Archive for category UAV
(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:
- The project is years behind shedule (It’s been going for 16 years with no results).
- 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.
- 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’.
General Atomics may have eclipsed Israeli drone companies in the quest to sell Canada large drones. David Pugliese reports in Defense News that the Canadian military, under the JUSTAS programme, is favouring the General Atomics ‘Predator’ drone for addition to the Canadian aircraft fleet. The Canadian attempt to acquire large surveillance drones has been running for years with any concrete decision. Military brass now feel that say that a contract will be issued in 2019 for delivery in 2023. But anyone familiar with Canadian military procurement won’t be holding their breath.
Notable by its absence is mention of military support for the offerings of either of the large Israeli drone companies. Canada has leased Heron drones from Israel Aerospace Industries for use in Afghanistan, and Elbit Systems sells its ‘conflict tested’ (in Palestine) drones far and wide. But the Conservative government is known to be strongly supportive of the Netanyahu regime, and it seems absurd to believe that the cabinet will not pressure the military to favour any bid from either of the Israeli companies. As well there is the possibility of a bid from Thales, the French arms company selling the Anglo-Israeli Watchkeeper drone.
Pugliese also quotes unnamed air force officers as saying that the contract issued would be for armed drones. Certainly the Predator drone has the experience. Predator drones and their variants have carried out thousands of armed attacks and have left a path of destruction and death across Afghanistan, Africa, and the Middle East, whereas armed attacks by either of the Israeli options have mostly been carried out in maintaining the occupation of Palestine. Watchkeeper drones aren’t known to have been armed in conflict zones, and are mostly mothballed in their English bases.
(All surveillance drones are ‘attack’ drones when coupled with jet fighters, artillery, ground to ground missiles, etc).
Israeli company Elbit Systems has embarked on a world wide campaign to sell its new Hermes 900 drone.
Successful use in war is often a strong selling point for military arms, and the maker of Hermes, Elbit Systems of Israel, is quick to point out that the Hermes 900 is part of the Hermes 450 family of drones and therefore shares its ‘combat-proven‘ qualities. The Hermes 900 drone is a larger version of the Hermes 450 which has been flown widely in Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine and in the service of Britain’s intervention in Afghanistan.
By using Hermes drones extensively, the UK government has become a silent partner with the marketing arm of the Israeli arms industry. This arms industry is a fundamental part of the occupation of Palestine, and the ongoing attacks on Palestinians by the occupation forces.
The Algemeiner blog reports that Hermes drones have flown more than half a million hours, or which 85,000 hours were flown by UK military in Afghanistan.That means 17% of the flight experience of Hermes drones has been with the UK military. Israeli arms merchants trade on this experience when they try to sell drones to other purchasers. (Not mentioned is that UK forces had 11 crashes of Hermes 450’s by 2011 and the Drones Crash Database has recorded other Hermes crashes worldwide)
Drones have long been a mainstay of the Israeli military, and while it rarely discusses its use of drones, some information has leaked out. Drone Wars UK has documented Israel’s use of drones in the occupation of the West Bank, and especially its attacks on Gaza in a report ‘Israel and the Drone Wars’.
Hermes 450 drones are used in Afghanistan under Project Lydian, through which Elbit and its partner Thales (of France) rented drones to the UK military, by the hour, while the military waited for the introduction of Watchkeeper surveillance drones. Obstensibly a UK built drone, Watchkeeper was based on the smaller Israeli Hermes 450 drone, manufactured and updated in Britain by Thales.
Watchkeeper drones were supposed to replace Hermes 450 drones in 2011, with a different set of operators as well, but the Watchkeeper programme was characterised by delays, and Thales eventually was forced to pick up some of the costs of operating the drone fleet in Afghanistan to compensate for the lateness. In January 2014 Watchkeeper still had not been introduced to Afghanistan, apparently, and the military was still using Hermes drones.
Meanwhile, Elbit is said to be producing one Hermes 900 each week, suggesting an inventory of more than 50 drones over the last year. Some of these have been sold to the Israeli military, and some sold to buyers in Latin America (Chile, Mexico, and Colombia) and elsewhere. Canada has considered buying the Hermes 900 as part of its languishing Project JUSTAS.
