Canada to go for drones? Maybe armed ones?

Two Canadian academics have suggested drones as a partial alternative to Canada’s purchase of F-35 jets. Their article in the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal was summarised in a press release from Steven Staples of the Rideau Institute.

Calling Canada’s participation in the floundering F-35 programme an ‘expensive mistake’, Michael Byers and Stuart Webb called on Canada to drop out of the F-35 programme. Instead Canada should keep its F-18 fighters going a few years longer and then acquire a ‘mixed’ range of aircraft that would include drones.

There has been a lot of opposition to the grandiose F-35 project for many reasons, including the impracticability of the F-35 for monitoring and protecting Canada’s arctic. Among the partial alternatives that have been proposed in the past were fleets of drones stationed at various airports across the arctic.

The Canadian military has been remarkably restrained in its use of drones. Unlike other countries that have moved quickly to acquire drones and build domestic drone manufacturing programmes, Canada has moved slowly. Although Canada used drones during its participation in NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan, there isn’t any evidence that it engaged in targetted assassinations that have become a hallmark of the American and British efforts. Nor is it known to have violated Pakistani airspace.

Canada’s recent experience in Afghanistan involved leasing of Israeli drones through their Canadian representative MacDonald Dettwiler. It has since returned them to the vendor Macdonald Dettwiler, IAI’s Canadian associate.This seemed to be a much cheaper alternative than purchasing drones, although I haven’t spotted any public evaluation of the programme.

Recently MacDonald Dettwiler has been advertising that it provides privately operated drone surveillance services from its base in Kandahar Afghanistan. It offers drone surveillance paid for by the hour. Online photos show a Heron drone; it isn’t clear whether Heron TPs or other surveillance aircraft are available. MDA is using testimonial videos from Canadian and Australian military on its web site.

Canadian forces in Afghanistan also used a variety of smaller surveillance drones.The Canadian military has used small Scaneagle drones, leased from Boeing, in Afghanistan and more recently on its ships.

The Canadian government has had several programmes to investigate the use of MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) drones by the military, the JUSTAS programme, Joint Airborne ISR Capatility (JAIC), and  Project Noctua. These appear to be ‘acquisition’ programmes. Apparently the JUSTAS programme is still in progress, and may be considering a wider range of drones than just the ‘MALE’ class. There isn’t evidence of a solid intention for the Canadian government to promote a domestic drones production industry.

It is worth speculating about where Canada will go in the future with respect to drones. There also seems to be a trend toward HALE drones (High Altitude Long Endurance) represented by such drones as Israeli Hermes 900, and Heron TP drones, as well as Predator variants from the US.

Several countries have developed and used armed drones. A couple of years ago Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay refused to rule out Canada acquiring armed drones, though he acknowledged that arming Canada’s surveillance drones at that time would create ‘contractual issues’. He wasn’t asked whether he would ask private drone contractors to manage the deployment and operation of armed drones capable of attacking adversaries directly.

It isn’t difficult to predict the broad intentions of Canada’s neoconservative government. An interview by Defence Minster Peter MacKay on CBC suggested his government wants a ‘long term’ solution to drones, ‘yet to be worked out’. That was in 2008. In November 2011, the militarist MacKay stated on Canada.com  that “The capability of drones goes up exponentially when you arm them like a fighter jet”. However he indicated that no decision had been made to go ahead with a major drone purchase. However Canada.com also reported that Canada Public Works had put contractors on notice that if Project JUSTAS was approved Canada would spend up to a billion dollars on drones, including attack drones, although they did not reference a current source.

Will the Canadian government continue its love affair with Israeli technology? Will it continue to support drones used by the Israeli state, which are ‘battle tested’ in the occupation of the West Bank? Will they continue to lease ‘off the shelf’ drones where required? Once freed from the F-35 albatross, will they seek to acquire armed drone capacity, like their American, British, and Israeli friends?

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