Information leaking out about JUSTAS programme to provide Canada with drones

David Pugliese, writing in Defense News, has reported significant updates to the story of Canada’s drone acquisition saga.

Key new information includes:

1. One of the top military priorities is the capability of dropping material into arctic locations for search and rescue missions.

2. Another key priority is maritime patrol.

3. General Atomics, the company that produces the Predator drone, is interested in researching the idea of adding drop capacity to the company’s ‘Guardian’ drones, a variant of Predator.

4. Israel Aerospace Industries, through its Canadian agent MacDonald Dettwiler, is interested in selling Heron drones to the Canadian military for search and rescue. (Unstated whether this would be smaller Heron drones, or the larger Heron TP).

5. Global Hawk drones, of the type promoted by Northrup Grumman, would likely not be suitable for dropping search and rescue packages, but might be part of same search and rescue missions.

6. Canada’s military wants the capacity to conduct very long patrols over long distances in remote regions.

7. Total budget for drones appears to be about $1.5 billion.

The article also quoted a Liberal Party spokeperson who criticised the Department of National Defense for always wanting to have one piece of equipment that performs all functions, meaning that acquisition is delayed.

Still missing is information about whether the government actually plans to purchase one drone that fulfills all of its goals or whether it wants to purchase a number of different drones for different purposes. Also missing is any indication of government analysis about whether drones will actually improve the military’s capacity to perform any of its functions, or whether it would simply add a layer of expense and complexity without improving its ability to accomplish anything.

A key implication of the stated goal of dropping Search and Recue packages in the arctic is that the chosen drone might be a ‘MALE’ (medium altitude, long endurance) drone. The most likely providers of these would be General Atomics (‘Predator’ type drones), or the two Israeli companies Elbit Systems or Israel Aerospace Industries.

If Predator, then the Canadian government would be establishing a commercial link with the primary producer of attack drones used in targetted assassinations by the US in many ‘intervention’ zones around the world. This is worrying, given the Harper government’s known desire to acquire armed attack drones for use in foreign interventions. General Atomics has been busy forming alliances with Canadian companies to pursue JUSTAS procurements, and has a lobbying presence in Ottawa.

But both Israeli companies are likely contenders as well, given 1. that MacDonald Dettwiler (a Canadian company) has already provided rental Heron drones for Canada’s Afghanistan intervention mission, and 2. John Baird and other key members of the Harper cabinet are enthusiastic supporters of the apartheid regime in Israel and may influence decisions in that direction. There have been rumours that Baird will replace Peter Mackay as Defence Minister which could increase the probability of an Israeli purchase.

The emphasis on the need for very long patrols might be a tip of the hat towards General Atomic’s ‘Global Hawk’ drone, which claims that as its capability. (Given the very high cost of Global Hawk drones, a purchase of a few of these would blow DND’s budget and leave little or nothing for purchasing other drones). An article by Rob Cook discusses how high altitude variants of the Predator drone might perform some of the functions of a Global Hawk drone.

Project JUSTAS, the programme to acquire drones for Canada, is (by David Pugliese’s suggestion) already probably five years late. There is very little published information about the nature of the deliberations, about how the military decision makers plan to address their multiple goals. However in another David Pugliese article the head of the Canadian air force, Lt General Yvan Blondin claimed to be in no hurry to commit to a particular technology in a field where technological developments are coming quickly.

Nor has the Harper government tipped its hand about how it plans to achieve its political goals, which might include forcing the military to acquire armed attack drones and/or tipping the selection process towards Israeli companies. There might even be political suggestions out of right field, like developing domestically designed drones, or demanding industrial offset schemes from existing vendors.

A fleet of lobbyists have been engaged by most of the possible drone vendors, who are now probably doing their best to influence the relevant military and political figures.

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