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Taking a stand: inside Operation Mobile

It was Canada’s biggest military role in years and it was not only an unqualified success but also underscored a number of historic firsts.

January 12, 2012  By Peter Pigott

It was Canada’s biggest military role in years and it was not only an unqualified success but also underscored a number of historic firsts.

Captain Barrie Ransome, a CP-140 pilot with the Sicily Air Wing, flies over the Libyan coast for the first
intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission over Libyan soil. PHOTO: Cpl. Mathieu St-Amour, Canadian Forces Joint Imagery Centre


When Prime Minister Stephen Harper initiated closure activities on Operation Mobile, Canada’s military response to the crisis in Libya last October, it highlighted the range, skill and precision of the country’s winged fighting assets – and the professionalism and commitment of the men and women that keep them airborne.

Canada took a leading role in the UN-mandated, NATO-led operation to protect the people of Libya oppressed by 40 years of leadership under the Moammar Gadhafi regime while also imposing an arms embargo and a no-fly zone.


“The Gadhafis of this world pay no attention to the force of argument,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared at the NATO military base in southern Italy, shortly before Gadhafi was captured and killed in a firefight in the city of Sirte. “The only thing they get is the argument of force itself.” With a CF-188 (commonly referred to as the CF-18) fighter aircraft in the background as the PM spoke, the Canadians listening were well aware that they were the actual “argument of force.”

For Canada, military operations in this part of the world had several new “firsts.” Not since the Korean War had a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) fighter aircraft been in action over enemy territory. And on May 12, 2011 when HMCS Charlottetown deployed off Misrata, Libya was attacked by shore-based artillery, it became the first Canadian warship to face hostile fire since the Korean conflict. There were even unconfirmed reports that the JTF2 special forces were on the ground working with the famed British SAS commandos.

The “Arab Spring” movement that began in Tunisia last December overflowed into Libya in January 2011 and rapidly developed into armed rebellion in Benghazi. When Col. Gadhafi’s government responded with systematic attacks by air and ground forces on civilians, the United Nations Security Council reacted with an international arms embargo on Libya and imposed a no-fly zone. In Operation Unified Protector, Canada joined several nations including the United States, the U.K., France, Norway, Belgium, Italy and Spain to contribute aircraft and ships to enforce the UN resolutions. Operation Mobile, the Canadian participation in the military exercise, began on Feb. 25, 2011 and comprised two task forces in the central Mediterranean region, one in Italy and the other a Royal Canadian naval vessel – the HMCS Vancouver and its embarked CH-124 Sea King helicopter. (For more on Canada’s rotary-wing role see the January/February issue of Helicopters magazine.)

 The CF air component assets involved in the operation included:

  • seven CF-188 Hornet fighters
  • two CC-150 Polaris tanker (in-flight refueller)
  • one CC-130J Hercules tanker
  • two CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft

Commanded by Brigadier-General Derek Joyce, the land-based element of Operation Mobile was Task Force Libeccio, named for the strong southwesterly wind that blows all year in the Mediterranean. The Air Coordination Element was co-located with the NATO Combined Air Operations Centre 5 (CAOC 5) in Poggio Renatico, Italy, providing a direct operational co-ordination link between the CAOC, the Commander Task Force Libeccio, and the Commander of the Sicily Air Wing.

“Within 24 hours of receiving orders for our aircraft to deploy,” said air wing commander Lieut.-Col. Daniel McLeod, “the CC-150Ts were in the air and providing fuel for our CF-188 s to fly across the ocean en route to their final destination of Trapani.” At the Italian Air Force base of Trapani-Birgi on the west coast of Sicily, the wing commander of 37 Stormo and all of his staff went out of their way to accommodate the Canadian presence. Said McLeod: “We enjoy a good rapport with the Italian Air Force, and continued to build this co-operative relationship as we carried on with the mission.”

Staying prepared
Strategic air-to-air refuelling capabilities are an essential part of the expeditionary and completely flexible Canadian Air Force for the 21st century, and they were certainly on display in this conflict. Having air-to-air refuelling capabilities in-theatre allows the CF-188s to spend more time in the air, which gives them greater mission flexibility. McLeod called the CC-150T operations a great example of a multinational, co-operative effort.

Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel McLeod, Sicily Air Wing Commander (left), accompanied by Master Cpl. Sebastien Beaudet, Task Force Libeccio avionics systems technician (right), performs his pre-flight routine. PHOTO: CPL. Mathieu St-Amour, Canadian Forces Joint Imagery Centre


“Every mission, they were available to provide air-to-air refuelling service not only to our Canadian CF-188s if required, but also to compatible aircraft from all other nations that were participating in this important operation,” he said.

