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The rarely mentioned war

Watching: Soldiers keep watch in Ted Zuber’s 1991 painting, “Long Day at Doha.”
Ted Zuber/Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/CWM/19960062-006

How the Persian Gulf War
changed the Canadian
Armed Forces

It doesn’t feel like a quarter-century has gone by since the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. When I entered the Royal Military College as an officer cadet in 1975, it similarly had been 25 years since the start of the Korean War in 1950—not to mention the Second World War that had ended only five years before that—and those conflicts had seemed like ancient history to me.

I probably gave those veterans the same awed stares I get now when talking to young sailors and students about Operation Friction, as we called the Canadian contribution to the coalition under the American-led Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.

Actually, we don’t often talk of the Gulf War now. As wars go, and as they are usually measured, it wasn’t much of one: none of the 4,500 Canadian sailors, airmen and soldiers who participated were killed or seriously injured, nor can Canada claim to have done much injury to the Iraqi forces we faced. Overall, though, the coalition did serious damage to the Iraqi army: 20,000 to 35,000 killed, 75,000 wounded and 300,000 deserted or captured.

Canadian Gulf War veterans rarely get a mention in Remembrance Day commemorations, nor do we see “Persian Gulf 1990-1991” inscribed on the National War Memorial. But it was a major turning point in the history of the Canadian Armed Forces, worthy of much more attention than we give it, marking not only the end of the Cold War but also a major shift in the way the Canadian Forces goes about its operations. Much of what we do now can trace its roots back to Operation Friction.

View of HMCS Protecteur and HMC Mercy at sea.
At sea: HMCS Protecteur approaches to fuel the U.S. naval hospital ship Mercy in the Persian Gulf in January 1991.

None of that was apparent to me on the morning of New Year’s Day 1991, as I made my way to Halifax International Airport, but I did know that what I was doing was far removed from my experience in the navy so far.

I was the combat officer of the supply ship Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Preserver and I was going to meet up with the rest of our ship’s company, all 250 of us to fly in a chartered Boeing 747 to Dubai in the Persian Gulf. We were to undertake a first for the Canadian Navy: an in-theatre crew swap on our sister ship, HMCS Protecteur, in a port that was far removed from the North Atlantic and Pacific waters that had been our stomping grounds for as long as anyone serving could remember. And we were pretty certain that we were going to an actual shooting war, not another in the predictable cycle of NATO exercises. How had this all come about?


A 4515689
In the air: A fighter jet is refuelled in mid-air.
Ted Zuber/Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/CWM/19960062-008

After Saddam Hussein invaded an unsuspecting Kuwait during the night of Aug. 1-2, 1990, President George H.W. Bush immediately began to assemble a coalition to back up United Nations demands for an Iraqi withdrawal. The supposition in Canada was that the Canadian Forces eventually would contribute to the follow-on peacekeeping mission, but Prime Minister Brian Mulroney instead took the advice of the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, Vice-Admiral Charles Thomas (who was acting as Chief of the Defence Staff in the absence of General John de Chastelain), to dispatch a naval task group to enforce the UN embargo against Iraq.

This was a bold move, as the navy was considered to be “rusted out” and waiting for a fleet renewal with Halifax-class frigates then under construction and the Tribal-Class Update and Modernization Project upgrades to the Iroquois-class destroyers. But many of the new weapon and communications systems were already in navy hands and could be fitted to the older ships by the ship repair unit in the Halifax dockyard.

On Aug. 24, after a frantic two weeks of activity, the naval task group—comprising the destroyers HMCS Athabaskan and HMCS Terra Nova and the supply ship Protecteur—sailed off under the command of Commodore Kenneth Summers.

Summers proposed an even bolder move. While studying the prospective operating areas and conditions, he came to the conclusion that the ships would contribute most effectively not in the relatively safe rear area of the Arabian Sea, but rather well up front in the central Persian Gulf. This was conditional on coalition air superiority, so the government also ordered what would become a 24-aircraft wing of CF-18 Hornet fighters flying out of Doha, Qatar.

This was a normal role for the Hornets, which deployed from CFB Baden-Soellingen in Germany, but the big difference was that they would be operating with the U.S. Navy instead of the U.S. Air Force, and that required a major change of doctrine and communications equipment. The “Desert Cats” adapted well to the new conditions, and on Oct. 14 flew their first combat air patrol over the north-central Persian Gulf.

