While the Prime Minister hasbeen coy about Canada's plans should the U.S. go to war in Iraq, when push comes to shove it's very likely the feds will decide to make a significant military contribution as part of a so-called "coalition of the willing." The fact that the recent federal budget created a $125-million "war chest" for the fiscal year ending March 31 indicates that the government is keeping the option open for an increased contribution, including the possibility of sending in commandos from Canada's elite Joint Task Force Two (JTF2) and CF-18 Hornet fighter bombers armed with laser-guided bombs and air-to-air missiles.
Defence analysts agree that the recently announced peacekeeping mission to Afghanistan will not take place until the summer of 2003, making it very unlikely that the $125-million fund earmarked for the current fiscal year is in fact for this Afghanistan mission, as the budget hints. Both the limited timeline and the large size of the $125-million contingency fund indicate the feds are contemplating a large and expensive commitment to war against Iraq in addition to forces currently deployed in the region.
If they decide to participate, with or without a UN resolution, it will certainly involve the reassignment of ships and planes already in the region under Operation Apollo. Defence Minister John McCallum has suggested that "those ships could be double-hatted for a war against terrorism and a war on Iraq."
Canada would thus provide support to U.S. and British forces involved in the intense bombing planned for the first 48 hours of the war.
Statements by the defence minister also indicate that the government is keeping the option open to participate directly in an attack on Iraq.
The deployment of JTF2 would place Canada in a low-profile but very combat-oriented role. Comments by the defence minister indicate that the government is prepared to commit JTF2 to the war.
The highly secretive commando unit was deployed in Afghanistan, where it undertook missions with U.S. counterparts. A scandal erupted when it was revealed that prisoners taken by JTF2 were being handed over to U.S. forces without cabinet's knowledge.
During the 1991 Gulf War, Canada contributed 26 CF-18 Hornets that flew sweep, escort and eventually bombing missions into Kuwait and Iraq.
These planes were participating in operations within three weeks of the announcement of their deployment. Today the deployment time might be somewhat shorter, since some ground crews are already in the region supporting other Canadian aircraft.
In a presentation to the Commons Defence Committee on February 25, 2003, Air Force Lieutenant-General Lloyd Campbell confirmed that CF-18 Hornets could be available in Iraq.
Campbell's testimony discounted the concern expressed by some defence critics that CF-18 Hornets require expensive upgrades to ensure secure communications with coalition forces.
Rob Huebert of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, who is an expert on the CF-18 Hornet, agrees with Campbell that CF-18s "could join U.S. planes in an air campaign over Iraq."
In 1999 Canada contributed 18 CF-18 Hornets and ground crews to the NATO war against the former Yugoslavia. Canadian planes flew 682 sorties at an estimated cost of $54.5 million, dropping a total of 530 bombs, of which 361 were laser-guided. Just weeks before the war, Canada bought an emergency supply of 300 bombs from the U.S. military. In a war against Iraq, Canadian aircraft would again be armed with the latest weaponry.
In August 2002 the Canadian Forces ordered 1,000 Paveway II Laser-Guided Bomb kits from U.S. manufacturer Raytheon at a cost of $17 million U.S. At the time of the order, defence analyst Martin Shadwick noted that "the Air Force is keeping the ground attack capability credible with this purchase, but because of that they may start getting invitations to coalition operations."
Committing Canadian Forces to a combat role would be going against public opinion. Fifty-two per cent of Canadians want the military to be a peacekeeper only. Only 40 per cent would approve of Canadian Forces playing both a peacekeeping and a combat role.
With the recent embarrassing crash of a Sea King helicopter on HMCS Iroquois and criticism that the last federal budget provided too little additional military spending, the government may be seeking a "look tough" image for Canada. Steven Staples is a military analyst with the Polaris Institute, an Ottawa-based public interest research group.