No easy options for Prime Minister Trudeau in war against ISIS

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A Canadian Armed Forces CF-18 Fighter jet from 409 Squadron taxis after landing in Kuwait on Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014, to join the Allied bombing campaign against ISIS in this Canadian Press handout.

By Jeffrey F. Collins (guest opinion)

World events have a way of testing the plans of a Prime Minister. In the face of a global recession in 2008, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1930s, Stephen Harper had to break with his promise of curtailing federal expenditures by spending billions in deficit stimulus. Jean Chretien, who had made defence policy a low priority in his administration, promptly reversed course when tragedy struck New York and Washington on a sunny Tuesday morning in September 2001.

Such examples should serve to remind us of how international affairs impact the ability of our national leaders to sometimes control their agendas. Now, with at least 129 civilians killed in Paris by the terror group known as ISIS, another Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is having to face the challenge of adhering to an election pledge to end Canada’s air combat contribution to the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and compensate with a training mission of an unknown size or mandate.

So far, Prime Minister Trudeau is intent on sticking with his election pledge. But, make no mistake, removing the CF-18s from the fight and replacing them with more trainers is hardly risk free.

Canada’s involvement in the U.S.-led operation against ISIS officially began in September of last year. Under the name Operation IMPACT, the mission is comprised of an air task force equipped with six CF-18 ground attack aircraft, two CP-140 surveillance aircraft, and a CC-150 Polaris air-to-air refuelling tanker. Some 600 support personnel are based in Kuwait.

To date the CF-18s have conducted close to 200 airstrikes —about 12 per cent of all non-U.S. air strikes; an impressive contribution given the size of the task force and one that is in keeping with past CF-18 missions in Libya and Kosovo. These jets sometimes operate in tandem with Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces but more often than not are relied upon to target compounds, vehicles, and fighting positions with precision-guided munitions.

There is also a training mission in Iraqi Kurdistan with 69 members of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment. While ostensibly a non-combat role, these soldiers have at times found themselves assisting the Kurdish Peshmerga militias in calling in airstrikes and engaging in firefights with ISIS. Despite its size, the training contingent has already taken casualties, with 1 dead and 3 wounded in a friendly fire incident earlier in this year.

As much as our allies would like to see the contribution continue, removing the six CF-18s will not likely have a major change in the outcome of the mission, especially with France now ramping up its own airpower contribution by repositioning its aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, to the Persian Gulf. Reports say the de Gaulle alone will be carrying 20 Rafale and Super Etendard fighters to complement France’s ground-based jets in the region. This is to say nothing of the possibility of coordinating with Russia’s growing air force presence in Syria.  

Still, increasing the training mission comes with its own challenges. For one, the Prime Minister has not specified how many troops would be dispatched.

Will the force be as large as the 950 person contingent sent to Afghanistan in 2011-14 or smaller, like the 200 military personnel currently deployed to western Ukraine?

Either way, with such fluid frontlines more troops on the ground carries the risk of more casualties – something that was obviously not a concern with the CF-18s.

Further questions remain on whether training will be limited to the Peshmerga — a group that is solely focused on evicting ISIS from their own traditional territory, or, assisting the Iraqi national security forces, who remain fractured along sectarian lines, with possible allegiances to Iran.

Likewise, Ottawa has yet to confirm whether it will withdraw the CP-140 surveillance aircraft — now providing targeting data to coalition aircraft — or the CC-150 Polaris, which is refuelling both Canadian and allied jets.

With only three weeks on the job Prime Minister Trudeau is getting a sharp lesson in the same realities of international affairs his predecessors had to contend with: campaigning is easy, matters of war and peace are something else altogether.


Jeffrey F. Collins is a sessional lecturer in political science at UPEI. A former policy adviser to Canada’s Minister of Veterans’ Affairs (2013-14), he is completing his doctoral research in Canadian defence policy at Carleton University. His first book, Reassessing the Revolution in Military Affairs, was published in October.

Organizations: U.S.-led coalition, Canadian Special Operations Regiment, UPEI Carleton University

Geographic location: Canada, New York, Washington Paris France Kuwait U.S. Libya Kosovo Iraqi Kurdistan Persian Gulf Russia Syria Afghanistan Ukraine Iran Ottawa

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