“Our Teams Had to Adapt When Facing Adversity” – BGen St-Louis Hands Command of Joint Task Force IMPACT to BGen Wright

June 4, 2020 – Defence Stories

When he assumed command of Joint Task Force IMPACT in May 2019, Brigadier-General (BGen) Michel-Henri St-Louis and his team were focused on working with partners in the Middle East to strengthen military capabilities.

As BGen St-Louis hands over command to BGen Mike Wright a year later, it is clear that a series of events across the joint operational area (JOA)—including protests, rocket attacks and a pandemic—tested the resiliency of deployed personnel.

A Different Kind of Impact

Caption

Brigadier-General Michel-Henri St-Louis (centre), Commander Joint Task Force IMPACT, briefs (from left to right) Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Global Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Families, Children and Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen about the situation in the Middle East at Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, on February 10, 2020. The Prime Minister, Ministers and Chief of the Defence Staff visited Canadian Armed Forces members deployed on Operation IMPACT, Canada’s training mission in the Middle East.

Image: Cpl Nicolas Alonso

Operation IMPACT was initiated in 2014 as part of the Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) contribution to the fight against Daesh, also known as ISIS. In 2018, the mission shifted toward training and capacity building in Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan—all of which are partner nations that border Syria and that have been threatened by Daesh. The mission is headquartered in Kuwait.

The CAF and its allies determined they could better contribute to long-term stability in the Middle East by working with partners to strengthen their ability to defend themselves.

“Canadian efforts in Lebanon and Jordan are implemented through bilateral agreements,” says BGen St-Louis. “In Iraq, they are coordinated through two coalitions: the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh, led by the United States, and NATO Mission Iraq.”

Training and mentorship delivered through Op IMPACT includes areas such as weapons handling, explosive-ordnance disposal, combat first aid, civil-military cooperation and logistics management. To date, the CAF has trained more than 4,500 Iraqis, 1,490 Lebanese and 900 Jordanians.

Other capacity-building measures include key investments. For example, Canada funded the refurbishment of a 63-km stretch of road along Jordan’s border with Syria. This investment means that the Jordanian Armed Forces will have better mobility and shortened response times when reacting to incursions, smuggling or other security threats.

Changing Regional Dynamics: May to November 2019

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Master-Bombardier Amanda Davies (left) runs a live rifle range with a Jordanian infantry soldier of the Female Engagement Team in Amman, Jordan on December 10, 2019.

Image: Cpl Jerome Lessard

When BGen St-Louis first assumed command of Joint Task Force IMPACT, the JOA was relatively stable. The main effort was optimizing structures and processes in order to deliver effects across the area of operations. Canadian military personnel were working with partners to build their capacity and host-nation governments were functioning. But regional dynamics soon started to shift.

The proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran had been ongoing for some time, most notably in Yemen. In September 2019, a drone attack on Saudi oil facilities raised the possibility of broader conflict and significantly increased regional tensions. In October, Turkey launched an operation to establish a 25-km buffer zone along its border with Syria, again raising the possibility of a more significant regional war. 

Also in October, civil unrest driven by political and economic frustration spilled onto the streets in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. While demonstrations in Lebanon were initially relatively peaceful, violent clashes between authorities or armed groups and protesters occurred frequently in Iran and Iraq—mostly in the forms of heavy crackdowns—resulting in many casualties.

“Our personnel weren’t directly impacted by the riots, but we were still concerned for their safety and we monitored the situation closely,” says BGen St-Louis.

US-Iran Tensions: December 2019 to March 2020

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Master Corporal Nicolas Baron, a traffic technician deployed on Operation IMPACT, guides passengers from a Royal Canadian Air Force CC-130 Hercules after it landed at Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, on March 27, 2020. 

Image: Cpl Nicolas Alonso

In the summer and fall of 2019, the Iranian-backed Shia militia groups (SMGs) that had fought alongside the Iraqi Security Forces against Daesh became hostile to the presence of Coalition forces. While the SMGs and the Coalition had tolerated each other as partners of convenience against Daesh, the long-term presence of the Coalition in Iraq ran counter to Iranian interests.

Iranian-aligned SMGs had been launching small-scale rocket attacks on Coalition bases in Iraq. On December 27, the attack on a military base near Kirkuk killed a US contractor. A few days later, the US conducted a drone strike outside Baghdad International Airport in response. The strike killed Major-General Qasem Soleimani, a leader within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi who led the Iranian-aligned Kata’ib Hezbollah militia.

Political opposition to the US’ action in the aftermath of the drone strike raised significant questions about the viability of Coalition troops’ presence in Iraq. Capacity-building efforts were paused by both the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh and NATO Mission Iraq.

Caption

Sergeant Taylor Dobson of the Winter Military Training Team give explanation on Hill Traversing techniques to the soldiers of the Land Border Regiment Mountain Company, Lebanese armed Forces as part of OP IMPACT in the Bcharre region, Lebanon on 14 January 2020.

Image: Cpl Nicolas Alonso

“As all of this was going on in January 2020, our focus was the safety of our personnel,” says BGen St-Louis. “Our command-and-control node was able to share information, implement force-protection measures and keep higher headquarters informed. Our teams also developed contingency plans to reposition personnel quickly, in case we needed to.”

