The RCAF Air Task Force: The New Kid on the Block (RCAF Journal - FALL 2015 - Volume 4, Issue 4)

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By Lieutenant-Colonel Pux Barnes, CD, MA

How many two-year-olds do you know who can not only walk, talk and play independently but can also travel anywhere across the country or around the world on less than a day’s notice, fully ready to carry out a vital role in everything from humanitarian assistance to full spectrum operations … for months at a time?

While many proud parents are more than happy to tell you how smart and capable their two-year-olds are, I bet their kids (while perhaps cuter) have nothing on the newest kid on the block for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), the Air Task Force (ATF). Lessons learned during past operations (ops) such as APOLLO / ATHENA (Afghanistan, 2003–2011), HESTIA (Haiti, 2010) and MOBILE (Libya, 2011) uncovered trends where the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF’s) deployable capabilities suffered somewhat from a lack of planning capability, a constantly changing command structure and the decided difficulties associated with different communities working as a whole. The ATF concept was designed to fix these problems and bring structure and predictability to the way the RCAF formed its deployable forces, all the while enhancing the contributions it made to operations.

Published in May 2014 as “Air Doctrine Note 14/01, Royal Canadian Air Force Air Task Force Commander Definitions, Roles and Responsibilities,” the ATF idea has indeed helped to shape the development and delivery of air-power capabilities in support of numerous domestic and multinational expeditionary operations. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself here. In order to understand where the ATF has taken us, we need to take a quick look at how it all began.

MCpl Marc-André Gaudreault, Canadian Forces Combat Camera, IS2013-2006-023

A Royal Canadian Air Force CC150 Polaris aircraft with members of the Canadian Armed Forces Disaster Assistance Response Team on board arrives at the Iloilo City Airport during Operation RENAISSANCE 13-1 on November 16, 2013.

A warfare centre, C2 doctrine and a general—Where the ATF began

In 2012, the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre (CFAWC) completed a 27‑month process of carefully researching, writing, collaborating and refining the RCAF’s first command and control (C2) doctrine since the end of the Cold War, the B-GA-401-000-FP/001. The “401,” as it is commonly known, began paying off immediately as it not only provided a framework for not only the C2 of air power but also served as a commander’s guide to what the RCAF had to do to ensure it delivered air power effectively.

While useful doctrine in this respect, what the 401 could not do was tell commanders how to deliver air power. That would require another kind of guide, one that would provide some finer details on how the RCAF should organize its forces for employment; one that would require RCAF-wide agreement on how to work together as one cohesive force.

The concept of the ATF began in late 2012 in response to a challenge presented to CFAWC by Major-General (MGen) Pierre St-Amand, then Commander (Comd) of 1 Canadian Air Division (1 Cdn Air Div). When asked by the author what the Warfare Centre could do for the operational air force now that the 401 was on the street and being employed, MGen St-Amand took no time in responding. By drawing a rectangle in the air with his fingers, he suggested we could help best by defining a box that could become the key to force generating and force employing RCAF air power in a way that broke the prevailing negative cycle of ad hoc planning and execution. “Define the box, research the best way to make it work and the best way to command and control it … most of all, provide me with options to fit any kind of operation.”[1] No big deal, right?

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Eighteen months later, after much development and testing through war gaming and buy‑in from stakeholders across the RCAF, the ATF concept was approved by the Comd of the RCAF, Lieutenant-General Yvan Blondin on 26 May 2014. The truth of the matter is that, for at least a year, the RCAF had been employing the ATF concept while it was being developed, using drafts of what became the final plan.

An ATF is “a temporary grouping of RCAF operational/tactical formations, squadrons, units or detachments formed for the purpose of carrying out a specific operation, mission or task.”[2] In short, an ATF can range from small and simple (a few aircraft and personnel) to large and complex. Larger ATFs can consist of flying and non-flying detachments, an ATF headquarters (HQ), and even an air expeditionary wing that provides the services of an operations-support element, mission-support element (MSE) and force-protection element. The key to understanding an ATF is that it is scalable to fit the task and often looks different from other ATFs.

Unlike the Canadian Army or Royal Canadian Navy, the RCAF rarely places an entire squadron or unit on high readiness and then deploys them for an extended period of time. Normally, only a portion of each RCAF squadron or unit is placed into high readiness throughout the year and deployed on short-notice in the form of tactical air detachments, both flying and non-flying. When several air detachments are deployed to form an ATF, the RCAF must also provide the ATF’s integral C2 personnel and structure. Providing a high-readiness C2 element to command and control ATFs of various sizes and compositions requires a robust and well-planned RCAF C2 solution—something that is at the heart of the ATF concept.

