Surveil­lance plane crews feel­ing strained

Cana­di­ans have spent three years fly­ing over Iraq and Syria com­plet­ing 821 mis­sions

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - LEE BERTHI­AUME

OT­TAWA — The Cana­dian mil­i­tary is hop­ing the re­cent with­drawal of one of its Aurora surveil­lance planes from the fight against the Is­lamic State will help ease what had be­come a se­ri­ous strain on the fleet’s air­crews.

Two Au­ro­ras were de­ployed to the Mid­dle East as part of Canada’s re­sponse to ISIL in 2014, along with dozens of spe­cial forces troops, six fighter jets and a re­fu­elling plane.

Us­ing high-pow­ered cam­eras and sen­sors, the Au­ro­ras gath­ered data about pos­si­ble ISIL tar­gets for at­tacks and airstrikes in Iraq and then, af­ter the mis­sion was ex­panded, in­side Syria.

The planes have flown a to­tal of 821 re­con­nais­sance mis­sions since first ar­riv­ing at their base in Kuwait, with both Cana­dian and coali­tion com­man­ders prais­ing their role in the fight against ISIL.

But one of the Au­ro­ras was qui­etly with­drawn from the re­gion in May, with­out ex­pla­na­tion.

In an in­ter­view, Col. Iain Hud­dle­ston, the air force’s di­rec­tor of fleet readi­ness, said the U.S.-led coali­tion no longer needed the plane be­cause of the lib­er­a­tion of Mo­sul.

Yet he also said there had been con­cerns within mil­i­tary cir­cles about the im­pact that three years of non-stop fly­ing over Iraq and Syria was hav­ing on Aurora air­crews.

“No word of a lie that it’s been a strain on our peo­ple,” Hud­dle­ston said by tele­phone from his of­fice in Win­nipeg, “and we’re happy to have some of our con­tri­bu­tion pulled back.”

While the Royal Cana­dian Air Force has 14 Au­ro­ras, Hud­dle­ston said that be­tween long-term and short-term up­grades and main­te­nance, only four or five are avail­able to fly on any given day.

That in­cludes the pre­vi­ous two — now one — in the Mid­dle East.

Hud­dle­ston said many of the Aurora crews have de­ployed mul­ti­ple times into the re­gion, where they spend months sep­a­rated from fam­ily and are largely con­fined to a cor­ner of a U.S. mil­i­tary base in Kuwait.

“We’ve had peo­ple go over and over again,” he said. “Has it cre­ated re­ten­tion prob­lems? I don’t think we’re at that point yet, but it’s cer­tainly been a strain.”

At the same time, mil­i­tary of­fi­cials were con­cerned that the crews weren’t do­ing enough of what the Au­ro­ras are ac­tu­ally de­signed to do: pa­trolling Canada’s coasts for enemy ships and subs.

“We’re not as good as we used to be at our other roles,” Hud­dle­ston said, “and specif­i­cally we’re con­cerned about re­gain­ing both pro­fi­ciency and ex­pe­ri­ence in our other roles.”

The de­ci­sion to pull one of the Au­ro­ras out of the Mid­dle East should help ad­dress both prob­lems, he added, while en­sur­ing Canada con­tin­ues to help in the fight against ISIL.

Hud­dle­ston is the sec­ond mil­i­tary of­fi­cer in as many months to talk about the toll that the mis­sion.

Brig.-Gen. Pe­ter Dawe, the deputy com­man­der of spe­cial forces, said his troops were op­er­at­ing “on bor­rowed time” af­ter three years on the ground in Iraq.

Dawe said that was why the gov­ern­ment’s plan to add hun­dreds of new spe­cial forces sol­diers in the com­ing years was not only wel­come but nec­es­sary. Hud­dle­ston said a sim­i­lar ex­pan­sion has been promised for the Aurora air­crews.

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