Thursday, November 19, 2009

Allies are urging Canada to deploy CF-18s to Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States and NATO have “expressed a desire” for Canada to deploy CF-18 Hornet fighter jets to Afghanistan, according to the Canadian general who leads the coalition’s air war in Afghanistan.

“I can tell you from the senior Canadian in this headquarters that I have been asked on several occasions by AFCENT (United States Air Forces Central) and CENTCOM (Central Command), ‘How can we get Canadian F-18s into the game over here?’” said Maj.-Gen. Duff Sullivan. “And I’ve told them that that is a political decision back in Canada.”

Sullivan, 52, flew sorties in CF-18s over the Balkans and during the first U.S.-led war against Iraq in 1991.

“What has been highlighted to me as the director of the air element here, the commander of AFCENT has said that it would relieve the pressure on his American squadrons if we could have Canadian F-18s come in. I haven’t commented one way or the other, but passed it back to Canada to the chief of defence and I know that issue is well known in his office.”

But Sunday evening Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s director of communications, Dan Dugas, disputed the notion it was a ‘political decision.’

“The general is somehow mistaken on this issue,” he said. “This is something that has not gone through a chain of command and then to the minister’s office . . . so it can hardly be a political decision if it hasn’t made its way through the chain of command.”

“If the chain of command believes this is worthwhile they would make a recommendation to the minister, as far as I know this has not happened.”

Sullivan has been described by U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, as his “air czar.” The Cornwall, Ont., native is a graduate of the U.S. air force’s most prestigious combat school and flew NATO missions in Germany for Canada for seven years.

“Whenever our troops are in trouble and taking casualties, every single time they call for air support — armed overwatch — that is what the Canadian F-18s would do,” Sullivan said, noting that Canada alone among the allies contributes combat ground forces in Afghanistan without also providing close air support.

“This is what I think that other allies are noticing and pointing out to me,” Sullivan said. “Canada is the only nation that has not yet done a tour of duty with its fighter force . . . If we brought our F-18s it would allow us to be fully involved in the air/land operation.”

The questions being asked about Canada’s CF-18s was “interesting in the NATO environment because before officially asking a country to fill a capability they will unofficially ask them to feel them out about where they are,” said Sullivan, who is also deputy director of air/land operations for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.

Lt.-Gen. Michel Gauthier, who commands all Canadian troops overseas, said during a visit to Kandahar last month that the air force was already making a major contribution in Afghanistan and that Canada had no plans to deploy CF-18s to Kandahar.

“You have to recognize that Canada is contributing in a very, very significant manner with the more than 3,000 troops we have on the ground,” Sullivan said, echoing some of Gauthier’s comments. “We have (also) plussed up with our Chinooks and Griffons (helicopters) and Herons (unmanned surveillance drones), so there is no doubt Canada is shouldering quite an impressive contribution.”
The helicopters and the drones with Canadian markings began flying missions at Kandahar Airfield early this year. They joined a small number of Canadian CC-130 Hercules transports that have been flying cargo and soldiers within theatre for NATO for several years. Canada’s four relatively new C-17 cargo planes also provide crucial logistical support to Task Force Afghanistan.

Still, “the fighter capability is perhaps an area that Canada might wish to think about bringing into theatre in the future, as well,” Sullivan said.

Accommodation is at a premium at Kandahar because of a major buildup of U.S. forces this spring. However, the general said that space could be found if Ottawa decided to send CF-18s to Afghanistan.

Canada’s fighter fleet is about to complete a modernization program. The upgrades include a sophisticated new targeting pod that can provide an instant data link to commanders in the field and the ability to carry new precision-guided munitions.

“Everything is now coagulating and coming together in respect to the F-18. It will be full up and ready to go in the August-September time frame,” Sullivan said. “If deployed, they would be stars over here.”


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