The Sicily Air Wing is based on the Air Expeditionary Wing concept which includes all the elements essential to effectively conduct and support air operations. In addition to the air ops flights, the Wing has an operational support flight and a mission support flight. The Mission Support Flight (MSF) provides general and close logistical support, which included the building of Camp Fortin, the camp at Trapani-Birgi. With more than 250 Task Force Libeccio personnel at Camp Fortin, the most notable developments have been at that location. The site, which began with three hangars and an office trailer, now boasts an operations building, a medical and wellness centre, a mess facility, supply and transport offices, construction and engineering offices and storage, a post office and a Canada House. The MSF has also provided support that includes equipment, fuel, electrical, mechanical, construction, plumbing and heating, fire fighting, communications, contracting, human resources, administration, cashier, welfare, feeding, postal and transportation services.

The operational support flight provides general and close operational support, and is composed of Wing Operations staff, flight safety staff, intelligence staff, force protection and force health protection personnel. Operational support includes everything from operational co-ordination with the CAOC, the 37 Stormo and TF HQ Ops, ensuring the force protection measures are established and enforced and personnel health and safety is maintained.

Throughout the course of the operation, the Sicily Air Wing dramatically increased its combat capability. CF-188s typically flew between four to six sorties each day; the C-150Ts one or two sorties per day; the CP-140s one sortie per day; and the C-130Ts, when they were there, two sorties per day. By the end of the conflict, the aircraft involved had amassed the following operational information:

  • CF-18 aircraft conducted 946 sorties, making up 10 per cent of all NATO air strikes. Over the course of these sorties, Canadian fighters dropped some 696 bombs of various types.
  • The two CC-150T and one CC-130T aircraft deployed to the region flew 389 air-to-air sorties, dispensing more than 18.5 million pounds of fuel to aircraft from six nations – France, Italy, the UAE, U.K., the U.S. and Qatar.
  • The two CP-140 aircraft deployed flew 181 sorties off the coast of Libya and on land. They conducted intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties, as well as strike co-ordination and armed reconnaissance co-ordinator sorties that provided critical information and helped the NATO effort to protect civilians.

A multifaceted approach
Although a number of “platforms” were used to create the overall intelligence picture for the entire operation, the most essential were two CP-140 Aurora aircraft, one from 19 Wing Comox, B.C., and the other from 14 Wing Greenwood, N.S. With its 17-hour endurance and 9,266-kilometre range, the Aurora is ideal for this kind of operation-flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) patrols. During a reconnaissance flight, imagery is captured with its overland equipment mission suite (OEMS), allowing the aircraft’s crew to record live video feeds from improved electro-optic infrared cameras.

“The aircraft was primarily brought into service to fill the role of Anti-Submarine Warfare [ASW] during the Cold War,” said Aurora pilot Capt. Barrie Ransome. “However, when the Cold War ended, the many other capabilities of this outstanding platform were employed, all of which were over water. But not anymore. This will be a game changer. The entire crew is highly motivated and extremely focused as we bring this new capability to the Aurora community. This is exactly the type of mission that motivated us to become military aviators and devote our lives to addressing injustices in the world.”

Ransome said at the end of each mission in Libya, imagery was analyzed and transmitted to CAOC for review. The ISR package the Aurora flight provided during this military operation held up as the example within NATO for how intelligence reporting should be done.

The Aurora flew its first overland mission over Libya on Sept. 22, and on Sept. 29, flew its first strike co-ordination and armed reconnaissance co-ordinator (SCAR-C) mission during Operation Mobile.

“They took their capability where it was needed and broadened the imagery they needed to capture,” explained McLeod. “The expanded role of the CP-140 in overland ISR and SCAR-C, successfully employing the CF-188 in SCAR and the rapid fielding of new weapons such as the GBU-31 and GBU-38, greatly enhanced our ability to improve the overall intelligence picture, employ weapons precisely and decrease the overall risk to civilians.”

Early in the conflict, both the British and French air components encountered enemy aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. When asked if the CF-188 pilots had done so, the air wing commander admitted SAMs and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) are a consideration on every mission and remain so to this day.

