OTTAWA - Airstrikes alone will not defeat Islamic State fighters in Iraq and a significant training mission by allied nations will be needed to restore the fighting capabilities of the Iraq army to tackle the extremist threat, Canada’s top general says, a reality that suggests Canada will be engaged in Iraq longer than six months.
Canadian fighter jets, joined by surveillance aircraft, an air-to-air tanker and 600 military personnel will arrive in the region in the coming weeks to join ongoing combat operations against the extremists, top generals confirmed Friday.
With CF-18 jets about to join the bombing campaign, military brass went out of their way to reassure Canadians that sophisticated surveillance, precision-guided munitions, Canadian rules of engagement and ultimately the discretion of the fighter pilots will help minimize civilian casualties.
“They are given discretion to bring their weapon back if they believe unreasonable collateral damage may occur,” Gen. Tom Lawson, chief of the defence staff, told a briefing.
That’s why Lawson, himself a former fighter pilot, cautioned people against measuring the success of the upcoming combat operation by simply the number of bombs dropped.
Lawson said the ongoing air campaign — almost 300 airstrikes so far against targets such as bunkers, vehicles and weapons — are forcing the extremists into hiding, making it harder for allied pilots to find targets.
“That raises the issue of how close you can come to the people who we are trying to protect in taking out ISIL (also known as Islamic State) targets,” Lawson said.
The fighter pilots will have the assistance of surveillance aircraft, like Canada’s CP-140 Auroras, which will use sophisticated optical and electronic gear to identify potential targets and assess the risk for civilian casualties.
The federal government announced earlier this month that Canada would join combat operations over Iraq, setting in motion the deployment of up to six CF-18s, two CP-140 Aurora surveillance aircraft, a CC-150 Polaris air-to-air tanker and up to 600 military personnel.
Flying from Kuwait, those aircraft will be ready to begin flying combat missions in early November, though precisely when depends on the tempo of operations, said Lt.-Gen. Jonathan Vance, commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command.
“At this stage it would be premature to say when they’ll drop their first weapons. We guarantee we’ll tell you when they do,” Vance said.
Both Vance and Lawson depicted the airstrikes as simply the first “emergency” step in a longer campaign to drive out the Islamic State threat from Iraq and Syria, a campaign that could demand yet more from countries like Canada.
“Simply bringing air strike power to bear will not deal with the ISIL problem,” Lawson told a news conference at national defence headquarters.
Vance said there is a need to “rehabilitate the Iraqi army, Iraqi security forces get them on their feet and be able to conduct ground operations against ISIL.”
“They need a bit of a reset and some support to get back into the fight,” Vance said. “There will be a training mission on a larger scale. The size and scope and who does it, we are uncertain of at this time.”
While both Canada and the United States have ruled out sending ground troops into combat, both nations have deployed soldiers to act as trainers and advisers, a role that appears certain to grow in the coming months.
Canada has already dispatched a small contingent of 69 special forces soldiers to northern Iraq to advise Iraqi and Kurdish fighters in their battle against Islamic State fighters.
Brig.-Gen Michael Rouleau, commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, said the soldiers are helping teach local forces on the tactics that go into a successful attack.
“We’re helping train them in elements like shoot, move, communicate. How you manoeuvre elements around the battle space, how you can most effectively bring your various weapon systems to bear,” Rouleau said.
And he suggested those lessons are happening in the heart of the action on a battlefield where the frontline is hard to define, rather than in the relative safety of a distant training centre.
“We’re getting with these forces where they are,” he said.
“What we’re dealing with in Iraq is a very hybrid battle space, where it’s difficult to define discernible front lines, friendly people, bad people.”
But while their mission is to “advise,” they’re not authorized to “accompany” the Iraqi forces on their combat missions, though Lawson said that is a “difficult line to define.”
“Every effort will be made to maintain distance. Our soldiers are so very well trained if that were to break down at some point,” Lawson said.