Bombing Iraq 101: A primer on Canada’s action

What does ‘success’ of the mission look like? Is there a chance of mission creep? Steve Saideman fills in the blanks.

By: /
3 November, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Now that Canada has dropped its first ordnance on Iraq since 1991, people have many questions, so let this post serve as a Frequently Asked Questions for what we know of the mission at the moment.

Q: What have Canadian CF-18s hit?

A: No official answer thus far although since Minister of National Defence Robert Nicholson mentioned Fallujah, although it appears that Monday’s Fallujah airstrikes hit equipment used to build defenses—bulldozers and trucks. Not exactly the normal targets of an air campaign, but it serves to prevent ISIL from preparing its defenses.

Q: Are Canada’s CF-18’s up to the task?

A: There was a report critical of the Canadian armaments, not so much the planes themselves. That is, Canada’s first bombs were laser-guided, which do not work well when it is cloudy. On the other hand, these kinds of bombs are better against moving targets. And many of the targets in Iraq will be moving. Indeed, the various officials have made clear this time that Canada is hitting both dynamic (moving) targets and deliberate (fixed) targets. In Libya, some countries would only attack fixed targets that could be vetted by lawyers and others before the pilots took off. There and here, Canadian pilots have more flexibility.

Q: Canada launched air strikes for several days but returned without dropping bombs.

A: This is quite normal. Sometimes, this is due to weather. Sometimes, it is because the intelligence is not clear enough to warrant an airstrike. Often, pilots have a target, but choose not to drop their bombs because the particular circumstances run afoul of their rules of engagement—for example, there might be a high risk of hitting too many civilians.

Q: Are there enough targets? Haven’t ISIL forces dispersed?

A: Yes and yes. That is, ISIL has started to disperse their forces since having many soldiers and their equipment in one spot makes for an inviting target. This is good news even as it complicates the air campaign. Why? Because it reduces ISIL’s ability to take territory and hurts its ability to hold onto the territory it has gained. ISIL had been concentrating its forces to attack particular areas, but it cannot do that anymore without getting targeted by the coalition.

Q: What is Canada doing besides dropping bombs?

A: The airstrikes are one part of several key forms of Canadian contributions. The others are:

  1. Canada is providing two Aurora planes. They were designed to do maritime surveillance but proved in the skies over Libya with new technology to be handy in providing intelligence and reconnaissance for a bombing campaign.

  2. Canada is providing a Polaris refueling plane to help not just Canadian CF-18s fly longer missions but also refuel many of the planes flown by our coalition partners.

  3. It has a small number of Special Operations forces that are engaged in a vague mission. Lieutenant General Jon Vance, Commander of Canadian Joint Operations Command, has said that these troops are “to direct, advise and assist” the Iraqis. This is more active than just training soldiers how to use technology. Does this mean that Canadian Special Operations are going near combat to help “direct” and “assist” perhaps by connecting the Iraqis to the various assets provided by the coalition? Maybe.

  4. RCAF C-17s are also involved, flying arms and equipment from our allies to Iraq—especially to the Kurds.

Q: When will this end?

A: Don’t know. It is very, very likely that Canada will be asked to extend its mission beyond the current six-month plan. Libya got extended three times, so this would not be new. Iraq (and the Free Syria Army) will not be up to the task of rolling back ISIL with just a few months of bombing, with American generals estimating that it will take three or four years.

Q: What is the danger of mission creep?

A: In my opinion, not much. Mission creep refers to an expansion of the mission—not that it becomes longer but that it involves more risks, more forces, more money. I think it is very unlikely that Stephen Harper would put many Canadian Forces on the ground to fight in Iraq. Why? Because of his twin obsessions of a balanced budget and message management. Putting a battle group or more on the ground would be very costly, adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the total costs. Putting that many troops also means losing control of the messaging, as it would essentially give a mic to the hundreds of young men and women in the field. So, the politics, especially in an election year, make an expansion of the mission very unlikely even as an extension is quite likely.

Q: What does success look like?

A: In Iraq, that is “easy”: that the Iraqi government can handle its terrorism problem with little assistance from outsiders. In Syria, success is a bit harder to define since we are not that fond of Assad’s government in Syria. If the U.S. and its friends can strengthen the anti-Assad Free Syria Army to the point where they can marginalize ISIL and force a regime change in Syria, then we might have something that looks like success there. Getting the Iraqi army and government do the hard work, including a deal with the Sunnis, is not easy, but looks simple compared to Syria.

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