David Pugliese, reporting in the Ottawa Citizen, says that a drone operated by US Customs and Border Protection has crashed off San Diego. Apparently the crash grounded the entire fleet of surveillance drones that monitor both the Mexican and Canadian borders of the US. Presumably the drone was a Predator drone, made by General Atomics.
A description of the drone surveillance programme along the US border with Canada has been posted on the blog previously.
The long delayed Watchkeeper surveillance drone programme has been barely in the news for months, even as deadlines were missed, and the UK military operations in Afghanistan wind down. But news this week may put it in the spotlight again.
There is a joint summit between Francois Hollande and David Cameron this week at RAF Brize Norton this week.
This is ostensibly to restart the joint defense treaty/arms trade strategy that the two countries negotiated in 2010, which ploughed into quicksand when the Parti Socialiste won the French elections in 2012 and promptly reviewed the arms procurement arrangements made by the Sarkozy government.
Writing in Defense News, Andrew Chuter and Pierre Tran have speculated that the conversation could involve a statement of French interest in the British-Israeli Watchkeeper drone.
Thales, the French arms company, is the prime contractor and partner with Elbit Systems of Israel in the Watchkeeper programme, which has belatedly resulted in a British built drone based on the Israeli Hermes 450. Thales fortunes appeared to rise after the election of the Socialistes, while its rival Dassault appeared to fall.
Thales has been lobbying hard to have the French government buy the Watchkeeper drone, and French operators have flown the drone at Parc Aberporth in Wales. It is also believed that they may fly the drone this summer in Canada, possibly at the UK training base at Suffield Aberta.
Also discussed at the summit may be a proposal to build an armed combat drone, in which France’s Dassault and Britain’s BAE might build the airframe, Thales and Silex the electronics, Rolls Royce and Snecma the engine, according the Chuter and Tran. Proponents want the programme to begin immediately, ostensibly so that the French air force that evaluate how an armed drone would fit into ‘the operational picture’. Though why they couldn’t just use a Predator drone acquired from the US for that purpose isn’t clear.
The Canadian government long ago said that it intended to buy a drone system for the Canadian military, and implemented a programme to determine needs and set out criteria for purchase, in the form of Project JUSTAS (Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System).
Very little information has been released to the public that would allow anyone to follow the deliberations of this body, even as a procession of lobbyists have had access to all levels of government.
In October 2013 MacDonald Dettwiler announced that it would provide Canada with Raven hand-launched drones, and associated training and maintenance. It isn’t clear whether this acquisition was related to Project JUSTAS, but clearly the Canadian government is still in the market for large surveillance, or even armed drones.
In November, 2013 the Canadian Defence Minister, Rob Nicholson, welcomed the Israeli Minister of Defence, Moshe Ya’alon, and was effusive about the relationship between Canada and the apartheid regime. Nicholson stated ‘I am confident that we will find avenues to expand our defence relations even further in the near future.” Several ministers in the Conservative government waste no opportunities to support the Netanyahu regime.
While no specifics were released it seems likely that the two discussed the possibility of Canada buying Israeli drones, as Israel has become the largest retailer of drones worldwide. Several Israeli companies make large surveillance drones, of which Israeli Aerospace Industries (Heron family of drones) and Elbit Systems (Hermes family of drones) are the largest. Elbit Systems often tries to sell its drones as ‘turn key’ systems, manufactured in the buyer country to permit ‘manufacturing offsets’. Both companies provide drones to the Israeli military for repressing Palestinians, and both drone systems have been implicated with deaths of civilians in Israeli drone attacks on Gaza. Canada has rented Heron drones from IAI for use by Canadian forces in Afghanistan.
Aside from Israeli companies, America’s Northrup Grumman has been aggressively trying to sell their Global Hawk drone to Canada. However Global Hawk is very expensive and likely to be unpopular with the Conservatative base.
General Atomics, which makes the Predator/Reaper class of drones has been less in evidence, perhaps sensing that the quagmire of Canadian defence procurement is best avoided. Predator/Reapers are cheaper, but are clearly thought of as armed drones, which may be a step the Conservative government isn’t ready to make as an election approaches.
