The leader of Iraq, President Saddam Hussein, ordered the Iraqi army to invade the neighbouring state of Kuwait on 2 August 1990. On the same day, the United Nations (UN) passed Resolution 660, a document calling for the immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces. If Iraq did not comply, the UN would use military force. Saddam Hussein immediately responded by annexing Kuwait.
The Canadian prime minister, Brian Mulroney, committed units of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to the UN mission, an operation code-named "Desert Shield." Two CAF destroyers, HMCS Athabaskan and Terra Nova, and a supply ship, Protecteur, were sent to the Persian Gulf. However, the Canadian destroyers were not equipped for modern warfare. The Iraqi army possessed the latest missiles, yet the Canadian destroyers had no anti-missile defence systems. The aging destroyers (the Athabaskan was constructed in 1952) needed a hasty refit before leaving Canada. In Halifax, missile defence systems were quickly added, and a naval gun installed on the Athabaskan was actually reclaimed from a museum display. The small Canadian force, under the command of Commodore Kenneth Simmons, set sail on 24 August 1990.
The UN Security Council applied economic sanctions to Iraq on 25 August 1990. In the ensuing weeks, the Iraqi government provided no indication that its forces would leave Kuwait. Prime Minister Mulroney expanded the Canadian contribution to the UN force with 26 CF-18 Hornets for intercept and ground attack missions on 14 September 1990. The CAF transferred the fighters from the Canadian base in Baden-Söllingen, Germany.
On 1 October 1990, the Canadian destroyers began blockade operations in the Persian Gulf. At the same time, two fighter bases were established in the small Persian Gulf state of Qatar, "Canada Dry 1" and "Canada Dry 2." A company from the Royal Canadian Regiment provided security for the bases. The fighter squadron was nicknamed "The Desert Cats..
The UN Security Council set a deadline of 15 January 1991 for the Iraqi withdrawal. A large UN force assembled in Saudi Arabia. The bulk of the force was American, but it also included units from Britain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and the Arab states of Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
On 15 January 1991, Iraqi forces still occupied Kuwait. The following day, the UN forces began a massive aerial assault on Iraqi forces and military targets. Operation Desert Storm had begun. The Canadian Desert Cats squadron flew over 2,700 sorties (missions) without suffering any losses. On 22 January 1991, the 1st Canadian Field Hospital with 130 medical staff and 400 support troops began to assist troops in the Persian Gulf.
After a month of continuous air operations, the UN ground offensive began on 24 February 1991. The Iraqi government requested a ceasefire just three days later.
The UN intervention to halt the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was only the second time the Security Council had operated to halt a clear-cut case of aggression. It did so under Section 7 of the UN Charter: "Action with respect to threats to the Peace, breaches of the Peace, and acts of aggression." In the first instance, Korea, the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN and was not able to exercise its veto to block UN intervention. In the case of Kuwait, Russia acted as a somewhat reluctant party to this action to stop its erstwhile ally, Iraq. While Canada gave full moral support to the UN intervention, indeed made strong efforts to ensure the intervention was executed under UN auspices, Canada's military support of the action was less than enthusiastic. Canada did deploy a naval task force of three frigates/destroyer escorts and a squadron of 24 CF-18s.
The cabinet also gave serious consideration to sending a significant army contingent. Minister of External Affairs Joe Clark gave speeches across the country that seemed to be preparing the Canadian people for the "sacrifices" of a major military intervention. That Canada did not do so was almost certainly due to a lack of military preparedness. The bottom line is that Canada committed to combat, that is to say, consciously put in harm's way, only 36 pilots, and it is this portion of the 2,200-man contribution by which the world community judged Canada's efforts. Nevertheless, all of Canada's participants -- sailors, soldiers, and airmen -- gained respect wherever they worked.