On March 11 and 14, 2020, an SMG launched two significantly larger-scale rocket attacks on Camp Taji, northwest of Baghdad. While none of the approximately 100 Canadians on the base were injured, the attacks did kill three Coalition personnel and wounded several others.

The attacks were more elaborate and more lethal than before, signalling a change in SMG strategy. Discussions began within both the Coalition and NATO Mission Iraq about withdrawing non-essential personnel from Iraq in order to reduce their exposure to danger while training efforts were on hold.

COVID-19 Pandemic: March to May 2020

“We started to hear about COVID at the end of December and in early January,” recalls BGen St-Louis. “The figures weren’t alarming at that time, but we knew we had to keep an eye on it.”

Sure enough, by the end of February, Joint Task Force IMPACT came to the realization that the Middle East, like so many other places, would be overcome by the emerging pandemic. The Task Force implemented comprehensive protective measures including isolation protocols and, as was already the case in Iraq, it paused capacity-building efforts in both Jordan and Lebanon.

“We needed to preserve our combat power and reposition our force away from both the physical enemy, the SMGs, and the viral enemy, COVID-19,” says the general. “The contingency plans we had developed in January ended up being executed in March and April.”

Between March 22 and April 15, Joint Task Force IMPACT repositioned more than 250 personnel, along with approximately 519,000 pounds of cargo—worth more than $8 million—packed onto 107 aircraft pallets. This was done using the Royal Canadian Air Force CC-130J Hercules aircraft in theatre, as well CC-177 Globemasters deployed from Canada. The repositioning effort took place across both land and air domains, and across three different countries: Iraq, Kuwait and Canada.

“In the span of 25 days, we safely moved all personnel and essential and non-essential equipment out of Iraq,” notes BGen St-Louis. “The fact that we did all this without injury, loss or COVID contamination speaks to the skill of everyone involved in the repositioning effort—from our planners and medical personnel, to our logisticians and aircrews.”

Resilience in Practice

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Donica Pottie (centre), Ambassador of Canada to Jordan, and Brigadier-General Michel-Henri St-Louis (right), Commander Joint Task Force IMPACT, walk along the newly refurbished stretch of the Border Road along the Jordanian-Syrian border, on February 27, 2020. The construction project to refurbish 63 kilometers of the road was funded by the Government of Canada, as part of Canada’s Middle East Strategy, to help improve the Jordanian Armed Forces’ mobility along the border. The improved road will shorten response times when border guards react to incursions, smuggling or other security threats.

Image: Cpl Nicolas Alonso 

Looking back on his year in theatre, BGen St-Louis indicates that the series of events entailed rapid change. A key take-away, therefore, is what is needed to be resilient.

“We came prepared to support training, but things came up that impacted our ability to deliver effects,” he says. “Our teams had to adapt when facing adversity.”

The concept of resiliency speaks to an individual’s or team’s ability to recover quickly from difficulties. So what does it take to be resilient?

For the outgoing commander, it starts with a mindset that accepts change as a constant and that does not fight it.

“In addition to the mindset, it takes enough skill to be able to adapt to change, with enough training, knowledge and experience,” he continues. “Resilience also requires certain tools to continue to deliver effects in a changing landscape, like the airframes, radios and armoured vehicles we had.”

Working with Partners and Allies

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Joint Task Force IMPACT’s Explosives Ordnance Disposal Training Team delivers training to members of the Iraqi Security Forces in Besmaya, Iraq, on September 24, 2019. Areas of training include types of mines, basic techniques of reconnaissance for demining, and the transport and storage of different types of explosives.

Image: Cpl Ryan Moulton

In the last year, the Forces in Iraq faced SMGs that were not tied to doctrine or dogma. CAF personnel in the Middle East also faced an unexpected enemy, in the form of a virus. Despite the challenges, Canadians continue to work with partners who want to see a better future for themselves.

“The Iraqi Security Forces want to ensure their own security. The Jordanian Armed Forces want to protect their borders and the Lebanese Armed Forces remain a highly trusted institution in their country,” notes the outgoing commander. “Everyone I talk to recognizes the role Canada played in the region.”

And the CAF’s work in the Middle East is not done in isolation.

“We are here in partnership with some of Canada’s oldest allies from Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand,” adds BGen St-Louis. “We are all here pursing the same objectives so, even in these times of unrest, all these nations are facing the challenges together.”

What Comes Next

In June, BGen St-Louis will return to Canada where, after some well-deserved leave, he will assume command of the Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Centre. The idea of resilience will remain at the forefront of his thinking as he joins the team responsible for the Canadian Army’s training system.

This is BGen St-Louis’ sixth deployment. He also served three tours in the former Yugoslavia and two tours in Afghanistan.

With the pandemic still affecting most countries, there remains some uncertainty about the timeline for resuming capacity-building operations that will help foster stability in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the CAF footprint remains agile and Joint Task Force IMPACT will continue to protect Canada’s national interests in the region.

On May 29, 2020, BGen Mike Wright took over as Commander Joint Task Force IMPACT.

Written by Captain Mark Ruban, Public Affairs Officer

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