Inside Canada's bombing bureaucracy

After 1,378 CF-18 sorties in Iraq, the Department of National Defence has released a heavily censored glimpse inside the hyper-cautious bureaucracy of targeting. Naturally, the document is a blizzard of acronyms and is called a FRAG O. Yes, a FRAG O.

Fill in form. Drop bomb. Fill in another form

A Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet flies over Iraq during Operation Impact on Nov. 7, 2015. (Combat Camera/Department of National Defence)

Pity the military bureaucrat, buried in acronyms. Even the most intrepid clerk may remember his ROE and STD but forget to check his TSS/TEA with a LEGAD from the OJAG. It can happen to anyone.

Of course, all of these mysterious terms are important. The ROE are the rules of engagement, no less. And, no, an STD is not a sexually transmitted disease; it's a strategic targeting directive.

The TSS is the targeting summary sheet and, sadly, TEA no longer arrives in the afternoon. It's the Target Engagement Authority and it's not to be messed with.

For that, you'll need a LEGAD from the OJAG. You guessed it: a legal adviser from the Office of the Judge Advocate General.

But did you check the NSL and the LOAC?

Protected by this thick fog of acronyms, they hardly needed to stamp this document "Secret," but they did. The CBC got it from DND under ATI — that is, from the Department of National Defence under Access to Information. And it's a startling taste of the alphabet soup through which Canada's bomber-bureaucrats had to wade during the air campaign in Iraq and Syria. 

It's over now but, looking back, it's a wonder that the CF-18 pilots fighting ISIS didn't take a LEGAD with them every time they took to the sky. One wrong move, and they could violate the LOAC by bombing something on the NSL and end up on the wrong end of a CDE.

The LOAC is the law of armed conflict and the NSL is the no-strike list. A CDE is a collateral damage estimation. Watch out for those.

Above is the cover page of a November 2014 FRAG O — a fragmentary order amending a previous order governing targeting for Canadian bomber pilots in Iraq during Operation Impact. (Department of National Defence)

This glimpse into a hyper-cautious world of bureaucratic acronyms is heavily censored and DND did not give it to the CBC PDQ — or pretty damn quick. Rather, it answered a request filed back when the Iraq deployment was news, at the end of 2014. These folks really don't want to rush into anything.

Besides that, it takes a while to translate it all from military lingo into English. Start with the title of the document. It's a FRAG O.

Yes, a FRAG O. Amending a previous OP O.

It turns out that a FRAG O is a fragmentary order, amending a preceding operational order governing the conduct of the air campaign against ISIS. And it might have helped to release it sooner, back when accusations of civilian casualties were also news, because the document shows Canada's air force flying loops to avoid mistakes.

'The doubt rule'

One of the few paragraphs not riddled with acronyms puts the pilots on notice: if you're not sure whether it's a civilian target or a military one, don't drop the bomb.

A section of the FRAG O guidelines describes the 'doubt rule,' instructing pilots not to bomb when unsure whether it's a civilian target or a military one. (Department of National Defence)

Plainly, an errant bomb that hits a school, a hospital or a wedding party — all of which happened with U.S. bombers in Afghanistan — is a catastrophe, and not just for the victims. It's a propaganda victory for the guys we're trying to fight.

That's the backdrop to another section of the FRAG O — showing the forest of complicated questions to be answered about every single target. Is it on the target list of the MESF? That's the allied coalition dubbed the Middle East Stabilization Force — an ambitious title if ever there was one.

But the document wants to know: Is this bombing militarily necessary? Is the damage proportional to the benefits? Has the target been approved by the coalition? By the intelligence officer? By the legal adviser? By the Targeting Engagement Authority? 

Defence Department guidelines show questions to be answered and approvals obtained for every target during Operation Impact. Canada's CF-18 pilots flew 1,378 sorties over Iraq and Syria between Oct. 30, 2014, and Feb. 15, 2016. (Department of National Defence)

Your answer had better be, yes. It's enough to make you wonder if a LEGAD clings to every falling bomb, taking notes for the mandatory post-bombing reports. 

Elsewhere, the FRAG O seems to bend over backward to protect non-combatants — even if they're ISIS sympathizers. Apparently, you can spread ISIS propaganda and help to conceal ISIS movements, but as long as you're not actually fighting, you're not a legitimate target.

The Defence Department document says that a mere supporter of the enemy who is not engaged in combat is not a legitimate target.

All of it makes an interesting backdrop for the enhanced ground operation now being undertaken by Canada's new Liberal government.

It's one thing to set rules for dropping or not dropping a bomb — and most of Canada's sorties in Iraq returned without dropping any. But given the complexity of the rules governing such decisions, what rules will govern the conduct of Canada's training forces?

We are told that they will advise, and assist, and accompany Iraqi and Kurdish troops. How close to the action must they be to take part in it? When, exactly, will they be entitled to fire their weapons? What if they're not sure who they're firing at? Is it better to shoot first and ask questions later — or will that run afoul of the ROE and the LOAC?

Somewhere, military lawyers are no doubt drawing up a new FRAG O to cover all this. With triple the number of forces on the ground, we're going to need a thick one, and plenty of LEGADs.

About the Author

Terry Milewski

Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.