In 1991, Canada joined an international military coalition to confront Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. Canada contributed warships and fighter aircraft to the successful campaign to liberate Kuwait. It was the first time Canada sent women to war in combat roles, and it was the first time in decades that Canadian air and naval forces supported each other in a war zone.
Invasion of Kuwait
The Persian Gulf War erupted with the invasion of the tiny nation of Kuwait by the military forces of Iraq over the night of 1–2 August 1990. United States President George H.W. Bush, backed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, quickly began to assemble a multinational coalition of 35 nations to demand an Iraqi withdrawal and prevent a further military thrust into Saudi Arabia. Backed by United Nations Security Council Resolutions, Operation Desert Shield soon was launched to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
The UN resolutions authorized an embargo of Iraq, as well as a naval blockade in the Persian Gulf to enforce the embargo, and “all necessary means” to ensure Iraqi compliance if its forces were not withdrawn from Kuwait by 15 January 1991.
When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein failed to respond to this mounting pressure, the US-led coalition launched Operation Desert Storm, beginning with a massive aerial bombing of Iraq on 17 January 1991, followed by a campaign with troops, tanks and other ground forces beginning on 24 February.
Canada's Role: Operation Friction
At the time, Canada held a seat on the Security Council, the UN's most powerful decision-making body. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was an early supporter of a UN-mandated coalition to oppose Iraq's aggression. Most expected Canada to take a leadership role in a peacekeeping mission to the region, after Iraqi forces had been removed from Kuwait. Instead, Mulroney ordered a naval task group to join the embargo forces in the Persian Gulf. The destroyers HMCS Athabaskan and HMCS Terra Nova, and the supply ship HMCS Protecteur, with five CH-124 Sea King helicopters on board, sailed from Halifax on 24 August and began operations in the Gulf on 1 October.
The Canadian warships carried out more than a quarter of the total coalition inspections of cargo ships and other vessels suspected of trying to run the blockade. To assist them, an air task group of an eventual 24 CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft was deployed, mostly from 439 Squadron in Canadian Forces Base Baden-Soellingen, Germany. The air task group — which became known as the “Desert Cats” after the device on the 439 Squadron badge — began flying combat air patrols on 14 October.
For the first time since the unification of the Canadian Forces in 1968, naval and air units were directly supporting each other in a war zone. Therefore, a deployed joint Canadian headquarters was opened in Manamah, Bahrain on 6 November, to provide oversight and co-ordination, under the command of Commodore Kenneth J. Summers. The Canadian Forces code name for these collective efforts was Operation Friction.
With the launching of Operation Desert Storm in mid-January, the Canadian roles changed. The naval task group commander, Captain Duncan “Dusty” Miller, was placed in command of protecting and scheduling the coalition's navy replenishment (refuelling) force in the southern Gulf and Arabian Sea. And with air superiority by then assured, the Desert Cats switched to offensive operations — first with sweep and escort missions into Iraq and later actual bombing missions. The Desert Cats' one confirmed “kill” was an attack by Major Dave Kendall and Captain Steve Hill on an Iraqi fast patrol boat on 30 January.
No Canadian ground forces participated in the invasion of Iraq, largely because the army was preoccupied with the Oka Crisis. However, 1 Canadian Field Hospital from Canadian Forces Base Petawawa began arriving at al-Qusaymah in northern Saudi Arabia on 24 January, to be attached to a British army unit.
One hundred hours after the Operation Desert Storm ground invasion began, President Bush declared on 28 February that Kuwait had been liberated, and ordered an immediate ceasefire, formalized by an armistice negotiated on 3 March.
Some 4,500 Canadian service personnel participated in Operation Friction, with a peak of some 2,700 in the region at one time. Along with the first deployment of a joint headquarters, this also was the first time that women in the Canadian Forces were sent to a war zone in combat roles.
After the ceasefire, Canadian forces helped re-establish the Canadian diplomatic mission in Kuwait City. They also helped dispose of land mines and other unexploded bombs from the Kuwait oilfields, which had been heavily mined by Iraq forces. And they helped fly humanitarian aid and security to Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq.
From May 1991 to August 2001, Canadian Forces also participated in the United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission (UNIKOM), while the Navy contributed a warship on an irregular basis to the continuing UN embargo against Iraq.