Another possibility for a Canadian drone purchase would be the British-Israeli Watchkeeper, which will be part of UK military exercises at CFB Suffield in 2014. Watchkeeper will likely have civilian airspace certification. The Canadian military claims it doesn’t neen civilian authority to fly drones domestically, but certification would make it easier to fly drones to monitor pipeline protesters, (and other Canadian dissidents), which must surely be one of the goals of the Conservative government. Watchkeeper has a very large Israeli component, which would allow the Harper government to support the Netanyahu government while keeping the purchase within NATO. However the Canadian public is sure to react to buying any equipment from the UK military after the submarine debacle of a few years ago.
The Conservative ministers would have trouble facing their Israeli counterparts if they wasted the most obvious opportunity to make a high profile purchase of military technology from the apartheid regime.
Based on the information that is publicly available it my ‘best guess’ that the Canadian government will announce that it intends to buy one of the Israeli drone options in 2014.
A decade in the making, and at least three years late, the Watchkeeper drone will be introduced shortly. The current publicity blitz by Britain’s Defense Minister, Philip Hammond, may be part of the government’s effort to prepare the British public for the intoduction of the new surveillance drone, one that has deep roots in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Based on a medium altitude, long endurance Hermes 450 prototype, Watchkeeper was built by UTacS, a consortium of Israeli arms company Elbit Systems, and French arms company Thales. Much of the technology comes from Elbit or subsidiaries like UAV Engines Ltd, while Thales has been general contractor ensuring that some of the drone is built in Britain, and providing updated software.
The first flights of Watchkeeper occurred from Megiddo Airfield, in Northern Israel, before test flights were moved to Parc Aberporth in Wales. After the drone receives certification to fly in civilian airspace it will be flown at the Salisbury Plain base, and at CFB Suffield in Canada, (in 2014).
The Israeli prototype, Hermes 450, has been a mainstay of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the blockade of Gaza. The Israeli government has been tightlipped about the use of drones in suppressing the West Bank, but the Hermes 450 is believed to have been used several times in attacks on Gaza, during Cast Lead and at other times. The drone is known to overfly Gaza, and the frontier with Egypt.
The UK government claims to oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and human rights abuses, but maintains a strong trade relationship with Israel, not limited to drone purchases, but including sales of other strategic goods amounting to £7,700,000,000 in the most recent year. Many parts of Watchkeeper are based on Israeli intellectual property, or are directly acquired from Elbit, with the result that hundreds of millions of pounds have been transferred to the Israeli arms company as part of the Watchkeeper programme.
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.
Videos of the first UK flight of the new Watchkeeper drone reappeared on Youtube this week. The first flight of Watchkeeper drone in the UK took place several years ago, after the drone was initially tested in Israel by French arms company Thales and its Israeli partner Elbit Systems. Thales is tasked with producing a new British drone from an Israeli prototype, the Hermes 450. So far the project is almost three years late, and Thales has been forced to pay the cost of British ISTAR surveillance in Afghanistan (that Watchkeeper was supposed to provide).
What is clear from the video is how irritating is the noise of the Watchkeeper drone. Residents near the Welsh drone testing site at Parc Aberporth have long complained about the incessant noise of Watchkeeper tests. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza say that the Hermes 450 drone used by the Israeli occupation forces is used not only for surveillance and assassination, but for harrassment and intimidation, as the high pitched engine noise overhead cannot be ignored.
Curiously, the long delays in finalising the Watchkeeper have been blamed by the UK Ministry of Defence on the need to certify Watchkeeper in civilian airspace. Yet it is difficult to see how the noisy Watchkeeper drone can be used in civilian airspace without creating annoyance and alarm to civilian populations.
An article in Wired suggests that for the past several years, US drones in conflict zones have been broadcasting unencrypted video transmissions, that could be viewed by anyone with the appropriate knowledge and some simple equipment.
While the article doesn’t offer an opinion whether UK controlled Predator and Reaper drones have encrypted video feeds, it seems likely that the UK Predator drones are similarly unencrypted.
The implication of this information is that civilians in conflict zones are completely undefended from drones flying overhead, while militants are able, in theory at least, to be aware of US/UK drone monitoring and take evasive action.