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A Rare Interview with a Canadian Commander Fighting the Islamic State

The battle commander of an Aurora surveillance aircraft talks about collecting data in a war zone and long-distance coffee runs.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
March 9, 2015, 7:35pm

Major-General Dean Milner in an Aurora aircraft in Kuwait. Photo via the Canadian Forces

If Canada's CF-18 Hornet fighter jets are the muscle in the nation's war against the Islamic State, then its CP-140 Auroras are the eyes and ears.

The high-tech surveillance aircraft are arguably the most advanced manned reconnaissance aircraft in the world, and they're Canada's secret weapon in outsmarting the Islamic State's evolving tactics.

VICE reached the Long-Range Patrol Detachment Commander—the man responsible for the Auroras—from his base in Kuwait. For security concerns, VICE was not provided with the commander's name.

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The commander spoke with VICE the morning before Sergeant Andrew Dorion was killed in action after Kurdish soldiers accidentally opened fire on his unit in northern Iraq.

Dorion was in Iraq as a special forces advisor to the Kurdish Peshmerga. The Aurora commander is part of the airborne portion of Operation IMPACT—code for Canada's operation against the Islamic State—which is doing the intelligence work behind the bombing campaign.

As part of IMPACT, Canada has contributed seven CF-18s to the bombing campaign against the Islamic State, as well as two of the CP-140s and three other support aircraft. Canada has also sent 69 advisors, including Dorion.

The commander painted a picture of high morale and optimism in Kuwait, where the pilots and crew for the aircraft are stationed. That mood has no doubt been dampened by the friendly fire death on Friday night.

Notwithstanding the accident, the commander underscored the successes of the mission.

Criticism had been levied at the mission from the opposition NDP and Liberals, who've said that the mission is ineffective and have accused the governing Conservatives of jumping into a mission without a plan. They've argued that the Islamic State's evolving tactics mean airstrikes are of marginal effect, pointing out that Canada's CF-18s have dropped relatively few bombs.

"Are we in danger of being ineffective in a very short period of time?" asked NDP defense critic Jack Harris in a Parliamentary committee in November.

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The Aurora commander says it's quite the opposite. One of the main purposes of the high-tech aircrafts is to monitor the Islamic State's movements and help develop counter-tactics to outsmart the versatile fighting force.

While he says it's obviously a challenge, the Auroras are being used to track vehicle movements through the long stretch of desert, and can help discern whether it's a local merchant, or an Islamic State convey posing as one.

"It's striking that right balance between surveillance and reconnaissance that really makes the difference in actually countering these sort of tactics," he says.

That sort of utility can be of great use to the Iraqis, Kurds, and coalition forces on the ground.

"Mostly what we'll do is we'll collect information from a variety of different sensors from the platform and provide it in as near real time as possible and from there it will be synthesized with a lot of other information from other platforms," he says. That cocktail of intelligence is mixed by the coalition, and can then be shared with forces on the ground.

The commander couldn't get too far into the specifics of the aircraft, what sort of data is being collected, or exactly what coalition's changing tactics are—it is, after all, an ongoing war—but he did provide context about Canada's contribution with the mission. An interview with media from the theater is an incredibly rare occurrence.

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The commander also gave a sense of the personal aspects of being deployed—the food, the facilities, and connecting back home.

Evidence of the fact that he's been pretty far removed from his life back home, the commander bragged that the base has all the latest movies, such as the latest installment of the Hunger Games franchise (five months old) or the last of the Hobbit series (four months.)

"Maybe they're not the latest anymore," the commander adds on reflection. "I haven't been back in Canada."

He does have internet access, though, which means he can see his wife and kids via Facetime every few days. That's a good boost to morale for everyone.

"I'll be honest, it's been remarkably smooth sailing because there has been such good support here," he says.

The commander still isn't sure if he'll be in Kuwait for another six months, but most signs indicate that Defence Minister Jason Kenney plans to extend Operation IMPACT beyond its current mandate, which ends on April 7.

While communications between Canada and the base in Kuwait are quite good—VICE has been in touch with Canadian Forces personnel on base for weeks—they're not perfect. The interview ended abruptly when the commander's satellite connection cut out.

VICE: What's the day-to-day like, over there?
Commander: Every single day, except for planned maintenance days, we launch the Auroras on a mission. While the time of day varies, the whole idea is that we try to provide the capabilities that the coalition needs, when they need it. So every single day we launch a mission. It means long days for the air crews, and for the ground crews that are preparing the mission—typically the air crews are going to work an 18-hour day. That's not just the flying, that's everything that goes into it. They tend to work themselves pretty hard.

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What role are the Auroras playing in the coalition?
The Auroras are a surveillance and reconnaissance platform, so they can be used on a wide variety of tasks: everything from being at the cold face of a fight, so to speak, to where you're actually supporting people on the ground, to reconnaissance operations where you're looking for where the fight will be, not so much today, but tomorrow, the next day, maybe a month out. You'll spend a lot of time assigned to an area, where you'll be given a list of objects or points of interest to observe, but then we'll also get a certain amount of freedom based on our training that allow us to, if something of interest comes along or if we see something out of the ordinary while we're out there, to pursue that as a lead, to gather more information and then report that back. The missions vary quite a bit. Sometimes, you go out and mow the lawn—you go and watch points that you've been to before to develop a better sense of what is going on—and at other times you're being more dynamically employed to look at very specific things that might be time sensitive, and you need to get there and do your job at a prescribed time. It's a wide variety of things, but it's very rewarding work when you do it.

