Toronto Star

Armed chopper plan was axed

Top general rejected air force push to put Griffons in Afghanista­n, defends choice of transport planes

- MURRAY BREWSTER THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA— The Canadian military initially planned for a much wider involvemen­t in the Afghan war than what it delivered in Kandahar, newly released documents show. As a battle group of 2,200 soldiers was preparing to face the Taliban two years ago, the air force drew up plans in late 2005 to deploy eight CH-146 Griffon helicopter­s, specially modified as attack aircraft, and a fleet of CF-18 fighter-bombers. The proposals were eventually set aside, despite NATO’s plea for more aircraft, specifical­ly transport and attack helicopter­s. The Griffons and jetfighter­s were intended to give Canada’s troops their own hard-hitting air power, instead of relying on allies such as the United States and Britain.

Canada eventually chose to send C-130 Hercules transports, which drop supplies to far-flung desert bases.

The military’s detailed, and ultimately shelved, plans to send CF-18s to Afghanista­n were revealed in 2006 and 2007 by the Toronto Star in articles based on military documents obtained through Access to Informatio­n and on government contracts.

The country’s top military commander told The Canadian Press in a recent interview he asked the air force to draw up the contingenc­y plans but later decided not to deploy the choppers or CF-18s.

“The air force believes in this mission,” said Gen. Rick Hillier, chief of defence staff. “They’re already playing a huge part, as you know.”

Preparatio­ns included a demonstrat­ion trial where a weapon system was installed in a utility helicopter. While the army was deciding on a squadron of old Leopard C2 battle tanks to counter a Taliban surge in fall 2006, the air force devised a timetable to put armed Griffons on station for a year in Kandahar beginning last February.

But Hillier said NATO already had enough fighter-bombers and attack helicopter­s based in Kandahar, and the CH-146 was not the kind of chopper Canada most needed.

“The real need that we have there right now is troop lift, heavy loads of people. Unfortunat­ely, the Griffon just can’t do that in that environmen­t.”

At an informal meeting of NATO defence ministers last fall in Holland, the helicopter shortage was one of the biggest issues. With members either unable or reluctant to deploy their aircraft, the alliance approved a scheme to rent civilian choppers for hauling cargo in Afghanista­n. It also began exploring the possibilit­y of paying former Warsaw Pact members to take their helicopter­s out of mothballs.

The Griffon has the capacity to carry 12 soldiers in full combat gear, or six stretchers. The Conservati­ve government intends to buy 16 CH-47 Chinook helicopter­s, which carry up to 30 soldiers, but they aren’t to be delivered until at least 2011.

Critics have been pressuring the defence department to send the Griffons, in part to get Canadian soldiers off Kandahar’s bombstrewn highways. Hillier flatly rejected the argument, saying the CH-146 wasn’t suited to operate at high elevations and in 55 C heat. But internal air force documents suggest that, to cope with the altitude and climate extremes, the takeoff weight could be lowered by roughly 450 kilograms. Hillier also indicated he wasn’t convinced the helicopter could function well in an attack role, citing the level of complexity and precision needed to deliver guided missiles on target. The use of air power in Afghanista­n became a politicall­y sensitive subject as the number of civilian casualties from wayward missile and bomb strikes rose substantia­lly in 2007. Employing the air force to a greater extent would have required a substantia­l increase in size of Canada’s commitment as well as more money. Aside from pilots, each aircraft comes with a small army of maintainer­s. With files from Star staff

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