Canadian chopper pilots will be using the Afghanistan playbook in Mali, committee told

The Canadian helicopters going to Mali will be outfitted and fly their missions the same way they did in Afghanistan, senior military commanders said Thursday.

Officer says there's 'no evidence' of guerillas armed with portable surface-to-air missiles

A French soldier stands inside a military helicopter during a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to the troops of Operation Barkhane, France's largest overseas military operation, in Gao, northern Mali, Friday, May 19, 2017. Canada is sending six military helicopters to take part in the UN peacekeeping mission there. (Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool/Canadian Press)

The Canadian helicopters going to Mali will be outfitted as they were in Afghanistan, and will fly their missions the way they did there, senior military commanders said Thursday.

The country's military operations commander, Lt.-Gen. Steve Bowes, and the director of the strategic joint staff at National Defence headquarters, Maj.-Gen Al Meinzinger, testified before the House of Commons defence committee about the upcoming peacekeeping mission in the troubled West African country.

They and senior officials from Global Affairs were questioned repeatedly by Conservatives MPs about whether the planned year-long deployment, slated to begin operations in August, can be deemed a combat — or war zone — operation.

The officials sidestepped that description. Bowes said the Canadian military is accustomed to operating in "high-risk environments" and called Mali a "complex conflict zone."

Armed groups linked to al-Qaeda, ethnic Tuareg and Arab guerillas and government-supported militia have attacked each other, Malian soldiers, peacekeepers, aid workers and other civilians in a conflict that has raged on since late 2012.

The six Canadian helicopters — two CH-147 Chinook battlefield transports and four CH-146 Griffon armed helicopters — will carry out medical evacuations, shuttle around United Nations peacekeepers from other countries and occasionally support the so-called G-5 Sahel countries which are carrying out counter-terrorism operations against Islamic extremists.

A 'disciplined approach'

That means Canadian pilots and aircrew will have to be very deliberate in the way they conduct themselves, said Meinzinger, a former CH-146 Griffon pilot who was commander of the Canadian air wing in Kandahar near the end of Canada's Afghan war.

"Our approach to this mission from an aviation perspective will be very akin to the way we operated in Afghanistan," he said.

"A very disciplined approach as to how we accept missions at the front end and pre-execution ... we have a very disciplined way where we consider all of the potential threats from the weather to the fatigue levels of the crews."

Those air operations in Kandahar were carried out under the umbrella of Canada's five-year combat mission, which ended in 2011.

The Griffons — which can be outfitted with a multitude of weapons, including the C-6 machine gun, the M-134 Dillon six-barrel gatling gun and the GAU-21 .50 Cal machine gun — will be used in the role of "armed escort" for the Chinooks, the generals testified.

The threat to aircraft posed by extremists in Mali comes from light arms, such as rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades — not very different from the weapons the air force faced in Afghanistan.

Bowes told the committee there's been "no evidence" of guerillas being armed with portable surface-to-air missiles, known as MANPADS.

Even still, he noted, the Canadian helicopters are equipped with defensive systems, including .50 calibre machine guns.

'Sophisticated and underhanded'

One of the biggest dangers to aircraft and crews in Mali is expected to be the harsh desert climate. Last summer, the Germans lost a Tiger helicopter in a mechanical failure crash that killed two.

A UN base in the troubled country was recently subjected to a four-hour rocket, mortar and car bomb attack, which killed two peacekeepers. It was described by the French military as "sophisticated and underhanded" — something that caught the attention of opposition MPs.

"They've been extremely bold in the last month," said Conservative MP and defence critic James Bezan, who has led the party's charge to have the deployment debated and approved by Parliament. "We're not talking [attacks] in open theater. They're coming right on the bases and taking the fight to us."

The air contingent will deploy with its own security and Meinzinger said the Germans will still station as many as 500 troops at the air base where operations are conducted.

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