ATF Mali, 2013

The first operation where the new ATF structure was trialed occurred when CAF supported the Government of France’s Op SERVAL, their military intervention in the West African country of Mali, from 15 January to 31 March 2013. The mandate of ATF Mali was limited to airlift and specifically excluded combat. The airlifts included assets such as personnel, vehicles and resupply equipment such as food, water and medical equipment.

Canada’s contribution to French operations in Mali consisted of one CC177 Globemaster III heavy-lift transport aircraft and about 40 RCAF personnel, including flight and maintenance crews from 429 Transport Squadron and traffic technicians from 2 Air Movements Squadron, both units of 8 Wing Trenton in southern Ontario.

The CC177 departed Trenton for Europe on 15 January 2013 and conducted the first operational sortie of this deployment on 17 January, transporting a French light armoured vehicle, medical supplies and ammunition from Evreux, France, to Bamako, the capital of Mali. In all, ATF Mali conducted 48 flights and transported approximately 3,561,000 pounds [1,615,240 kilograms] of cargo.

ATF Mali also represents the first time that an RCAF officer performed the role of ATF comd. Major Bill Church of 429 Transport Squadron exercised the expanded roles and responsibilities of the ATF comd, reporting back to the RCAF Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) in Winnipeg.

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Sergeant Matthew McGregor, Canadian Forces Combat Camera © 2013 DND-MDN Canada IS2013-1008-12

French military troops board a Canadian Forces CC177 Globemaster III aircraft at Base aérienne 125 Istres-Le Tubé in Istres.

Op LENTUS 13-1, 2013

Op LENTUS 13-1 was CAF’s joint response to a request for assistance by the Province of Alberta to provide support for humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations due to major flooding in southern Alberta. Op LENTUS provided flood mitigation support and prevention to provincial authorities. When tasked to Op LENTUS, personnel, vehicles, equipment, crews and aircraft came under operational command of the Comd, Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC) and operational control of the Joint Task Force (West) [JTFW] Comd in Edmonton, Alberta.

RCAF search and rescue CH149 Cormorant helicopters from Comox, British Columbia, and Cold Lake, Alberta, were the first to be called in to assist the Royal Canadian Mounted Police ground evacuation operations, search for missing people and extract home owners and families from their rooftops. At the height of Op LENTUS, approximately 2,300 soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen were deployed in Calgary, Canmore, Cochrane, Red Deer, High River, Airdrie and Medicine Hat. The ATF was comprised of approximately 100 personnel, six CH146 Griffon helicopters, two CH149 Cormorant helicopters, one CC130 Hercules airlift aircraft and one CP140 Aurora surveillance aircraft.

One of the first operations to use the draft doctrinal concept, ATF LENTUS utilized the existing Air Component Coordination Element (ACCE) Director as the ATF Comd. This was a choice made by the JFACC to capitalize on the ACCE Director’s understanding of the region, advanced situational awareness and trust already developed with the Comd JTFW. By employing the local air-power expert in the region as ATF Comd, the JFACC was able to greatly speed up ATF employment and response time from days to mere hours.

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MCpl Patrick Blanchard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera IS2013-3025-07

Members of Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) help the search and rescue team evacuate people who were stranded in William Watson Lodge in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park during Operation LENTUS in Calgary, Alberta, on June 22, 2013.

Op IMPACT, 2014–2015

Operation IMPACT is the CAF contribution to the Middle East Stabilization Force—the multinational coalition to halt and degrade the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Republic of Iraq and in Syria.

Approximately 600 CAF personnel deployed as part of Joint Task Force-Iraq, which included planning and liaison personnel to work with the United States (US) and other coalition partners, aircrew support elements, command and control, logistics and the ATF. Exercising CAF joint C2 doctrine, the deployed ATF comd, subordinate to the joint task force (JTF) comd, is responsible for liaising with the Coalition Air Component Headquarters, while at the same time delivering tactical air effects by flying missions. Within the theatre, a positive relationship evolved between the JTF HQ and ATF HQ in order to ensure the smooth flow of information and sustainment.

Air Task Force-Iraq (ATF-I) is contributing to coalition air operations against ISIS. This mission extension and expansion has allowed the RCAF to strike ISIS targets in both Iraq and Syria. The use of air power has contributed to the destruction of ISIS infrastructure and equipment, denying them the military means to attack Iraqi security forces or coalition assets. At its largest, ATF-I includes six CF188 Hornet fighter aircraft, one CC150T Polaris aerial refueller to support coalition air operations, and two CP140M Aurora surveillance aircraft to contribute to coalition intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

Originally an airlift mission, ATF-I aircraft conducted 25 CC130 and CC177 flights between 28 August and 26 September 2014, delivering more than 1,600,000 pounds [725,748 kilograms] of military supplies to Iraq. The donations from allied countries included small arms, ammunition and other military equipment. The supplies were delivered in concert with military partners, including the United Kingdom and the US, to security forces working in Baghdad and Erbil.

