Sunday, June 13, 2010

Canadian Airforce to Withdraw all of its Helicopters from Afghanistan

BY MATTHEW FISHER


The Canadian air force is planning to withdraw all of its helicopters from Afghanistan within a few weeks of the end of Canada's combat mission next July, the air force general responsible for generating aircraft and crews for the war in South Asia said yesterday.

The helicopters would be used until early August 2011 to help transport troops and equipment back from forward bases after the combat mission ends, said Maj.-Gen. Yvan Blondin, commander of 1 Air Division in Winnipeg.F

The general, who was in Kandahar for three days to meet with aircrews and maintainers, also said that Canada is still "at least four or five years away" from fielding attack drones.

"The project is identified. It needs to be funded and with the budget pressures we're still some time away from ... being able to purchase this capability."

Drones have been in great demand since the U.S. has used them to such lethal effect and as aerial surveillance platforms in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Canada's only drones in Kandahar are Israeli-made Herons. With modifications, the Heron is capable of launching weapons, but Canada uses a variant that is unarmed and only flies surveillance missions.

Ottawa plans to buy more capable drones under what it calls the Joint Unmanned Surveillance and Target Acquisition (JUSTAS) program. Original estimates of the cost of a small fleet of such drones was about $1 billion, but the program is now expected to cost about $1.5 billion.

Purchasing more capable Herons remains a possibility, but several U.S. military manufacturers have been pushing for Ottawa to purchase the bigger, more expensive Predator.

The air wing in Kandahar, which includes C-130 Hercules transport aircraft as well as Griffon and Chinook helicopters and Heron drones, was created as the result of recommendations made by the Manley Commission. It was highly critical of Canada for not having helicopters to move troops around Kandahar by air, thereby avoiding many improvised explosive devices.

"It's been a year and we built this capability from scratch," Blondin said, adding that Canada's small helicopter fleet has already flown 2 million tonnes of cargo and about 5,000 passengers in less than 18 months.

The U.S. lost a helicopter a few days ago in neighbouring Helmand province. The Taliban claimed insurgents shot the chopper down with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG).

"We're not yet sure if it was an RPG kill or not," said Col. Christian Drouin, who runs the Canadian wing in Kandahar. "It might still be mechanical.

"The RPG threat has always been here since we arrived. They haven't shot at us -the coalition force in the Kandahar area -in the seven months that I have been here. That's mostly been in Helmand."

NATO was keen to have Ottawa send F-18 Hornet fighter jets to Afghanistan, according to a Canadian general who was based in Kandahar last year. But the Harper government said it had never received such a request.

There are F-18's in Afghanistan now, but they are not in Canadian livery. They belong to the U.S. Marines Corps."Whether they are American or Canadian. I love to see them flying," said Blondin, who spent years flying Hornets.SOURCE

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