With the Iraq mission pretty much at a standstill because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian Forces has pulled its helicopters and associated air crews from the country.
Three Griffon helicopters based in Petawawa and three from Edmonton returned from Iraq in mid-April, Department of National Defence spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande confirmed in an email.
At the same time maintenance work on the Royal Canadian Navy’s submarines has been halted because of COVID-19, disrupting the military’s plans to get two of the boats to sea this year.
Lamirande said three Griffon helicopters were from the 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron based in Petawawa, and the three other helicopters were from 408 Squadron based in Edmonton.
“Over the past several months the environment in Iraq has shifted considerably,” she explained in an email. “The spread of COVID-19 has caused the Iraqi Security Forces to suspend all training activities, which has led to an operational pause.”
Two C-130J Hercules aircraft will remain for resupply flights in the region.
There are less than 100 Canadians left in Iraq, according to the Canadian Forces. A number of nations have pulled their troops from the country.
The coalition training mission in Iraq has been at standstill since early January, first as a result of the U.S. assassination of an Iranian leader in Baghdad and now because Iraqi soldiers have stopped all training because of the coronavirus.
The pandemic has also derailed plans by the Royal Canadian Navy to try to get its Victoria-class submarines back at sea.
In response to a written question before Parliament earlier this year, DND acknowledged that the four submarines had not gone to sea in 2019 because they were all in various stages of repair or maintenance. The Canadian Forces was hoping two of the subs would set sail in 2020.
But Lamirande confirmed that maintenance work on the subs has stopped because of COVID-19. Work on the submarines is done in very close-quarters and that can’t be performed while maintaining social distancing. “The RCN made great progress at the start of the year with the goal to return both HMCS Victoria and HMCS Windsor back to sea,” Lamirande explained. “Further maintenance is required before they can be deployed. However, in order to ensure the health and safety of our defence team, work onboard submarines was put on pause during this pandemic.”
It is not known when the maintenance work will be completed.
The pandemic has also prompted changes in other Canadian Forces operations. The military has scaled back the number of soldiers it is sending to Ukraine to conduct training there. It had planned to send a new group of soldiers, numbering 200, to relieve the Canadian troops now in Ukraine. That number will now be cut back to 60 personnel.
The pandemic also caused the cancellation of Exercise Maple Resolve, the army’s main training event for the year, as well as a naval exercise off the coast of Africa. HMCS Glace Bay and HMCS Shawinigan, which were to take part in that naval training, were ordered to return to Halifax. HMCS Nanaimo and HMCS Whitehorse also cut short their participation in U.S.-led counter-drug operations.
The Canadian military has also pulled back its commitment of a transport aircraft for the United Nations in Africa because of COVID-19.
But the Canadian military stills plans to take part in the world’s largest maritime exercise this summer even as the U.S. Navy, which is hosting the event, struggles to deal with coronavirus outbreaks that have sent two of its ships back to port.
There have also been COVID-19 outbreaks on French, Belgium and Taiwanese navy ships. There are COVID-19 cases among the crews of 26 U.S. Navy ships.
But that won’t stop the U.S. from holding its Rim of the Pacific or RIMPAC exercise in August.
The Canadian Forces is planning to attend although military officials haven’t outlined yet which Canadian ships and aircraft will take part.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020