As of July 2015, ATF-I has flown almost 800 Hornet sorties, more than 200 Polaris sorties (delivering over 12-million pounds [5,443,108 kilograms] of fuel to coalition aircraft) and about 250 Aurora intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Op IMPACT is the first large-scale deployment of an ATF under the new RCAF ATF concept and, as such, is led by an ATF comd at the rank of colonel.

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Op IMPACT, DND GD2015-0053-006

Air Weapons Systems technicians use an MJ-1A bomb loader to lift a precision guided munition onto the bomb rack of a CF188 Hornet in preparation for the next mission during Op IMPACT on January 13, 2015, near Camp Patrice Vincent, Kuwait.

Op REASSURANCE, 2014–2015

CAF has been a major contributor to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operations and exercises since its founding 65 years ago and is committed to transatlantic unity, security and stability. In recent years, Canada has been an active participant in NATO-led missions in Afghanistan, the Balkans (Op KOBOLD) and Libya (Op MOBILE).

ATF Romania conducted interoperability training with NATO allies in Câmpia Turzii, Romania, from May to August 2014. Personnel trained with allies in the areas of air defence, air superiority, aerospace testing and evaluation as well as tactical support. The ATF included six CF188 Hornets and about 200 personnel.

NATO Baltic Air Policing mission, Lithuania. The ATF participated in the NATO Baltic Air Policing (BAP) mission from September to December 2014 and was based in Siauliai, Lithuania. ATF Lithuania included approximately 135 personnel, four CF188 Hornets along with an MSE.

The BAP mission was handed over by Portugal and Canada to Italy and Poland respectively. Although Canada formally handed over its BAP mission responsibilities to Poland, the ATF continued to actively support BAP operations until 5 January 2015 to ensure continuity of operations and to support NATO allies and security partners during the transition period.

While participating in the BAP, the ATF worked with NATO allies and responded to any intrusions into Baltic airspace. NATO’s Air Policing mission is purely defensive. It is not in response to any specific threat; rather, it is a routine and fundamental component of how NATO provides security to its members.

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Air Task Force - OP REASSURANCE, DND WG2014-0438-0190

A member of the Canadian ATF describes the characteristics of the CF188 Hornet to Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian military officers from the General Jonas Zemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania at Šiauliai Air Base, Lithuania, on December 3, 2014, during Op REASSURANCE in support of NATO BAP Block 36.

Op RENAISSANCE 15-1, 2015

As part of a Government of Canada (GC) response, CAF—led by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development—provided humanitarian support to Nepal following the devastating earthquakes that hit the country on 25 April 2015 and 12 May 2015. The original magnitude 7.8 earthquake caused significant damage to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, with aftershocks triggering avalanches in the Himalayan mountains. The earthquake caused significant loss of life, a large number of injuries as well as destruction of property, leaving thousands of people requiring humanitarian support. CAF members began deploying to the region on 26 April 2015, and the mission officially ended on 29 May 2015, with responsibilities for long-term recovery handed over to non-governmental organizations and local authorities.

Initially comprised of two CC177s and their air crews, ATF RENAISSANCE arrived in Kathmandu on 29 and 30 April, carrying over 100 CAF personnel, including members of the Humanitarian Assistance Response Team, engineers, medical personnel, and Light Urban Search and Rescue. Eventually, more CC177 aircraft transported relief supplies, including water, rations and camp equipment (tents and associated items) for victims living outdoors.

Generally speaking, Op RENAISSANCE[3] relies on immediate action by the RCAF, as long distances normally need to be covered by responding humanitarian assistance forces. While relatively small in scope, any Op RENAISSANCE requires quick and effective coordination from all players so that the right people with the right equipment get on the right plane … often planned with only hours of “notice to move.” Complex operations such as this require a well-developed standing contingency plan (CONPLAN), where all players have worked out their roles well in advance, long before the mission arises. CONPLAN RENAISSANCE is the first to include a fully conceived plan to employ an ATF to support the operation.

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Cpl Kevin McMillan, Canadian Forces Combat Camera IS09-2015-0028-014

Disaster Area Response Team (DART) members offload essential medical equipment and supplies as well as initial elements of DART, including relief supplies as well as medical and Light Urban Search and Rescue personnel from a CC177 Globemaster III at Katmandu Airport in Nepal as part of the Government of Canada’s earthquake relief efforts on April 29, 2015.

ATF—Two-years-old and what have we learned?

Generating a scalable and agile force capable of deploying anywhere in the world remains a key goal of the RCAF. The “operational currency” of the RCAF, defined by what it brings to the fight, is the ATF. No matter the size of the ATF or the complexity of the operation it is a part of, a few common observations can be made as to its effectiveness.

