Armed drones on the Canadian military horizon

Branka Marijan Featured, Ploughshares Monitor

By Branka Marijan

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 3 Autumn 2020

The Canadian government appears to be moving closer to acquiring armed drones. According to Justin Ling of Vice News, Canadian government officials recently briefed industry partners on systems requirements, with long-range surveillance and the ability to engage targets remotely seen as key to protecting Canadian territory and participating in foreign missions. But questions about the policies guiding the use of drones by the Canadian military remain unanswered and deserve more attention from civil society and the Canadian public.

The road to drone acquisition 

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) first showed an interest in drones in 2000, with the start of the Joint Unmanned Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS) program. This plan met with internal and public opposition related to costs and disagreement on the best system.

For two years beginning in 2008, CAF personnel in Afghanistan flew Heron drones leased from Israel. The Heron drones were used for surveillance and did not carry weapons. In 2011, military leaders requested $600-million to buy armed drones for use in the Libyan war. Their request was denied.

Then, in 2017, Canada’s Strong, Secure, Engaged defence policy, in initiatives 50 and 91, outlined a path for drone acquisition by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Soon after, Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND) renamed the JUSTAS program the Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) procurement project. RPAS, currently in stage three of five, is expected to cost between one and five billion dollars. DND hopes to award contracts in 2022 or 2023 and have drones in operation by 2025.

According to David Pugliese in the Ottawa Citizen, the government announced last year that it was looking at L3 Technologies MAS Inc. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. along with the United States government, as possible suppliers. L3 proposed the Heron drone from Israeli Aircraft Industries, while General Atomics and the U.S. government proposed the MQ-9B SkyGuardian, a successor to the well-known Reaper and Predator drones. Canada could still decide to go with another supplier.

The appeal of drones

Drones are becoming increasingly popular with national militaries. The Drone Databook Update of March 2020 claims that 35 countries have Class III heavy or armed drones. The militaries of 102 countries use drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

One critical role for Canadian drones will be surveilling the Canadian Arctic and maritime approaches. As the Northwest Passage becomes more navigable, water traffic is expected to increase. The ability to monitor remote waterways and landmasses is seen as crucial in maintaining sovereignty.

The Heron seems particularly well suited for this job. It can stay in the air for 52 hours for ISR missions. The SkyGuardian is capable of 48 consecutive hours when flown for ISR, can fly in conditions as cold as -41 degrees Celsius, and has a de-icing system.

But, in addition to surveillance and reconnaissance, Canada’s military also wants strike-capable drones. A few years ago, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Johnathan Vance said, “In my view there’s little point to having a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) that can see a danger but can’t strike it if it needs to.” Both the Heron and SkyGuardian can be equipped with various weapons, and Canada has indicated interest in armed drones equipped with Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs.

Growing concerns

The deployment of armed drones, even by Canadian forces that largely abide by international humanitarian law, raises concerns about their possible use in assassinations, sometimes called signature strikes. The United States has used drones to wage an assassination campaign across the Middle East and North Africa, killing thousands, according to some estimates. International and national regulations on such use are not clear.

Gen. Vance has sought to ease worries about targeted strikes, noting that the public is imagining a “Hollywood view of assassinations.” According to Vance, “there are rules of engagement, there is an approved target, there is the absolute commitment to avoiding any collateral damage, any harm to a civilian population. So to us, it’s just another weapon.”

How accurate is this characterization of armed drones and their intended use by Canadian forces?

As Matt Korda, a researcher for the Federation of American Scientists, noted in a recent analysis of Canadian drone acquisition, it seems that Canada could come to mirror U.S. practice. He points to the 2016 “letter of interest” to suppliers from DND/CAF, which lays out several possible scenarios, including an attack on a “High-Payoff Target”—essentially, an assassination.

In one scenario, Korda notes, Canada refers to a case in which a drone strike is called on a group of “Fighting Age Males” holding a radio. This scenario is reminiscent of real strikes by the United States that resulted in civilian deaths. Accounts of attacks on weddings and funerals are only too easy to find.

Another scenario raised by Canada and noted by Korda relates to domestic surveillance. In this case, a drone is used to surveil a G20 protest and any video that seems to indicate “radical elements” is handed over to police. Radical behaviour apparently includes hanging a banner. When the excessive policing and security practices of the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto are recollected, it seems that there is reason to fear that greater surveillance could lead to infringements of civil liberties.

Avoiding a dystopian future

Over the last decade, there has been an increase in the number of military drones being flown over regions that do not appear to be involved in armed conflict. Often without official permission. As research studies and reports on human rights have shown repeatedly, civilians are being killed and injured, while national security is shaken.

Drones are also being used to surveil domestic populations engaged in lawful activities, including peaceful protests. And the situation could get worse. According to the Vice News story, a Canadian government representative admitted that armed drones could be deployed over domestic airspace.

Meanwhile, the United States is leading international efforts in “responsible export and subsequent use of drones” that lack transparency and the involvement of relevant civil-society groups.

The possible negative impacts of such actions are immense. And, at present, it is not at all clear how Canada plans to avoid them.

As Canada’s acquisition of armed drones seems set to go ahead, important questions about drone use are becoming increasingly critical. Citizens and civil-society groups need to be engaged in this discussion and in closely scrutinizing the policies that will guide Canada’s military use of the drones for domestic surveillance as well as in engagements abroad.

Do we really want to see Canadian armed drones over domestic—or foreign—skies?

Photo: This photograph shows the Canadian Arctic icepack, photographed from CP-140 Aurora aircraft in September 2019. The Heron, pictured on next page, would be particularly well suited for surveilling the Canadian Arctic and maritime approaches, a critical role for Canadian drones. DND

Spread the Word