Technical briefing to provide update on Canadian operations against ISIL

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Archived Transcript / July 9, 2015

Transcript

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.  And welcome to this technical brief on Thursday, 9 of July, 2015 at the National Defence Headquarters Multimedia Centre.  We will now begin with remarks from Captain (Navy) Paul Forget of the Canadian Joint Operational Command who will provide an update on Canada’s support to the multinational assistance to security forces in the Republic of Iraq. 

CAPT (N) PAUL FORGET: Hello, ladies and gentlemen. I am Captain (Navy) Paul Forget from Canadian Joint Operations Command. I’m going to provide an update on Operation Impact, Canada’s military contribution to the international coalition against ISIS.

In central Iraq, Iraqi forces are concentrating efforts on controlling critical infrastructure and supply lines to remove ISIS from the area around the Baiji oil refinery. While both the refinery and the city remain contested, Iraqi forces are conducting offensive operations within each location.

In western Anbar province, the advance of ISIS on eastern Ramadi has been halted, and Iraqi forces are preparing for operations to regain control of that city.

In northern Iraq, Iraqi forces, with support from coalition air strikes, have pushed back ISIS in multiple locations, most notably in Kirkuk and near the Kisik Junction.

In Syria, coalition air strikes have allowed Kurdish forces to advance on several fronts, cutting off access by ISIS to most of its external support. ISIS is now resorting mainly to raid tactics to distract Kurdish forces. 

Since the last technical brief, CF-18 fighters have conducted 18 air strikes. These strikes on ISIS staging areas, fighting positions and compounds were conducted as part of planned coalition missions to degrade ISIS.  As depicted in the video, on July 5th, CF-18 aircraft struck an ISIS fighting position southeast of Fallujah, further degrading ISIS’ capabilities.

Since the beginning of Operation Impact, Canadian aircraft have flown 1,164 sorties, including 747 by our CF-18 fighter planes; 197 by the Polaris tanker to deliver over 12 million pounds of fuel; and 220 by our Aurora surveillance aircraft.

Our efforts with the Air Task Force, including air strikes, air-to-air refuelling and surveillance and reconnaissance flights continue to contribute to coalition efforts. We remain committed to playing our role in the long-term success of the coalition’s fight against ISIS. 

Thank you. I would be happy to take your questions now. 

CAPT NOËL: Thank you, Captain (Navy) Paul Forget.  We will now start with questions from the floor.  There are two microphones at each side of the room.  We will alternate between each other.  Please identify yourself as well as the news agency you represent.  Please limit yourself to one question and one follow-up. 

QUESTION: Hello. Since last winter, have there been other exchanges between Canadian soldiers and the forces of ISIS, the Islamic State?

CAPT (N) FORGET: Since the last report on this subject, the Canadian Special Operations Forces have not had any engagements of this kind. And also, as we mentioned previously, it doesn’t happen all the time, but ultimately our Special Forces operators have the legitimate right to defend themselves, so when it’s required, they have the right to exercise it.

QUESTION: There have been a lot of reports in recent months saying that the forces of the Islamic State are gaining ground, or that the coalition and the Iraqis are having difficulties. Is the Islamic State gaining or losing ground?

CAPT (N) FORGET: In every situation – it’s a bit of a volatile situation, if you will. There is a back and forth and so there are tactical gains and losses at every level. I can tell you that, yes, a few weeks ago Ramadi was a big loss for the Iraqi forces, there’s no doubt about that. Since then, we’ve been supporting Iraqi efforts more and more to regain that ground. But in northern Iraq, we’re gaining ground almost every day. So there’s a back-and-forth. It’s fluid. It’s a dynamic atmosphere.

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: Thank you. We’ll now go to my left.

QUESTION: Hi. Given the sort of number of media representatives here, I might ask three questions if that’s okay. Otherwise, I can yield the floor to someone else. I wanted to follow up on my colleague’s question, just to be clear, his first question. There have been no other firefights between Special – our Canadian Special Forces soldiers and ISIL combatants other than the three you told us about earlier this year, is that correct?

CAPT (N) FORGET: That is – that’s affirmative. Those are the only three that I am certainly aware of.

