Archive for category drones

Canada’s armed drone project/JUSTAS

(This is my first blog post after a couple of years of minimal activity. It is mostly an attempt to catch up on events during that period).

Project JUSTAS is the Joint Unmanned Surveillance and Target Acquisition System of the Canadian military. Translated: the programme of the Canadian military to acquire a medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone system to be used by all branches of the military.  In the many years since Project JUSTAS was initiated in 2000 drone systems have changed a great deal, and dozens of countries (actually 126) have acquired drone systems from the big suppliers (generally Israel and the United States) or developed their own.

Project JUSTAS received a scathing audit in 2014, though it is hard to sort out the analysis written in much-redacted multi-syllabic bafflegab. As near as I can tell:

  1. The project is years behind shedule (It’s been going for 16 years with no results).
  2. One reason the project has floundered is that the military couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted and/or wanted so many features that no drone system could meet expectations.
  3. Another reason is that the drones industry provided inadequate information: either couldn’t figure out what the Canadian military wanted or couldn’t be bothered to provide the information needed (probably because they didn’t take the procurement plan seriously).

It isn’t clear whether the project suffered because the Harper government lowered its priority in its effort to create balanced budgets leading up to the 2015 federal election.

In 2015 Danny Garrett-Rempel produced a readable, mostly uncritical summary of Canadian drone development and acquisition.

In April 2016 the Canadian government issued a call for help in the much delayed drone programme, but the list of interested suppliers doesn’t tell us much about what sort of information it was seeking.

Until now drones used by Canada have been smaller surveillane drones or larger MALE drones leased from an Israeli company. Heron drones used in Afghanistan had only surveilance capabilities. But the ‘big boys’ use armed drones, and in 2016 Canada’s top general Jonathan Vance told the media that he wanted Canada to have armed drones, to strike targets like ISIS. This contradicted Liberal election policy which called for unarmed drones only. (Both are somewhat disingenuous as unarmed surveillance drones can be coupled to other weapons systems to make them capable of an attack, without the need for a weapon on the drone itself). Most of the drone uses Vance advanced were for domestic surveillance and do not need to be armed.

By June 2017 it appeared that the hawks in the defence ministry had won the armed drones argument as the Liberal government announced a defence policy that included the purchase of armed drones.  Critics noted that the policy was unfunded, with no sign where the money would come from. However drones are relatively inexpensive compared to other weapons systems, and are often used to substitute for more expensive weapons systems for that reason, so it doesn’t seem likely that the estimated $1,000,000,000 cost will be an impediment. It remains to be seen whether the military can make up its mind, now that yet another criterion has be added to the list of requirements.

Defence reporter David Pugliese has noted that Canada may have trouble acquiring armed drones from the US (many in the military wanted to acquire US Predator drones) due to that country’s efforts to retain armed drone technology. But this blog has often noted to the willingness of Israeli drone companies to proliferate drone technology, combat tested on the unwilling residents of Gaza and the West Bank. So Canada will not remain unable to buy armed drone technology, if it decides what it wants.

Next topics: Who is trying to sell Canada drones?

Canada’s increased emphasis on ‘Special Ops’.

 

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Another £20 million Watchkeeper civilian-airspace-compliant drone crashes.

A Watchkeeper drone crashed on Salisbury Plain in Southwestern England this week. The medium altitude, long endurance drone was adapted from the Israeli Hermes 450 drone in a billion pound upgrade, largely focused on making the drone compliant with civilian air regulations.

It is the third Watchkeeper to crash.

Dozens of the drones were purchased from a French-Israeli consortium but almost all have been mothballed, and the UK MOD has recently revealed that it has only six qualified, competent pilots to fly them. (After this crash perhaps only five). None are known to have been in active military service, save a perfunctory ‘fly-around’ arranged just before UK forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan. The boondoggle programme hasn’t received critical examination in Parliament because both major political parties had a role in its inception.

A recent report that Watchkeeper has been armed hasn’t been confirmed by MOD.

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Is an American arms company trying to sell the Canadian government a drone the US military doesn’t want

Is General Atomics trying to sell a drone to Canada that the US military doesn’t want?

General Atomics says that it is hoping to sell its ‘Avenger’ drone to the Canadian military to fulfill the Arctic surveillance role that has been identified by Project JUSTAS, the inept programme of the Canadian government to acquire drones for military use. Avenger is a jet powered drone evolved from the Predator drone, and is known as the Predator ‘C’.

An article in medium.com suggests that the US government was less than satisfied with Avenger, as it didn’t significantly address the shortcomings that it had identified with the Predator ‘A’ and the Predator ‘B’ (known as ‘Reaper’). The military wanted a drone that was more prone to survival in a combat zone, weather resistant, and with good communications. The US military felt that Avenger, which is faster and can carry more, wasn’t much different than the Predator A in the qualities that mattered. Certainly a drone that was not weather resistant and didn’t have a robust communication system would not be useful in high arctic conditions where it is anticipated such a drone would be used.

General Atomics is no doubt hoping that the Canadian government will see advantages in the long range capability of the Avenger, though it isn’t clear why the Canadian government would want a drone promoted for its ‘stealth’ qualities to fly in the arctic.

The Avenger would compete with the Polar Hawk drone that Raytheon has been trying to sell to the Canadian government, that has been written about before on this blog. 

Acquisition of a surveillance drone is mired in the Project JUSTAS the procurement effort of the Canadian military, so is unlikely to happen soon. Military brass shrug off the inability of the government to define its needs or fulfill its requirements, as a benefit, allowing technology to advance. Probably a good excuse because there is little evidence that an army staying out of foreign conflicts needs large surveillance drones at the present time.

