Project JUSTAS, the programme to to identify and acquire military drones for Canada, is far behind schedule, and providing little information for public discussion and debate. It isn’t certain what drones the Canadian military would like to acquire, but they have already been using Heron MALE drones in Afghanistan, and the Canadian government has floated the idea of acquiring ‘attack’ drones, of the type used by the US and UK to assassinate enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
An article in the Toronto Star this week interviewed Lt. General Yvan Blondin, who defended delays in Canada’s drone acquisition programme by suggesting that delays meant that Canada had access to new, evolving technology rather than being locked into old technology. Of more significance was his focus on Canada’s wish to have a long range patrol drone for monitoring Canada’s north and coastal areas. This suggests that the military priorities are on northern surveillance rather than combat roles. (Whether this reflects the priorities of cabinet is not at all certain). On the other hand, an article in Esprit de Corp magazine quotes military officials as saying that all type of drones would be purchased at the same time. The officials also reiterated the position that military drones would be capable of being armed.
Lobbyist Bruce Johnson wrote an article in iPolitics last week touting the Global Hawk drone (redubbed ‘Polar Hawk) as a solution for Canada’s long range surveillance needs. Johnson is a retired Rear Admiral in the Canadian Navy, who now works for parliament hill lobbyists Hill Knowlton Strategies Canada. Global Hawk is produced by Northrup Grumman, a US arms company. Northrup Grumman has five Hill Knowlton lobbyists working for them in Ottawa.
Nothrup Gruman has been pressuring the Canadian government for some time to buy Global Hawk, an unarmed, jet powered drone that has a long range.
There have been many criticisms of Global Hawk. Global Hawk drones are incredibly expensive. Flight Global claims that the cost of the drones, plus ground stations could be $215 million each. Each Global Hawk is capable of carrying almost 8,000 kg of fuel and are costly to operate. Time Magazine quoted a cost for the Global Hawk RQ-4B $31,052 per hour in the air. Given that the intention of the drone is for it to spend long hours in the air over the Arctic, the potential for rapidly escalating costs is very high.
Drones in general crash at an alarming rate, and at least one Global Hawk has crashed in Afghanistan, when it lost its satellite link. Another Global Hawk crashed last year in Maryland. An article in Bloomberg news claimed that Global Hawk along with two other Predator drones were together the most crash prone planes in the US military fleet.
American Global Hawk drones have flown over Canadian airspace before, with the cooperation of the Canadian military, and as part of the ‘Maple Flag’ exercise.
A Global Hawk purchase by Canada would probably involve L-3, a US arms company which among other things produces high resolution cameras for drones. L-3 also has had a relationship with Elbit Systems, another drone company seeking business with Canada.