Surveillance plane crews strained after three years flying over Iraq, Syria

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 November 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 air strikes 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But one of the Auroras was quietly withdrawn from the region in May, without explanation.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 with The Canadian Press, 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 recent 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, which was recently extended to 2019, has taken on the Canadian Armed Forces.

Brig.-Gen. Peter Dawe, the deputy commander of special forces, told The Canadian Press last month that 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, as promised in the new defence policy proposal, was not only welcome but necessary.

Huddleston said a similar expansion has been promised for the Aurora aircrews.

The Auroras were first flown by the military in the early 1980s and designed to patrol Canada’s coastal regions for potential threats.

They have since been upgraded several times and were first used to spot targets on land during the war in Libya in 2011, when NATO was supporting rebel forces in their fight against Moammar Gadhafi.

The Harper Conservatives planned to replace them by 2020, but they are now being upgraded to fly until 2030, when a new surveillance aircraft is expected to be purchased.

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