It was expected that Canadian soldiers in Iraq would get in gunfights and would have to direct air strikes, says a former special forces commander, noting that the troops are operating in a volatile environment where allies can't be trusted yet to co-ordinate air support.
A key element of the mission is close air support, directing cruise missiles or bombs from a jet plane or a helicopter, to help troops on the ground, said Stephen Day, former commanding officer of the Canadian Special Operations Forces.
"The last thing you want to do is to be dropping any type of ordnance on your own friendly forces or on civilians."
Such tactical support requires forward air controllers (FACs), specialists who get close to the enemy, spot targets on the ground and relay their locations to pilots, whether through co-ordinates or by pointing a laser beam that will direct bombs.
The FACs have to be well-trained, trustworthy operators who can handle high-tech communications devices and laser target designators. They wouldn't just direct a single air strike but would have to be "racking and stacking" multiple sets of airplanes to provide a sustained support, Mr. Day noted.
Mr. Day said such crucial function can't be handed over to the Iraqi military or the peshmerga Kurdish fighters that Canada is training to fight the Islamic State insurgency.
"You would need to share all those classified tactics, techniques and procedures, you would need to share your radio channels … whether it's the peshmergas or the Iraqis, we are there to help them but we don't need to share all our information," Mr. Day said.
Department of National Defence officials have confirmed that Canadian CF-18 fighter jets flying missions in Iraq have dropped laser-guided GBU-12 bombs.
Public documents show that Canadian FACs are trained with the GLTD II, a portable laser target designator manufactured by Northrop Grumman. The battery-operated device is about the size of a slide projector and can mark a target several kilometres away.
The air strikes could be called to protect Canadian special forces operators who are threatened by an enemy on the ground. A smaller model has been used by U.S. special forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Canadian Forces have the right to self-defence, Mr. Day noted, saying he wasn't surprised soldiers deployed in Iraq would exchange shots while operating in a conflict zone with no set front line.
"We've put people in harm's way, on the ground in a very fluid, dynamic environment and of course we would expect them to be able to defend themselves."
Similar situations took place with little scrutiny while Canadian troops were deployed in the Balkans and in Somalia, Mr. Day said.