QUESTION: Okay. The second question is when we were – when the Prime Minister was in Erbil in May, we were told by the – one of the Forces people there that the people – that the Special Forces advisors had been staying back from the front lines after the Doiron death until they sort of sorted out what was happening next. Are the Special Forces advisors visiting the front lines on a regular basis now, and is it – and what percentage of the time do they spend there?

CAPT (N) FORGET: I think General Rouleau answered that question when he did his brief a few weeks ago – actually, it’s probably about a month and a half ago there now. And he answered that quite eloquently saying that as required and when required that our forces continue to support in that capacity as required. Now he mentioned that there was some change in the procedures as a result of the incidents which occurred, and they’re continuing to operate within the mandate that’s been assigned to them by the Government of Canada. They’ll continue to do that and when it’s required, they do visit the front lines.

QUESTION: So is it still 20 percent of the time? Is that right?

CAPT (N) FORGET: I don’t have that exact percentage.

QUESTION: Well, you gave it to us before. Is it possible to get it again, to get the updated figure on that?

CAPT (N) FORGET: Absolutely. We’ll work to provide you that figure, but I don’t have that at hand right now.

QUESTION: Okay. And the third question is we’ve had more than a hundred air strikes since last November now, and I would like to get some sense of what kind of estimates you have in terms of casualties, ISIL casualties or damage estimates. Can you give us some sense, other than telling us what you struck, of the damage you’ve inflicted in terms of the body count and ISIL’s body count or the – I mean that would probably be the most interesting number. You must have – you must have estimates on that.

CAPT (N) FORGET: I personally don’t have any estimates on the attrition of ISIL forces, if you will. And we really haven’t been focussed on that because that’s just a number and that number is really meaningless without taking into account the effects of degrading their capability. And so we’re really more focussed on that effect, and every strike that we execute is put into effect exactly with that in mind, degrading the ISIL capability and also maximizing the amount of space and time and freedom of movement, if you will, for Iraqi forces to regain other territory.

QUESTION: Fair enough, but when you look at the air strikes that you’ve listed over the last, I guess it’s now nine months, you talk – you’ll say, for instance, we struck a fighting position. That has – that gives the average Canadian voter no sense of measuring the impact. What is a fighting position when you struck – what does that mean? Is there any other way of measuring the impact of what you’ve done than to tell us you struck a fighting position, which is sort of often what you use as the only damage estimate that you give Canadians? So if we’re trying to keep track of the efficacy of these strikes, you know, three words doesn’t really tell us much.

CAPT (N) FORGET: Right. I mean we use the term fighting position as a simple term to identify a number of ISIS forces who are engaging typically either Iraqi forces or the Peshmerga forces in the northern regions. Simply stating that they’ve struck that position, well, that allows that freedom of movement. It takes that element of ISIS fighting capability away, allowing that freedom of movement for Iraqi forces, and again, it’s all with the goal of reclaiming the territory and retaking sovereignty of their country. And so we’re – we’re full court press, if you will, with the coalition to – to in that effort enable those forces to do just that.

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: Thank you, sir. We’ll go next question.

QUESTION: Well, if I could just follow up then. In that video that you showed us today, you say that Canadian Forces struck a fighting position. What was that?

CAPT (N) FORGET: So that was a number of fighters that were engaged with Iraqi security forces that were basically preventing them from reclaiming that particular zone and so, again, our aircraft oftentimes are flowing in a zone type defence, if you will, in support of Iraqi initiatives that are going on. Those initiatives can result in either a strike occurring, depending on their freedom of movement, their ability to move forward and gain terrain versus their – or being pinned down in that type of scenario, as you saw in the video.

QUESTION: So you don’t have any information or intelligence. Presumably, that strike was called in by some intelligence source for you. You don’t have any intelligence on the casualties as a result.

CAPT (N) FORGET: The direct results of that casualty?

QUESTION: Yes.

CAPT (N) FORGET: All we know is that the effect of that strike was the elimination of the threat and the Iraqi forces were able to —

QUESTION: Sorry, the elimination of a truck?