The unintended consequence of this move was that for the first time in the history of the Canadian Forces, naval and air forces were directly supporting each other in a close tactical environment. With growing logistics demands and no clear end-date for the operation, it was decided an in-theatre joint commander was needed to co-ordinate oversight. Commodore Summers was ordered to go ashore to set up Headquarters Canadian Forces Middle East. Opened in Manamah, Bahrain, on Nov. 6, 1990, HQ CANFORME was the prototype for what has become the ubiquitous CF Joint Headquarters.

Midnight briefing: Commodore Kenneth Summers informs headquarters staff that the air campaign has begun on Jan. 17, 1991.

We were about to become the
first Canadian Forces unit to
have women in combat.

For the next two months, these Canadian naval and air forces were major contributors to the ever-tightening embargo of Iraq, while the coalition’s armies built up in northern Saudi Arabia, demonstrating their serious intent for Hussein to quit Kuwait. On Nov. 29, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 678, authorizing “all necessary means” to effect an Iraqi withdrawal by Jan. 15, 1991.

It was into this state of affairs that we arrived in Dubai on Jan. 2. The command team was conscious of two factors. First, with nearly a quarter of the ship’s company being female, we were about to become the first Canadian Forces unit to have women in combat (they had been regular crew members for some years). Second, we were not a close-knit unit, because when Preserver had entered refit the previous spring, most of the crew had been posted out (a good number of them to Protecteur), meaning that with a large proportion now on board coming from the air detachment and purple trades (occupations—such as logistics, medicine, justice and military police—not strongly linked to either the army, navy or air force), fully half of the ship’s company was “new” and nearly a quarter had never been to sea.

We went about taking possession of Protecteur, stocktaking and signing over distribution accounts (a significant concern in a supply ship), training, and taking occasional breaks ashore under a beating sun in the cosmopolitan city. All around us, CNN, the recently launched cable news network, broadcast the countdown to Jan. 15.

 Taking off : A CF-18 taxis along a track laid by Canadian engineers at Doha airport.

When the air war started on Jan. 17, we were in the Arabian Sea and operationally ready. We were recalled immediately to the Gulf, and on the way in we fuelled several escorts with the last of the six U.S. carrier battle groups concentrating there.

The embargo against Iraq was now redundant, and for the next six weeks the naval task group took charge of the protection and scheduling of the coalition’s underway replenishment forces, a significant organizational challenge. At the same time, with coalition air superiority secured, the Desert Cats evolved into more offensive roles, first “sweep and escort,” and then on Feb. 24, the day the ground war began, “air-to-mud” bombing missions in Iraq.

One hundred hours later, the combat phase was over: the shattered Iraqi army had been driven from Kuwait (after setting its oil fields on fire) as the coalition advanced to within 240 kilometres of Baghdad before declaring a ceasefire and withdrawing back to Kuwait.


First Phase Digital
Voting: The UN Security Council votes to establish a formal ceasefire to end the Persian Gulf War on April 3, 1991.

One anomaly
of the Gulf War is that our land force was not a major factor in it, due mostly to its preoccupation with the Oka Crisis in the summer and fall of 1990. Our only ground force element in the invasion was 1 Canadian Field Hospital from CFB Petawawa, attached to the 1st (United Kingdom) Division.

The only direct exchange of fire between Canadian and Iraqi forces had been on the night of Jan. 30, when two CF-18s attacked and irreparably damaged a fast patrol boat attempting to escape to Iran.

Finally, any recounting of how the Gulf War changed the perspective of the Canadian Forces would be remiss without mention of Gulf War Syndrome. While physical causes (including exposure to depleted uranium, vaccinations and smoke from burning oil wells) remain to be fully identified, it is beyond debate that many Canadian Gulf War veterans suffer from this chronic illness, providing a regrettable window into something not seen in Canada since the Second World War—that range of symptoms now generally grouped as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Perhaps the truest testament of how Operation Friction changed the Canadian Forces is our recognition of the fundamental value of well-trained and equipped combat forces. The naval task group and the fighter air wing deployed in very short order, essentially going “as is,” and adapted quickly to roles and doctrine outside their established operational concepts. I am proud to have been part of the action.

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