacks were concentrated around Mosul, Sinjar and Ramadi.
The latter two cities have been retaken by Iraqi forces but Mosul remains the glittering prize. The once culturally rich city on the Tigris River has been ravaged by ISIL, which has imposed its militant brand of Islamic law through executions, child recruitment and ethnic cleansing.
Crosses at churches have been replaced with black ISIL flags, and the 1,700-year-old Christian population has fled after being ordered to convert to Islam. A buildup around the city has been underway for months, in anticipation of a planned ground assault.
“To retake Mosul on the ground there has to be months of preparation before that in terms of airstrikes and other forms of planning,” said Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. “It’s logical to target IS capabilities, IS defences, IS weapons depots in the Mosul area.”
Canada was not alone in its focus on Mosul — it was also the city most frequently struck by the coalition as a whole. “What our six (planes) have done has been a very small part of a big campaign,” said Randall Wakelam, an associate history professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.
The U.S.-led air coalition began to take shape in August 2014, after ISIL swept into Sinjar, committing one of the worst war crimes of the conflict. The videotaped beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley further cemented international resolve to defeat the Islamist extremists.
Canada joined the air mission in Oct. 2014, when Parliament voted to join the coalition. “We must do our part,” said then-prime minister Stephen Harper. But opposition parties stood against it, with Trudeau arguing that Canada should play a humanitarian role rather than “trying to whip out our CF-18s and show how big they are.”
The airstrikes aimed to halt ISIL’s expansion, shrink its territory and erode its capabilities, said Juneau, who called Canada’s participation “as political as military in the sense that it was a way to contribute to the legitimacy of overall operations.”
Within days of the vote, the CF18s left Cold Lake, Alta., for a base outside Kuwait City.
The first Canadian airstrike came on Nov. 2, west of Fallujah. The planes recorded six strikes that month and nine in December, but by January they were conducting almost daily bombing runs.
In Mosul, ISIL set fire to parts of the city to throw off reconnaissance aircraft, and mixed among civilians. “We follow laws of conflicts but they hold meetings in mosques, hospitals and schools,” said Col. Sean Boyle, who commanded Air Task Force Iraq between April and October 2015. “It makes it a much more complicated mission.”
The CF-18s sometimes flew missions alone and sometimes alongside coalition partners. Boyle recalled a Canadian-led attack on a training camp near Mosul by CF18s, Saudi F-15s and planes from four other nations. “We worked seamlessly. We were on the same page,” said Chief Warrant Officer John Short, who spent six months on the air campaign.
In Sinjar, where ISIL massacred, enslaved and expelled the Yazidi minority, CF-18s struck 31 times as Kurdish forces fought to retake the city. The central city of Ramadi was the third most commonly targeted with two dozen airstrikes; Iraqi forces recently took control of Ramadi, proclaiming it their first major victory against ISIL.
The targeting reflected the fact that “we are the air force for the various opposition forces,” said professor Stephen Saideman, the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
Although Parliament voted last March to extend the air mission into Syria, the CF-18s struck only five times in that country — twice in the ISIL stronghold of Raqqa. The most recent sortie into Syria was Jan. 27, the target an IED factory near Palmyra.
The airstrike data suggest that preventing IED attacks was a priority for the mission. The military reported striking dozens of IED factories, storage facilities and vehicles rigged with explosives — a favourite ISIL weapon.
The tempo of Canadian airstrikes peaked from May to July 2015, the data show. During that period, CF-18s conducted 69 strikes. The pace slowed during the federal election, but Trudeau did not ground the CF-18s immediately after his October federal election victory. Almost 60 airstrikes — about quarter of the total — occurred after he was sworn in.
The air campaign has been notable for the absence of confirmed civilian casualties. That may be partly due to the lack of an independent media presence on the ground, but the airstrike data also suggest pilots were cautious.
Eight out of 10 times, Canadian fighter jets returned from their sorties without having dropped any bombs. “I reviewed every single strike with pilots, sometimes frame by frame,” Boyle said. “To the best of our ability we can confirm that there are no civilian casualties.”
He said the guided munitions, which ranged from 500 to 2,000 pounds, were “very advanced” and accurate 99 per cent of the time — although “one or two times” the bombs were duds that struck without detonating.
By contrast, the Russians — who were accused this week of bombing a hospital in Syria — have shown less regard for civilians. “The Syrians are sometimes dropping bombs from helicopters,” Boyle said.
On Feb. 8, Trudeau announced he would end the air mission Feb. 22. Saying that “our efforts should better reflect what Canada is all about,” the prime minister said his government would instead focus on aid, diplomacy and training Iraqi forces.
On Wednesday, the military announced the mission had actually ended on Feb. 15. The Canadian Joint Operations Command Headquarters said this week the CF-18s had contributed to efforts to “halt and degrade” ISIL.
Canada’s final tally: 1,378 CF-18 sorties and 251 airstrikes on 267 ISIL fighting positions, 30 IED factories and storage facilities and other targets. ( The official totals vary from Postmedia’s because some of the military’s publicly released data record multiple airstrikes as a single strike.)
“To date as a result of coalition efforts ISIL can no longer manoeuvre freely in large numbers,” said spokesman Capt. Kirk Sullivan. The ISIL leadership and its economy have been targeted, and morale is declining, he said.
Among those returning home will be military lawyers who were part of the targeting process that ensured Canada’s rules of engagement were followed.
“The coalition has been able to stop the advances of ISIL, their freedom of movement and their supply chain,” said a CF-18 pilot who flew 41 missions over Iraq last year and is now back in Canada. “This was one of the best moments of my career.”
I flew 41 combat missions over Iraq. The strikes varied from something that was very intense to others that were more routine. There were a lot of moving parts that involved a lot of co-ordination. The air space was quite busy. We either flew as Canadian elements of the coalition or as parts of a large coalition package. I have the pleasure of serving the government where and when asked. This is a huge responsibility and it is a pleasure to deploy. Operating the equipment itself was an inherent challenge in the Middle East. There were heat and other effects. (Preparing the aircraft to fly) is a rigorous process. I am confident there was no collateral damage before, during and after our missions. Checking for collateral damage is an important part of what we do together. It starts before the mission takes place. It is an extensive, rigorous process that does not end until the release of the weapon. To the best of my knowledge there were no problems with any of the airstrikes during the entire mission and specifically, during my deployment.