CAPT (N) FORGET: A threat, I said.

QUESTION: Yeah, right. What was that? Was it a truck? Was it a number of people? It’s hard to tell from the video.

CAPT (N) FORGET: Yeah, and I understand that. In that particular video is a number of people who were engaging Iraqi forces.

QUESTION: And can you give us a sense of at this moment how often Canadian fighters are going up to engage and how often they are either coming back, turning away because either there’s civilian casualties anticipated and it’s deemed not worth the risk or the threat itself has since dissipated? So how often are Canadian fighter jets flying out and doing nothing?

CAPT (N) FORGET: So to date missions that we’ve executed in theatre are roughly in the magnitude of 360 missions. Out of those missions, we’ve struck 122 targets. And so that gives you almost a 1-to-3 ratio, if you will. And so about 30 percent of the time we’re engaging a target on any given mission set. That’s well within what I would argue would be statistical norms, if you will, for any mission that we’ve done in the past. And basically, what that means is that there’s a deliberate targeting process. There are methods by which we do these things. We’re not just dropping ordnance at will here on any given target. And so that rigorous process results in that sometimes, either by decision of Iraqi forces don’t want those particular targets struck or it’s a dangerous environment to operate in, but there’s a variety of factors that go in, as in scrutiny, that would decide and ultimately the last decision lies with our highly trained pilots who have that last focus, if you will, last eyeball on the target to make that decision of whether or not ordnance is dropped. So there’s a multitude of factors that go into the targeting process, and I can’t get into too much detail because I’d be giving away a little bit of our procedures here. So for operational security reasons, I can’t get into too much detail there, but suffice to say that it’s very rigorous. It’s very strenuous. Sometimes, we’re engaging deliberate targets. Other times we’re – it’s dynamic targeting based on the requirements on the ground.

QUESTION: What’s the cost of the mission to date now?

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: Ma’am, thank you. At this time we’re going to go to the phone.

QUESTION: There’s only three reporters in the room, sir.

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: We have people on the line also. We would like to go to the phone right now at this time.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Merci.

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: Operator, may we have our first question?

QUESTION: Hello. You say that each side, in each case they’ve been making some gains and some losses in recent weeks. So it seems to me that there hasn’t been much progress on either side. In fact, there hasn’t been much progress on the Kurdish side. What would have to be added to the mission and what would be needed in order for the mission and the Canadian participation in that mission to obtain the best results?

CAPT (N) FORGET: Well, it`s important not to panic, if you will, in the sense that a tactical disadvantage – an environment where, as I suggested just now, there are elements that change all the time, every day. The overall result is that the advances are continuing. The Iraqis are quietly taking back control of their territory, and it’s important to note that we’ve had 18 direct strikes in support of the Iraqi forces in the past few weeks. So the initiative is continuing. The gains are continuing, despite a few minor defeats along the way. So the coalition effort is continuing to accomplish the mission, as was noted at the very beginning.

QUESTION: But at that rate, it’ll take a long time.

CAPT (N) FORGET: Ah, but that’s no secret. For a long time, the coalition has been saying that the mission is likely to be quite a long one.

QUESTION: Okay.

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: Thank you. Operator, do we have a second question?

QUESTION: Hi there. Thank you so much for taking our questions today. And forgive me if the audio was a little bit garbled. I can’t hear you very well. With regards to the spread that we’ve seen of ISIS to regions like – or at least their influence to regions like the north (inaudible), to Libya, to the Sinai Peninsula, does limiting our military action right now to Syria and Iraq restrict our ability to target that spread of influence or do we need to look at expanding where we’re actually operating?

CAPT (N) FORGET: Okay, I’m not sure, you were a little bit garbled in your question, but if I understood correctly, you’re wondering if – actually, I’m not a hundred percent sure exactly how you worded that, but suffice to say that the forces right now are continuing with their strikes, as had been mandated throughout. We’re supporting Iraqi security forces. The coalition is working well together. The initiative is – is definitely on that side of the house, and so I’m not too sure if that answers your question or not.

