Old Russian fighters and smartphone hacking: What the Canadian military learned in 2017

What it’s like to dogfight with the kind of fighter North Korea flies and how your smartphone can be turned against you are a few of the lessons the Canadian military has learned in eastern Europe. According to senior military commanders, these insights are useful in the wider, uncertain world.

CAF considered smartphone ban for troops in the field but decided it would be a nightmare to enforce

Two CF-188 Hornets fly in formation with two MiG-21 Lancers during joint training between RCAF and the Romanian Air Force in this DND photo. (DND/Combat Camera/Capt. Christopher Daniel)

The international endeavour to check Russian ambition in eastern Europe has a produced a trove of valuable lessons for the Canadian military, including insights that could be useful in the wider, increasingly uncertain, world.

Among those lessons: Canadian fighter pilots have a good idea what it would be like to face North Korean warplanes.

Soldiers have also learned how vulnerable their smartphones are to hacking and how they could even be used as a means to target them for artillery and other rocket fire.

Earlier this week, National Defence announced four CF-18s are headed home from a NATO mission in Romania.

Mock dogfights and aerial combat

The four-month air policing deployment, which formally concluded on Dec. 31, saw pilots conducting mock dogfights and aerial combat manoeuvres, including intercepts, against Russian-made MiG-21 jets.

There are only a handful of countries in the world, notably the regime of Kim Jong-un, that still fly the 1960s-vintage warplanes, which were a common sight during the Cold War for now-retired Canadian pilots.

Having the chance to measure the CF-18s and this generation of pilots against that particular aircraft, which is slowly being phased out of the Romanian air force, was significant, said the task force commander.

"We are getting very beneficial training at an important geopolitical time," said Lt.-Col. Mark Hickey, in a recent interview with CBC News.

"Although the Romanians, a NATO ally, are flying the MiG-21, it is in fact a Russian-made aircraft. It is great to fly with the MiG-21 and see its capabilities and work on our tactics, techniques and procedures with the MiG-21 airborne. It's been a great experience."

Looking for a diplomatic solution

In Romania, they were flying and testing their skills "almost every single day" against not only the Romanians, but other NATO countries, Hickey said.

Maj.-Gen. William Seymour, the chief of staff for operations at the country's overseas command, said flying against the MiG-21 was not the principal reason for undertaking the NATO mission and the air force has, in the past, had other opportunities for such training.

But, he said the new round helped contribute to building "stronger, more effective, fighter pilots."

The focus of international energy over North Korea is being directed at a diplomatic resolution of the standoff with Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.

But for military planners, being prepared should an open, prolonged conflict break out on the Korean peninsula — one that could involve a request for Canadian fighter support — is top of mind.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un speaks on New Year's Day in Pyongyang. For military planners, being prepared should an open, prolonged conflict break out on the Korean peninsula is top of mind. (KCNA/Reuters)

Aside from having standard contingency plans on the shelf, officials at National Defence hope the upcoming foreign ministers conference on Korea will yield clear guidance for the military on what may and may not be expected should diplomacy fail.

The lessons learned in Romania are being added to the wider set of insights the Canadian military gained in 2017 conducting deterrence operations, said Seymour, the chief of staff for operations at the country's overseas command.

Russia, China and North Korea maintain a sophisticated cyber warfare capability — one that would be used in the event of hostilities.

Canadian troops deployed as part of the NATO deterrence force in Latvia have learned, not only cyber techniques, but how information warfare and propaganda has been directed against them.

Reports of phone hacking

Published reports last fall said the roughly 4,000 alliance troops in the Baltic states have been the targets of Russian smartphone hacking — a charge Moscow has denied. 

Seymour was circumspect about how many hacking attempts the Canadians have seen, but suggested it was enough for them to learn from the experience.

"We've seen evidence that some of our Canadian troops have seen unusual things on their phones and we work to then understand the nature of those threats," said Seymour, who wasn't prepared to define specifically what sort of strange activity they had witnessed.

The commander of a NATO base in Poland, U.S. Army Lt.-Col. Christopher L'Heureux, was quoted as saying he faced someone trying to access his iPhone Apple account and a trace identified the source as Moscow.

"There is some weird stuff we've seen that we've taken back and studied and applied additional protective measures," said Seymour.

Policing smartphone ban 'impossible'

Lt.-Gen. Steve Bowes, Seymour's boss, said no incidents have been serious enough to have been brought to his attention.

At one point, Bowes, who is in charge of the military domestic and overseas operations, says he considered banning smartphones on foreign deployments.

"When I was briefed, I looked at that," he said in a recent interview with CBC News. "I thought about it. It was an option on the table."

But then he decided it would set up a commanding officer in the field "for an impossible task" of policing such a ban. Instead, the focus was put on education and getting troops to report suspicious activity.

Another lesson of significance, according to Bowes, has been learned by troops training Ukrainian forces.

Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country have apparently used GPS locators on smartphones of the Ukrainians as a way of targeting the fire of their heavy artillery guns and drones.

"If it gives a signal and it's linked, even just electronic emission; if they can pinpoint it to a spot on the ground, then they can put an artillery round on it, if it is within range," said Bowes.   


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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