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paul koring

Flying low, slow and vulnerable, a pair of lumbering Canadian spy planes operate just off the Libyan coast at the edge of shoulder-fired missile range, eavesdropping on pro-Gadhafi forces and feeding critical targeting information.

The Auroras, Cold-War-era submarine hunters newly kitted out with sophisticated sensors, are playing a little-known and relatively risky role as part of Canada's biggest involvement in a military conflict in decades.

The range of Canada's war-fighting assets - fighter-bombers, surveillance aircraft, tankers and a warship - represents the broadest array of commitment to a relatively small conflict in many years.

Compared with previous conflicts, including the 1991 Persian Gulf war and the 1999 Kosovo air war, Canada has a bigger role and a far bigger command presence.

In the Libyan war, Canada has an unmatched multidimensional role. While the needle-nosed CF-18 fighter-bombers garner much of the media attention, there are scores of Canadians on the NATO command-and-control aircraft running the minute-to-minute air war, the Auroras, along with three air-refuelling tankers, and a warship cleared to sail so close to Misrata harbour that sailors on board can watch the splashes of shells from shore that fall short.

"It's a very big effort for a military that still has a major presence in southern Afghanistan," said a senior NATO officer from an allied country, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.

The whole coalition effort, more than 20 warships, nearly 200 warplanes and nearly a dozen countries with varying degrees of commitment, is under the command of a Canadian - air force Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard.

"It's a much bigger role than we played in Kosovo," said Canadian air force Colonel Alain Pelletier, referring to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that attacked Serb tanks and troops terrorizing Albanian Kosovars. Col. Pelletier, now the Canadian air force contingent commander for the Libyan war, led the first Canadian bombing strikes in Kosovo, so he is well-positioned to compare the two air wars 12 years apart.

But the Canadian role in the current war goes far beyond the 330-plus-and-counting laser-guided bombs dropped by the CF-18s on Libyan targets.

The Auroras are flying critical reconnaissance and spying missions, not the mundane maritime sovereignty patrols to check fishing boats usually associated with the aging and ungainly four-engine propeller planes. Equally little known are the exploits of HMCS Charlottetown, the Canadian frigate that has spent weeks in the hostile waters just off the embattled Libyan port of Misrata.

Nevertheless, the Canadian war fighting role - while significant for a modest military - pales compared with the major powers. British and French warplanes are flying more than half of the total Libyan strike missions and both countries have deployed helicopter gunships - critically needed for hunting pro-Gadhafi forces in dense urban battlefields.

Although the United States has deliberately adopted the lowest possible profile, as President Barack Obama seeks to avoid a leading role in a third war against a Muslim country, the United States military still provides the bulk of the behind-the-scenes heavy-lifting including support, resupply, command and control, search and rescue, satellite surveillance, high-flying Global Hawk spy drones and the missile-firing Predator drones.

The massive barrage of cruise missiles that opened the Libyan war with a scaled-down version of a "shock and awe" campaign was mostly an American display of firepower.

Canada's unique role among America's closest allies in sharing continental air defence has given the President and the Pentagon a comfort level with a commanding Canadian air force general that wouldn't exist with any other NATO nation.

Off the Libyan coast, the Auroras, festooned with sideways-looking sensors as part of a sophisticated multimillion-dollar upgrade, feed streams of data surreptitiously gathered.

"It monitors lines of communications, fixes location, finds checkpoints," Col. Pelletier said. That electronic snooping, intercepting signals from cellphones to military radios to emissions from radar sites, is part of a myriad, three-dimensional dynamic digital battlefield picture that targeters and commanders use to direct warplanes for bombing strikes.

"It brings a new capacity to the fight with its ability to look at what is going on inland," Col. Pelletier said.

Meanwhile, off Misrata, HMCS Charlottetown, along with British warship HMS Liverpool, have played vital roles in helping Libyan rebel forces liberate the port city. Most of the nations that have sent more than 20 warships to the NATO force have attached so-called caveats, limiting their use to relatively safe and benign activities such as stopping and checking freighters and tankers in the mid-Mediterranean to make sure no arms are being shipped to either side.

But Charlottetown, unfettered by such limits, has been providing cover for minesweeping operations off Misrata. A Dutch naval officer who described efforts by pro-Gadhafi forces to close the harbour with floating and submerged mines, described the 5,000-tonne Charlottetown as positioned only a few thousand metres offshore. Splashes from mortars and rockets falling short of the ship can clearly be seen and flares and tracers light up the night sky in photographs taken from the warship.

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