“Even a single lucky shot, from a simple handheld SAM or from one of those AAA guns that are seen mounted on the back of pick-up trucks, can seriously damage an aircraft,” said McLeod. “Tactics and onboard sensors are both employed to defeat the threat. Avoiding the threat areas and altitudes, keeping a vigilant eye out for missile launches and AAA fire and maintaining respect for the threat’s capability to prevent complacency helped keep RCAF aircraft and aircrew safe.”

While its general role is that of a strike fighter, the CF-188 also adds to the overall intelligence picture by conducting a non-traditional ISR role in a mission such as this. The CF-188 pilot can employ his targeting pod to not only search for, track and engage targets, but also find “points of interest” and provide valuable information on the overall battlefield situation that can be later analyzed by intelligence personnel.

Clouding the picture
Weather conditions could have posed another major concern for pilots during the mission. Fall storms brought significant cloud cover and thunderstorms to the operating area, but McLeod pointed out that all RCAF aircraft are all-weather capable, and for the most part, it was not a issue. If anything, Operation Mobile enabled the CF-188 pilots to increase their combat capability. Pilots quickly adapted known tactics and techniques used in other mission sets to the SCAR mission. New weapons, specifically the GBU-31 and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), were procured, tested and operationally fielded by the Fighter Force to great success.

Two CF-188 Hornet fighters from 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron based at CFB Bagotville during a mission over the Mediterranean Sea near Trapani, Italy. PHOTO: Cpl Marc-AndrÉ Gaudreault, Canadian Forces Combat Camera


Upgrades to existing systems have also vastly improved the ability for CF-188 pilots to effectively conduct the tasks assigned to them. The RCAF has the capabilities to strike very precisely due to the weapons they now possess. Weapon systems currently at the disposal of CF-188 pilots include a combination of GBU-10 and GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and GBU-31 and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), which use encrypted GPS signals to steer the weapon to the target with pinpoint accuracy. This autonomy negates any impact of cloud cover or pilot manoeuvres post-launch. Additionally, pilot survivability increases because less time is needed in the target area, and in harm’s way.

“One mission that sticks out in my mind as particularly successful, because after we had completed it, it had an immediate impact on the ground.” McLeod recalled. “We had clearly identified Gaddafi forces who had engaged opposition forces. There was rocket and gunfire that we could see. We received authority to engage them and because of that engagement, and the speed at which it happened, the opposition forces took over that area while the remaining Gadhafi forces fled.”

When asked about the fog of war and the possibility of civilian causalities throughout the conflict, McLeod was succinct.

“We continued to strike targets that had a direct link to attacks on civilians, military facilities, such as command control centres, artillery and armoured vehicles,” he said. “The decision to strike is made with great thought and consideration. We have clear ROEs (rules of engagements), and we go to great lengths to reduce risk to civilians when attacking targets. It should also be noted that a team of senior/experienced RCAF CF 188 pilots and CF lawyers in coordination with our NATO counterparts in CAOC 5 assess every potential target against both NATO and Canadian National Targeting Criteria prior to its assignment for engagement. The Canadian National Rep can always veto a target assignment if it does not meet Canadian National targeting criteria and/or initiate a Canadian National Targeting Board in Ottawa if required.”

A proud moment
In categorizing Canada’s role in the crisis in Libya, defence minister Peter MacKay pointed to the effectiveness of RCAF personnel to work as a team in a highly volatile environment.

“Canada once again punched above its weight as part of an international coalition,” he said. “The men and women of the Canadian armed forces confirmed their leadership position at NATO and the role they can play in successful international operations.”

Lieutentant-General André Deschamps, commander of the RCAF, concurred, adding that throughout the deployment, airmen and airwomen “demonstrated their outstanding skills and ability in successfully conducting air-to-air integrated operations with our NATO allies, flying side by side conducting surveillance and bombing missions, providing air refuelling to coalition aircraft, and patrolling the shore of Libya.”

Operation Mobile illustrated the advanced skillsets of Canadian military personnel and the aircraft they employ – the culmination of years of hard work, ingenuity, and adaptability. Moreover, it once again illustrated the high standards and critical role the Canadian military plays on the worldwide stage.

“Our primary job is the defence of Canada; and, although we cannot be everywhere at once, we, as Canadians, have an international responsibility to stand up for those who cannot protect themselves,” said Ransome. “We simply cannot stand by and watch these atrocities unfold. By denying rogue dictators/groups the ability to inflict harm we not only help stabilize a volatile situation but we are also by extension increasing the security of Canada.”

In writing this article, Peter Pigott acknowledges the help of Capt. Marie-France Poulin, Operations Mobile, TF Libeccio, HQ Naples.


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