How unique are the Auroras?
The big thing that the Aurora brings to the table is that it's a manned platform. There's always a requirement for both a manned and unmanned platforms—coalition members have both of those platforms in theater. The value of the Aurora, in being a manned platform, brings is that it allows you to then go out to an area that's difficult and react really quickly. As a bigger platform, it has bigger engines, it's much more robust, and you can fly a lot faster from one area to another to be more reactive and responsive. On top of that, the Auroras have gone through their upgrades in the last couple of years. We actually have absolutely cutting-edge equipment onboard the Aurora right now and I would argue, from my perspective, we are one of the best equipped assets here to do a surveillance mission. I would easily put us on par with any of our coalition assets out here.

An Aurora, escorted by two CF-18s, flies off the coast of Hawaii. Photo via Canadian Forces

What sort of data are you actually collecting in these missions?
The Aurora has a wide variety of sensors, some of which are recently upgraded, as part of our upgrade program. Everything from highly complex imaging radar systems to electro-optical systems that allow you to view objects from a great distance away at day and night, to other systems that collect electronic emissions across a broad spectrum that allow us to then, from there, be able to actually create a picture of what's happening on the ground, either with an actual camera-type picture, or with a radar image that allow us to look right through clouds. Once we synthesize all that information together, even aboard the aircraft, you can create a really good picture of what's happening, whether you can actually see the object with the camera, or if it's with a radar or you're actually listening in to the electronic emissions that are coming from it.

How do the Auroras reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties or collateral damage?
One of the key tasks that we'll be assigned is that we'll go out and we'll look at points of interest. Sometimes, for those points of interest, we're looking at developing a really solid understanding of the pattern of life that's around that object so that you can better determine whether or not it's actually a target of interest, and when you might prosecute a strike on it both to achieve your objectives and also to minimize collateral damage. So I can think of several missions that I've personally been on, where we've spent hours circling a target of interest—getting a feel for the traffic flow for a targeted area, the number of people walking around, the activity in and around buildings or whole towns—in order to better understand what's going on. And that can be quite a laborious process, and quite time-consuming, because if you don't fully understand everything that's going on in the vicinity of a potential target, you potentially expose yourself to having unintended consequences. So that's where the Aurora pays its dividends, because we really have the ability to linger over an area for a long periods of time and go back to it on a repeated basis and help develop that pattern of life.

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What sort of challenges are posed by the landscape?
The predominant challenge that we experience now is that the characters of the battle space have changed even since Canadians arrived. Last summer when the Islamic State was moving in large formations it was very much a conventional warfare battle space. You had large troop movements, large movements of equipment. In large part due to the coalition presence of airpower, that has forced the Islamic State to change their tactics. They no longer move in these large groups, they have to be much more cagey about what they do. And that's ultimately the challenge. They now go to great lengths to mix what they do with the local population, to try to confuse us and make it difficult to ascertain whether something is enemy or neutral or even friendly, for that matter. They're spending most of their time moving in smaller groups making and concealing their activities in and around large population centers, so they can make it the most difficult for us. That's the predominant challenge.

Couple that with the fact that the population centers in Iraq are sometimes distributed sometimes across large open desert. So you have some spaces, especially along the river, where there are lots and lots of population. But then there are parts out in the middle of the desert where there are towns that have developed along trading routes. So you can actually have trucks in the middle of the desert driving from one town to the other. It can be quite difficult to determine, sometimes, whether that truck driving through the desert just happens to be a local merchant driving from one supply point to a local town that he services, or whether that's something of interest—the Islamic State has adjusted their tactics to mimic those local movements, which makes it a challenge. So you have to go linger in an area to gain lots of information but also be able to go wide ranging in order to cover a wide area of space.

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In a personal sense, what's it like on-base out there?
It's a very well-appointed base that we have here. We've done a fairly remarkable job in making it comfortable for the folks that are here. Everyday I have access to gym facilities, both right where the Canadians are, plus shared facilities where we have other coalition partners that we work alongside. We probably have more food than we should have, which means on a daily basis we have to encourage guys to get out to the gym. The mess hall we have here is actually quite outstanding. It is a menu that rotates every two weeks, but hey, you can get crab legs every two weeks, so that's not half bad.

But is there a Tim Hortons?
There isn't a Tim Hortons, but there is a chain of coffee shops you can go to that are here. They produce a Starbucks-like cup of coffee. We have had the odd Timmies run. In fact, I think just yesterday, the senior leadership organized a Timmies run from the local Tim Hortons in Kuwait City, which was a huge boost to morale for everybody. I think the last one that we had was on Christmas Day. Both were extraordinarily well-attended by people and there were far more donuts and coffee that we could shake a stick at. It's been very good.

Are you hunkered down for the long haul?
Certainly the Auroras have always been ready to deploy. It's one of our standing tasks: always be ready to deploy internationally. Back home, that's the job I have: commanding a squadron to make sure that that happens. So we are ready to go, if the government decides to extend the mission. What it really comes down to, is that when the government makes its decision, we always have prudent plans in place to react to whatever decision that they come up with. We give them options, they make the decision.

What sort of preparations need to be made if your mission is extended?
I think the big thing is helping the families of those who have to come back for future deployments. Obviously, as with any military, you have a limited pool of people. In the Aurora community, we've had quite a number of folks who've been exposed to theater, who've been on deployment here. The longer we go on, the better the chance that we'll have to start bringing people back to theater, which would be considered a normal thing. This is ultimately the job people people train for.

This interview has been edited for style, clarity, and length.

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