Canadian military expands to the skies over Afghanistan

The Canadian military is expanding its presence in Afghanistan to the sky by introducing its own air wing, which at full strength will have 450 personnel early next year.

Air wing shifts some of the cargo burden to helicopters

Canadian soldiers held a parade at Kandahar Airfield on Sunday marking the deployment of a new air wing, which will relieve them of some of the more dangerous tasks performed on the ground.

The Canadian Air Wing will have at its disposal six newly leased Russian-made helicopters and six U.S. Chinook helicopters that were purchased.

Eight Canadian-made Griffon helicopters will act as armed escorts for the other aircraft.

The Canadian Air Wing will be complete early in the new year and will include two types of unmanned surveillance drones.

The aircraft will be used by whichever NATO country is most in need of them, but Canada should have more leverage in gaining access.

"Obviously if you contribute to the [NATO] pool, it means you have more call on the assets when you need them," said Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson, commander of Canadian troops stationed in Kandahar province.

The Air Wing will have 450 personnel assigned to keep the aircraft flying.

Regular traffic of military vehicles on Afghan roads has proven deadly for Canadian soldiers as insurgents increasingly target supply convoys.

More than half of the 100 Canadian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan since 2002 have been killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The problem was highlighted by John Manley's commission on Afghanistan, which set a deadline of February 2009 for obtaining medium-lift helicopters.

Canadian troops have used long-haul cargo planes in Afghanistan, usually the C-130 Hercules, but they've lacked easy access to helicopters, unlike the British, U.S., and Dutch forces.