A pair of CF-18 Hornets, a CC-150 Polaris tanker-transport and a CP-140 Aurora took to the skies above Iraq yesterday as part of the international mission that is now known officially as Operation Inherent Resolve. This was Canada's first aerial foray into the battle against ISIS militants in Iraq.
During the six hour tactical attack mission over western Iraq, neither of the Canadian Hornets were able to employ their weapons due to the weather conditions, and returned to their base in nearby Kuwait with their weapons racks full.
Of interesting note were the weapons load-outs of the two Hornets involved. They were in an 'asymmetric' configuration, with a 330 gallon drop tank under their bellies, another one on their right wings, along with a 500 lb. GBU-12 laser guided bomb. Two more GBU-12s were stationed on their left wings. In addition, their intake stations had a single AIM-120C AMRAAM on one side and SNIPER advanced targeting pod on the other. A pair of AIM-9L/M Sidewinders rounded out the interesting load-out along with buckets full of expendable countermeasures.
Highly asymmetric weapons configurations on Hornets are not entirely unheard of. USMC F/A-18D (AW) Hornets have been seen with some pretty odd loud-outs in the past. Yet the weapons involved in this particular configuration opens up an interesting question when it comes to Canada- What aerial weaponry does Canada have in inventory, and are they mismatched to the capabilities of their older, but heavily upgraded Hornets, which are in many cases more advanced that those found in US Navy and USMC inventory?
Ideally, a mix of laser guided bombs and GPS guided munitions would be more suited to modern counter-insurgency/close air support fighter operations, and even better would be a dual-mode GPS and laser guided bombs or Brimstone-like missiles. Although the the CF-18's SNIPER targeting pods are some of the best on the market, they cannot see through heavy weather, and thus cannot designate targets with their laser for their GBU-12s to guide on under such conditions.
Canada has used GPS guided air-to-ground weaponry in the past, most notably Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) during the Libyan conflict, and their Hornets have been cleared to fly with the GBU-49 dual-mode Paveway. With this in mind, it is odd that after arriving in the theater some time ago, Canadian Hornets are carrying a weapons load that is far less than optimal into combat.
Maybe GPS guided weapons have yet to arrive, or maybe they have to be bought from US stocks, but still that does not really satisfy the issue. Additionally, although the aerial threat is very low in the ISIS conflict, although not totally non-existent, Canadian Hornets are shown carrying an AIM-120C advanced medium-range air-to-air missile, yet at the same time they are carrying older generation, inferior Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles.
The older AIM-9L/M Sidewinders cannot take advantage of high-off-boresight target cuing capability that is provided by the Joint Helmet Mounted Cuing System (JHMCS) that Canadian pilots wear, an upgrade that came at a high cost I may add. These older Sidewinders are also not nearly as maneuverable, cannot lock a target at as long of a range, and are more susceptible to countermeasures than its AIM-9X successor, which is already in its second generation.
Frankly, it seems odd that a relatively wealthy country with such a small yet capable fighter force is flying into combat for the first time in a new conflict with dated weaponry, regardless of the threat circumstance. Seeing as Canada does not have a slew of air combat commitments around the globe, and once again they have minuscule and aging but still capable upgraded fighter fleet, you think they would invest in the best weaponry available to give their small and older stable of fighters the most impact on the battlefield possible.
Canada is not alone in this 'own a powerful gun but buy no ammo to shoot with it' mentality. During the Libyan conflict, still a relatively small air combat operation that saw most flights returning without even engaging the enemy, NATO nations were running out of guided air-to-ground weaponry, and the US had to provide stores for them in order to keep their aircraft in the fight. This is unacceptable, and as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter sucks even more out of NATO countries defense budgets, and as guided weaponry becomes even more capable and also costly, this issue will only get worse if not addressed.
With Russia's stance on the world stage rapidly changing, it is simply eye poppingly alarming that NATO could not even take down Qaddafi without running short on precision guided weaponry.
We could very well see Canadian Hornets flying over Iraq with JDAMs and AIM-9Xs on their wings very soon, and their first combat mission with less-than ideal munitions could have largely been caused by a logistical issue, at least in the short term. Yet the issue of just how much stock of munitions Canada, and NATO for that matter, have in reserve remains an issue.
The bottom-line is that for a country which is still debating whether or not to buy a fleet of advanced stealth aircraft that cost well over $100M each and will take at least double the funds per hour to operate over their existing Hornets, maybe the priority should be to arm the fighter fleet they already have with the best possible weaponry first before shopping for the most expensive new fighter available.
Photos via DoD.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com