QUESTION: I guess just as a follow-up, and again, I’m sorry if you can’t hear me very well, there seems to be a lag with the audio, with ISIS influence spreading to, you know, governance in the Sinai Peninsula in the north (inaudible), how do you target those establishments if we’re operating really only in Iraq and Syria?

CAPT (N) FORGET: Well, missions right now by the coalition are assigned exactly that, by the coalition. The coalition has multiple tools that they use to assess all areas that we’re operating in, including Syria. They fuse that information together, and they assign missions to various nations who are best suited to – to service those contacts and those threats. And so Canadian missions are assigned to us on a regular basis. We’ve flown all missions that have been assigned to us to date and we continue to be a strong contributor to the coalition effort overall.

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: Thank you. Operator, do we have another question on the line?

QUESTION: Yes, Captain Forget, is the idea of the JATCs, ground controllers – Joint Air Traffic Controllers, I think they’re called – is that still (inaudible)? Is that still necessary? Is it still being discussed and could it change anything in the number of strikes, because – and maybe then fewer of them would be aborted.

CAPT (N) FORGET: I think you’re referring to the fact that our Special Forces operators sometimes help to designate certain contacts for us in order to deliver a bomb on a target. So this mission, this function that our Special Operations Forces – it’s part of their mandate, as assigned by the Government of Canada. They continue to operate with that capability. As for how often it happens, I – regrettably, I don’t have that information.

QUESTION: The follow-up question, Captain Forget – wasn’t that supposed to be stopped after Sergeant Doiron’s death? Has that continued? How – I don’t understand.

CAPT (N) FORGET: Well, that function, that task, if you will, for us – our operators were not connected in any way with the regrettable events with Sergeant Doiron. So that function, that capability, if you will, continues for our Special Forces operators.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: Thank you. Operator, do we have another question online?

QUESTION: Yes. I had a question. I’m not sure I understand. In the first answer you gave, you said there’s a back-and-forth with the losses – tactical losses – but basically we’re kind of still in the same place. And you said we’re making a lot of advances and there are minor defeats. So is the coalition moving forward or backwards?

CAPT (N) FORGET: On the more overall level of the operation, it’s progressing, okay? When I say there are tactical losses, I’m referring more specifically to what happened with the city of Ramadi, which was basically a big tactical loss for the Iraqi forces, but they were able to use that support because the ISIS forces were intending to push strongly to the east after that victory, and the Iraqi forces managed to stop them just as they were leaving the city, and now the initiatives are focused on their efforts to retake the city.

QUESTION: And you were saying just now that the mission will be long. When you say long, what does that mean, specifically? Does it mean two more years, three years, ten years? With the efforts being made right now, when, specifically, do you see that mission – how much time will it take for us to be able to win it?

CAPT (N) FORGET: When I said it’ll be long, I was referring to the comments made by the coalition, not by the Government of Canada. The Government of Canada has committed to another year of that mission, until April, if I’m not mistaken.

QUESTION: So (inaudible) the battle in (inaudible) next year.

CAPT (N) FORGET: In 2016, we’re committed for another year. And as for what I was referring to about the coalition, I think it was the general in charge of the coalition who indicated that it would likely take around three years before we see a total victory, if you will.

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: Thank you. Operator, we’re going to take one last question on the line.

QUESTION: Hello, Captain. I joined the conversation late, and I apologize for that, but can you characterize for me whether or not the tempo of our operations has increased in tandem with that of the coalition because the coalition is conducting more air strikes and I’m wondering if – if the tempo of our strikes has increased at the same time.

CAPT (N) FORGET: I think the fact that we’ve had 18 air strikes since our last tech brief is indicative of exactly that. And as I mentioned, I believe the majority of those air strikes were dynamic in nature, which is in direct support of Iraqi security forces’ initiatives and therefore indicative of exactly that offensive type of capability that’s being conducted in Iraq right now by the Iraqis themselves.

QUESTION: And as a follow-up to that, can you say, the strikes in Syria, were they dynamic in nature and has there been any drawbacks to not having spotters on the ground in Syria?

