Off-target airstrikes in Iraq buried behind wall of secrecy

Canadian bombs missed their targets 17 times during the air campaign in Iraq, raising troubling questions about not only the Royal Canadian Air Force's guided munitions but how forthcoming the Department of National Defence is prepared to be about the sensitive issue.

In interview with watchdog, former Canadian commander wouldn't rule out possible civilian casualties in Iraq

Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornets fly over Iraq in October 2014. Canadian fighter jets took part in a 16-month air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. New figures from the Department of National Defence show 17 Canadian bombs missed their targets. (Staff Sgt. Perry Aston/U.S. Air Force/Canadian Press)

Canadian bombs missed their targets 17 times during the air campaign in Iraq, according to new figures released by the Department of National Defence.

CBC News has obtained details of one of those missions, and the documents raise troubling questions about not only the Royal Canadian Air Force's guided munitions but how forthcoming DND is prepared to be about the sensitive issue.​

Iraqi security forces were fighting a pitched battle with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters outside of the war-weary city of Kirkuk in mid-November 2015.

Extremists had them pinned down with heavy machine gun fire when a pair of Canadian CF-18s roared overhead and dropped a smart bomb that missed the target.

Weapon 'malfunctioned'

The weapon "malfunctioned," according to heavily redacted after-action reports obtained by CBC News.

It plunged into an open field and exploded.

It was not the only one.

Of the 606 precision-guided bombs released during the 16-month Canadian air campaign in Iraq (including a small number in Syria), a total of 17 went off course, according to the DND figures.

The air force said it has "no information" that any of its airstrikes, on-target or otherwise, killed or wounded civilians.

No timeline released

It did not release a timeline for all of the misfires and refuses to say what may have caused them.

"No weapons system, is 100 percent accurate," Maj. Isabelle Bresse, a spokesperson for the overseas command, told CBC News in a recent email. "On rare occasions, weapons systems are affected by meteorological conditions or experience malfunctions."

U.S. Air Force munitions team members assemble guided bombs to support the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The RCAF used similar bombs in its 16-month campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (The Associated Press/Adam Schreck)

But the incident outside of Kirkuk on Nov. 18, 2015, is significant for a couple of reasons.

It raises questions about whether there was a systemic problem with the guided munitions throughout the campaign.

DND tried to bury episode

A series of documents, briefing notes and media strategy lines, obtained by CBC News under access to information legislation, show how the Defence Department tried to bury the episode behind a wall of operational security.

And it happened at a time when the air campaign was political dynamite.

The Liberal government had recently been elected, in part, on a promise to withdraw CF-18s from combat.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau receives a standing ovation from his caucus in 2015 before the last election. The Liberals promised in that campaign to end air strikes in Iraq. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Outside of the political world, there was an increasing number of questions about the air campaign, which the former Conservative government ordered in 2014 after ISIS appeared poised to overrun Iraq.

CBC's The Fifth Estate, just weeks before the Kirkuk mission, broadcast a story that linked two Canadian airstrikes to civilian deaths early in the campaign.

Subtle distinction

The day after the Kirkuk mission, the situation appeared to go from bad to worse.

Local media in northern Iraq claimed a separate Canadian airstrike on Nov. 19, this time near Mosul, killed between five and 13 civilians.

There is no indication whether a bomb malfunction played a role in that mission, which saw an ISIS munitions factory and part of a nearby dairy destroyed.

The organization that monitors the air campaign gave Canada high marks for transparency in a recent audit because it used to hold regular briefings, unlike other countries.

Civilian casualties?

But Airwars said the Canadian military could have conducted a more rigorous investigation, particularly because its assessments did not take into account anything other than military sources.   

"As I understand it Canada's position is not that it didn't kill any civilians — only that it's not aware of having killed any. A subtle, though, important distinction," said Chris Woods, the director of Airwars, which is based in Britain.

The organization interviewed Brig.-Gen. Lise Bourgon, who commanded the Canadian mission in Iraq during 2015. She was careful not to rule out possible civilian casualties:

"For the six months that I was there, I can tell you that I saw no evidence that there were civilian casualties in a strike that [occurred] when I was there," Bourgon told Airwars for its December 2016 transparency audit.  "Am I telling you that I can guarantee that there was not a civilian casualty? I'm not going to guarantee that."

Brig.-Gen. Lise Bourgon, shown in Kuwait in 2015, said she could not guarantee there were no civilian casualties in Iraq. (OP Impact/DND)

Canadian defence analyst Eric Morse said the number of errant airstrikes is not out of line from what the air force should reasonably expect from a mechanical point of view.

He also seemed quietly skeptical of the claims of no civilian casualties.

"To the best of their knowledge, I'm sure they believe what they say," said Morse, a columnist and former diplomat. "When you go into the granularities of warfare, you begin to wonder how clean the hands must be and how clean they can be."

He said the air force should release a timeline of the unsuccessful strikes.

Earlier this year, defence experts in Britain began warning that GPS-guided munitions could be susceptible to what's known as "spoofing," where a "known vulnerability" in the satellite connection is exploited using electronic warfare measures.

Danny Lam, a Canadian defence analyst in Calgary who has followed the issue, says Canadian and many U.S. smart bombs "are based on designs that are now dated and obsolete."

Jamming after release of the weapon may explain some of the missed targets, particularly since Russia began operating over Syria in September 2015, he said.

Massaged message

The documents show commanders began reviewing mission logs immediately after reports surfaced that the target had not been hit. The air task force commander ordered an investigation that included a surveillance flight.

"There was a weapon malfunction experienced by [redacted] that resulted in this weapon failing to hit the intended target," said a Nov. 20, 2015, report. "After a close review of the imagery from [redacted] at this time, it unlikely that any [collateral damage] or injury to civilians occurred as a consequence of this weapons malfunction."

The pilots were ordered to continue "ground attack mission" and to "monitor weapon occurrences," said the report.

A follow-up report, written a week later, said investigators "won't be able to say for certain what caused the weapon to not function correctly."

The military, in the hours after the raid, reported the strike was successful, but later quietly corrected the website entry and prepared a tightly scripted media plan in case anyone asked about the error.

The initial website entry said the fighter bomber "successfully struck three separate ISIS fighting positions" in the vicinity of Kirkuk and Mosul. The updated version changed that to "two" raids near Mosul.

Operational security

The air force, in a prepared set of answers for media on Nov. 27, 2015, did not reveal it had hit the wrong target.

Everything was swept under this sentence: "For reasons of operational security, no further information is available at this time."

The claim was made even though the documents show information was available and the air force knew precisely what happened.

Bresse was asked whether the final investigation report pinpointed a precise cause, but she declined to say.

"For reasons of operational security, the related investigation findings cannot be released as this information could potentially affect other nations and enemy actions," Bresse said.


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.