Avoiding ad hoc planning and force generation. By offering an alternative to the previously-existing cycle of ad hoc planning for operations and force generation, the ATF has provided an increasingly predictable and manageable way for the Comd 1 Cdn Air Div to present air power and make it ready to deploy. The effect has been felt throughout CAF, as joint commanders and planners now better understand how the RCAF will contribute to an operation, with a living, breathing ATF, not just an airplane and its crew.

Defining deployable RCAF air power. Although it can be defined loosely as “whatever force is needed to get the job done,” the ATF has gone a long way in defining what a deployable RCAF force looks like through its structure, organization and operational language. Most importantly, it focuses the RCAF on a deployable capability which is greater than the sum of its parts. An ATF is no longer a collection of different fleets of aircraft and personnel with specialist skills; rather, it is an organized and cohesive force. No longer do RCAF personnel see themselves as just being part of a Hercules detachment that performed tactical airlift in Africa; they see themselves as part of an ATF that supported an operation—more than just a subtle difference.

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The RCAF JFACC and the Combined Aerospace Operations Centre (CAOC). Having several ATFs spread out across Canada and the rest of the world at one time can challenge commanders and their C2 systems. To effectively exercise a span of control over several ATFs simultaneously, it has become necessary for Comd CJOC to place the majority of ATFs under the command of the RCAF JFACC, the chief advisor on air matters. Leveraging the horsepower of the CAOC, the JFACC is best suited to command multiple ATFs and meet the requirements of the operation. The relationship between the JFACC and the Comd CJOC has strengthened considerably since the establishment of the ATF; there exists a more complete understanding of what an ATF can offer and how it can deliver air effects to meet the goals of the Comd CJOC.

Commanding the ATF. Another important result of the establishment of the ATF has been the evolution of the ATF comd, the RCAF officer responsible for making the ATF work. ATF comds have increasingly found themselves having to function at both the operational and tactical level of operations, resulting in a greater need for effective training and preparation before deployment. Developing well-qualified and experienced ATF comds, who are able to work at the operational level, will remain a long-term project for the RCAF that is worthy of continued investment.

In the end, the ATF now represents an RCAF C2 solution that can be flexibly applied to any national or allied/coalition C2 construct. In turn, the ATF comd represents a key component of the ATF, effectively integrating air effects into operations.


From its beginnings as an idea that would address lessons learned in past air-power operations about how the RCAF could better prepare for employment, the ATF has had a quick rise to become the accepted way of doing things. In the few short years since its development, the ATF concept has matured rapidly to become the accepted way of organizing forces to react rapidly to the demands of the GC to employ air power in almost every military activity that CAF performs.

While no one will argue about the utility that air power brings to the fight, half the battle will always be training, organizing and leading forces so that they are already prepared to integrate into a joint operation long before the deployment happens. The ATF concept has met with continued success since its inception and will doubtless offer a way forward for some time to come. Happy second birthday, ATF, … nice work so far!

Lieutenant-Colonel Pux Barnes is the Air Warfare Education Branch Head at CFAWC in Trenton. He led the team that developed the ATF concept, is the author of the B-GA-401-000/FP-001, Air Command and Control Doctrine (to be promulgated) and has written numerous articles and papers on air-power C2 joint operations.

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1 Cdn Air Div―1 Canadian Air Division
ACCE―air component coordination element
ATF―air task force
ATF-I―Air Task Force-Iraq
BAP―Baltic Air Policing
C2―command and control
CAF―Canadian Armed Forces
CFAWC―Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre
CJOC―Canadian Joint Operations Command
CONPLAN―contingency plan
DART―Disaster Assistance Response Team
GC―Government of Canada
ISIS―Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
JFACC―joint force air component commander
JTF―joint task force
JTFW―Joint Task Force (West)
MSE―mission-support element
NATO―North Atlantic Treaty Organization
RCAF―Royal Canadian Air Force
US―United States

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[1]. MGen St-Amand, during town hall meeting with members of CFAWC, February 21, 2013.  (return)

[2]. Canadian Forces Air Doctrine Note 14/01, Royal Canadian Air Force Air Task Force Commander Definitions, Roles and Responsibilities, accessed September 29, 2015, (return)

[3]. Operation RENAISSANCE 15-1 was CAF’s contribution to humanitarian relief efforts in Nepal in April–May 2015. Op RENAISSANCE 13-1 was CAF’s contribution to humanitarian relief efforts in the Philippines following a typhoon in November 2013. Contingency Plan (CONPLAN) RENAISSANCE is CAF’s plan for rapid deployment to the scene of a disaster overseas, as directed by the GC. (return)


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