CAPT (N) FORGET: I can’t really comment on strikes in Syria. Canada hasn’t conducted any strikes in the past few weeks in Syria. Again, those strikes are assigned by the – by the coalition and so if there’s been an increase in strikes in Syria and how that’s all unfolding, that would be a question that the coalition would be better positioned to answer.

QUESTION: But just as a – just for clarity’s sake, though, for the strikes that we have conducted in Syria, I’m led to believe that the absence of eyes on the ground is one of the reasons we have had so few strikes in Syria, and I’m just wondering whether – whether that is an impediment to the operation.

CAPT (N) FORGET: I’m fairly certain that the strikes that we have conducted in Syria have all been deliberate in nature because we’re not supporting offensive operations in that area directly necessarily so. I’m quite confident that they were deliberate in nature, but I’m going off memory right now.

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: Thank you, sir.

QUESTION: Thank you.

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: We’re going to go back down here to the floor for the last two questions. Please ensure that we have one question and one follow-up. Ma’am.

QUESTION: Hi. Could you, just to follow on what was just asked, can you just then clarify not vis-à-vis your last briefing or anything, overall, how many strikes then has Canada conducted on Syrian territory versus Iraq?

CAPT (N) FORGET: I believe it’s three. The count’s not very high, but memory escapes me right now. I believe it’s three strikes that we’ve had in Syria.

QUESTION: I just want to go back to the question I wanted to ask at the end of my last one. Can you also update us in terms of the cost of the mission to date?

CAPT (N) FORGET: So as the Minister of National Defence indicated in his press conference in April, the estimated cost for the follow on year is in the magnitude of $406 million. And that does not —

QUESTION: No change to that? Nothing’s changed vis-à-vis —

CAPT (N) FORGET: There has been no update since.

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: Thank you. Last question.

QUESTION: Yes. I just wanted to follow up on my – on the questions about Syria, and I’m not clear here. You said you hope they were deliberate strikes and we of course hope they were deliberate strikes, not accidental strikes as well, but you talked – there’s been three strikes there. There was a lot of talk and a lot of – the mandate was expanded to include Syria. Only three strikes. To what extent is the number of strikes or the limited number of strikes there a reflection of the fact that you don’t have enough on-the-ground intelligence helping you call in the strikes? Is it because you don’t have enough accuracy because you don’t have on-the-ground assets?

CAPT (N) FORGET: I don’t think you can make that correlation directly necessarily simply because our three strikes is not the only strikes which have occurred in Syria. And so I don’t know what the total number of coalition strikes in Syria is. I think that would be the more telling number that you might be looking for. But that said, all air strikes, whether Syria or in Iraq, are assigned by the targeting cell in the coalition. And so those strikes are assigned to various nations for a variety of reasons. And I’m not going to get into the details of that for operational security reasons, but everybody is bringing something different to the table, and those capacities are maximized in use.

QUESTION: You said that all the targets are assigned by headquarters, but you have the discretion to reject targets or accept them. And are you rejecting a lot of targets in Syria because of your feeling that there’s too much of a potential for civilian casualties or unanticipated damage?

CAPT (N) FORGET: I have no information on that. We —

QUESTION: What do you mean you don’t? You’re the military.

CAPT (N) FORGET: I don’t have any information related to targets that we refuse or not. All targets are – that we service are approved by Canadian authorities. That much I do know. As to whether or not we turn down targets, I don’t have any information on that.

QUESTION: But where would we get that information at not at a tech briefing about the operation?

CAPT (N) FORGET: And so that – I would argue put that question into the Media Relations Office. I’m sure we could probably find that information out. I just don’t have that information with me.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up subject —

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: Sir —

QUESTION: — are you aware – to this extent, are there any investigations into the possibility of civilian casualties? Are you aware all – since in the 122 strikes that you have incurred or possibly incurred any civilian casualties? I always ask this question just to check to see whether you – something’s changed.

Capt (N) Paul Forget: Canada is quite confident that with all the strikes that we’ve executed, there is absolutely no evidence of civilian casualties associated with our strikes.

CAPT DENNIS NOËL: Thank you very much. This concludes our session for today. To access images and video displayed today, you could go on forceimages.ca

To view the images and videos that were shown today, go to forceimages.ca. Thank you.

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