CATANIA, Italy — They are wars apart but while he never pounded the hard-baked fields of Panjwaii on foot, Lt.-Col. Daniel McLeod shares more with Canadian soldiers returning from Kandahar than he cares to admit.
As a career fighter pilot flying the air force’s premier CF-18 jets, McLeod recently got a cold introduction to the stark choices that have to be made in the electronic-twilight environment of today’s wars.
High above the vast deserts of Libya, McLeod spotted what he thought was rocket fire in the distance — an impression quickly confirmed by drones or other surveillance aircraft that crowd the sky near the embattled country in north Africa.
He was what the air force calls “feet dry” over the coast on a interdiction mission — an armed air patrol that looks for targets of opportunity on the ground. It’s a task that makes up about 80 per cent of the missions flown by Canada as part of the NATO operation to dislodge Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
And on that day, McLeod thought he had a target.
“You could see there was a battle raging on the ground and we were there and able to interdict, when required,” McLeod, the 409 Squadron detachment commander, said in a recent interview.
Through his targeting pod — an ultra high-tech suite of cameras and infrared sensors that can zoom right down — the veteran pilot and his wingman watched rebels and forces loyal to Gadhafi pound each other along a road leading into a small town.
Multiple-rocket launchers and modified pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine-guns were zipping back and forth, firing through the dust.
“The battle became quite dynamic and difficult for everyone to keep track of who was who,” said McLeod, of Duncan, B.C.
The Canadians asked for permission to engage. The decision to drop laser-guided bombs is a collective one that runs up NATO’s chain of command.
Much like in Afghanistan, the fear of causing civilian casualties or hitting the wrong side is palpable. When to pull the trigger and when not to pull it was one of the deeply agonizing choices that haunted soldiers in the shadowy war with Taliban insurgent in Kandahar.
To some extent, the decision is taken out of the hands of pilots like McLeod — but they’re the ones who sit in the cockpit and watch, sometimes helplessly, as people fight and die just a few hundred metres below.
Aircrews flying surveillance missions over the Libyan coast in CP-140 Auroras have experienced the same sort of biting anxiety while watching on their screens and scopes. It makes for lethal, sometimes heart-rending, reality television.
“When I see those explosions and the firefights, I think about the guys on the ground,” said Capt. Jerry Collins, of 405 Squadron, a native of Newfoundland.
“They’re actually being killed and injured and it’s hard to separate yourself from that, but you have to take it into account. I know I look at it and think: Holy jumpin’s those guys are in the thick of it!”
In the end, McLeod and his wingman were denied permission to drop their bombs.
“The battle raged and due to the concerns, we were not 100-per-cent certain who was who,” said McLeod, whose detachment of seven fighter-bombers fly out of the Italian air base in Trapani in Sicily.
“I could pretty much say, hand on heart, there was a 99 per cent chance those were pro-Gadhafi forces, but there was that one per cent doubt and that doubt was not just in my cockpit but it was all of the way up.”
The Canadian military refused to say where and when the battle took place, but McLeod’s account matches media reports of what took place in the oil port of Brega over the last 10 days.
Numerous media reports of the fighting near Brega and other points in the eastern part of Libya painted a scene of chaos during the time when rebel forces advanced on the city, which has changed hands three times since the uprising against Gadhafi began in February.
At the time of the mission, some forces loyal to Gadhafi flew rebel flags on their trucks as a ruse. It’s been a costly, bloody advance that has seen dozens of anti-Gadhafi fighters killed and hundreds wounded.
The murky situation on the ground causes even the most experienced pilots to shift uncomfortably in their seats.
“It is a delicate situation we all find ourselves in here. To employ (bombs) with doubt and the potential consequences of that — we don’t want to face those,” said McLeod.
“I definitely felt that we could have done more, but we probably did everything we could have done at that point in time until the actual ground picture got more clear.”
Canadian aircraft also fly dedicated bombing runs, similar to the NATO raid last weekend that inflicted extensive damage on Gadhafi’s heavily-fortified compound in Tripoli.
At last report, the Canadian fighter detachment had flown 592 sorties and dropped 413 bombs. The missions will go on until at least September, when the deployment will be up for parliamentary review.
Despite five months of bombardment and losing vast swaths of territory, Gadhafi is still fighting and clinging to power.
Hopes for a diplomatic settlement have faded and allied nations seem to be settling in for the long haul by recognizing the rebels as the legitimate government. Britain is the latest to go that route and declare the 41-year-old Gadhafi regime illegitimate.
That means, for the moment, McLeod and his flight crews will continue to face the tough calls in the sky.