The six CF-18 fighter jets Canada is sending to help enforce the new United Nations no-fly zone over Libya could leave as early as Friday to join an assembling international force, and will be based out of Southern Europe, possibly Italy. Ottawa will also send between 120 and 200 military personnel to support the planes.
The Libyan assignment gives the Harper government a chance to demonstrate why Canada needs top-notch fighter jets. The Tories are under fire for committing an estimated $15-billion or more to purchase new F-35 stealth fighter, expected to arrive starting in 2016 or 2017.
Although they regularly patrol North American skies, Canada's CF-18 Hornets last saw combat during the Kosovo air raid war in the late 1990s when they pounded Serbian targets with "smart bombs" and other high-explosive munitions.
They also flew in the Persian Gulf War when Canada sent 24 CF-18s to Qatar to participate in the U.S.-led Desert Shield and Desert Storm campaigns. Canadian air force pilots few more 5,700 hours there.
Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said he backs efforts to support the UN resolution. "Canada should be a partner in an effort to enforce the Security Council resolution, and hope that our efforts contribute to creating the space for Libya's courageous people to fight oppression and dictatorship in their country," he said.
The CF-18 planes, which Canada purchased between 1982 and 1988, have recently undergone "life extension" renovations and have been outfitted with newer generation sensors, communications equipment and targeting systems.
The jets, based in Bagotville, Que., and Cold Lake, Alta., are armed with guided missiles, 20-mm cannons and laser-guided bombs. They have a maximum range of 3,700 km and can fly as fast as Mach 1.8.
The UN Security Council voted Thursday to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and authorize "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from attacks by Moammar Gadhafi's forces, hours after the Libyan leader vowed to crush the rebellion with a final assault on the opposition capital of Benghazi.
The vote paved the way for possible international air strikes on Col. Gadhafi's advancing military and reflected the past week's swift reversal of the situation in Libya, where once-confident rebels are now in danger of being obliterated by an overpowering pro-Gadhafi force using rockets, artillery, tanks and warplanes. That force has advanced along the Mediterranean coast aiming to recapture the rebel-held eastern half of Libya.
U.S. undersecretary of state William Burns said Thursday his country backs international measures in Libya that are "short of boots on the ground."
The UN resolution establishes "a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians." It also authorizes UN member states to take "all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory."
U.S. officials have said the authorization for "all necessary measures" provides a legal basis for countries to carry out air strikes to protect civilians from Col. Gadhafi's forces.
In Britain, a lawmaker with knowledge of defence matters confirmed that British forces were on standby for air strikes and could be mobilized as soon as Thursday night. The lawmaker declined to be named because the Defence Ministry has not issued official confirmation.
With a report from Associated Press