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Canadian Department of Defence drone procurement bungle flies under the public radar

The Canadian Department of Defence has bungled yet another military procurement, this time barely mentioned in the Canadian media.

David Pugliese, writing in the Ottawa Citizen, notes that the military has recently released an evaluation of Project JUSTAS, which paints a dismal picture of the process to date. This blog has followed Project JUSTAS for many years, and witnessed the lack of transparency and lack of progress achieved. It is perhaps fortunate that bungling has probably kept Canada from getting more enmeshed in the US/UK programme of drone killings in conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East.

The process has dragged on so long that it appears that even some arms company salesmen don’t feel it is worth their time and money to keep pitching their products to the Canadian military.

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Do drones cause MORE civilian casualties, not fewer?

Dr Ann Rogers has argued that rather than reducing civilian casualties (due to their ‘precision’ targeting and comprehensive imaging capabilities) the use of drones actually increases total civilian deaths. She states that the belief that drones are ‘more accurate and therefore less damaging’ leads military planners to carry out many more attacks than they would with conventional weaponry.

Certainly this is borne out by the evidence. Thousands of attacks involving drones have been carried out on a variety of fronts, from Iraq, to Gaza, to Yemen, to Afghanistan, by the US, UK and Israel, without leaving the impression that major warfare has been engaged in. The main quality that supports these drone encounters is high quality imaging and persistence. Rogers points out that these capabilities also lead to identifying a very large number of targets, and therefore causing many more deaths.

Rogers’ conclusion can be supported from a different perspective. Many claim that Israel has ‘the world’s most moral army’. The Israeli government claims to seek to avoid civilian casualties, and goes to extreme lengths to deflect blame for civilian deaths onto Israel’s enemies. Yet the civilian death rate from Israel’s successive attacks on Gaza is roughly the same, or higher, than the civilian death rate from Syrian President Assad’s attacks on Syrian rebels.** (Shouldn’t the world’s most moral army have a lower civilian casualty rate?) Israel has lauded the heavy use of drones for surveillance and targeting in Operation Protective Edge, its most recent incursion into Gaza. But it is clear that Protective Edge ended only when the number of civilian deaths and destruction of civilian infrastructure had reached the saturation level, and more killing would have ended support from many of Israel’s key allies. Using drones in this case saved no civilian lives. Although it is perhaps unfair to compare the conflicts directly, it may nevertheless be instructive that the conflict involving heavy use of drones (Operation Protective Edge) had a roughly equivalent or higher civilian death rate than the conflict (Syria) in which persistent drones are not a significant factor.

**52-70% in the case of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza,  31% in the case of Syria

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British Watchkeeper drone to fly in Canada this summer

There was more confirmation this week that the UK will be flying its Watchkeeper drone in Alberta this summer. Watchkeeper is Britain’s new large surveillance drone, which uses technology purchased from Israel. It is based on the Hermes 450 drone produced in Israel by Elbit Systems and used by Israel forces in the suppression of the West Bank and Gaza.

The Watchkeeper programme has been kept low profile because the technology was acquired from the Israeli company shortly before Operation Cast Lead, when the Israeli military killed more than a thousand people in Gaza, including hundreds of women and children. The Hermes 450 on which Watchkeeper is based is believed to have been integrally involved in these attacks.

Watchkeeper is years behind schedule, to the extent that it may never be used in the Afghanistan conflict for which it was intended. The UK claims that Watchkeeper will have ‘civilians airspace certification’, though it hardly needs it in Canada where the Defence department asserts its right to fly drones in Canada without reference to civilian flight rules.

The UK MOD is closely connected to the UK war industry, and often helps the war industry sell products to foreign state buyers. The UK is promoting Watchkeeper to the French military, which presently has representatives in Britain observing flight tests and operational use on the Salisbury Plain, where one of Britain’s military training facilities is located. We have reported before in this blog that the UK has offered to further demonstrate Watchkeeper to the French military during training exercises with Watchkeeper on Britain’s training ground at Canadian Forces Base Suffield, in Alberta, this summer.

If Britain manages to sell Watchkeeper drones abroad, it will be a boost for Israel’s Elbit Systems, which manufactures some of the components from the drone, and co-owns the company which produces it in Britain.

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Drones are the tool of choice for new death squads

There is a growing awareness of the vast covert campaign being operated by the CIA and NATO to assassinate people they perceive as enemies, in several countries across Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Death squads have long been the preserve of authoritarian governments who kill their enemies at will without reference to human rights or the rule of law. But western governments have increasingly been using the technique, often with the help of armed or unarmed drones.

Documented evidence is coming to light, often in documentary films such as Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill. Seumas Milne in the Guardian wrote a scathing commentary on the practise recently.

While revelations are emerging that drone death squads often kill ‘civilians’, including women and children, there is less attention paid to the daily arbitrary killing of men who are not fighting, but are designated for death because they appear to be in a proscribed group. Often the decision to kill someone is left to a small team of operators thousands of miles away, who carry out death sentences on people who have may or not be actively  involved in military activities.

Minister of Armed Forces Mark Francois recently said that drones would continue to be used to kill people deemed to ‘pose a risk’ to UK armed forces, a disturbingly wide definition that seems to permit the armed forces to kill almost anyone preemtively.

American special forces and the CIA have a long history of assassinating people, in the pursuit of American foreign policy. But it is only recently that NATO has been drawn into this practise, and it appears to be facilitated by the ease with which drones can be used to conduct assassinations, with safety and anonymity for the assassins.

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