Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan says armed drones akin to those deployed by the US military could prove useful tools in Iraq, but that it ultimately comes down to “how we, in Canada, decide to use it.”
Since 2008, Canada has talked about kickstarting a domestic drone program that would have wide-ranging application: from Afghanistan to the Arctic to patrolling the coast for shipwrecks. That program appeared stalled for years, until in early 2016 the Trudeau government quietly moved forward with plans to acquire armed versions of the unmanned aerial vehicles that would look a lot like the infamous Predator drone deployed by the American government. VICE News broke the story on those plans.
“In terms of drones that are armed, it’s about how they’re utilized… it’s how we in Canada decide to use certain capabilities,” Sajjan told VICE News at a Halifax security conference this past weekend, just days before he announced that Canada would be going forward with buying a fleet of new fighter jets. “The future is changing, and we need to be rapidly changing with it.”
Sajjan added that while Canada is still primarily looking at drones for their surveillance capabilities, armed drones could be a very useful tool for the current Canadian mission in Iraq.
“I’ll give you one example of how potentially it could be used. When I was in Afghanistan, even now in Iraq, the enemy looks how you operate. When you have inclement weather, and certain aircrafts cannot fly and an attack is happening, a commander could be able to make a decision to send an armed drone to support the troops on the ground,” Sajjan said
An armed drone, he said, “allows for an easier decision-making process where you’re not putting a human being at risk.”
Canada is in the middle of a defence review program that is looking to figure out policy and procurement for the Canadian Forces for the next decade, and a future armed drone program is a part of that.
In January, VICE News reported that the Department of National Defence had put out a request for information for drones that could do both domestic surveillance and carry out attacks overseas.
That request for information — which is not a formal procurement process — has now closed, and it’s unclear when the results of that fact-finding effort will be released.
But there appears to be some confusion as to exactly when Canada will get its hands on these drones.
An industry source with knowledge of the drone program told VICE News that they don’t expect the Canadian Air Force to actual begin soliciting proposals on the drones until 2019 at the earliest, with the final delivery of the drones not expected until somewhere between 2026 and 2036.
That contrasts with what Lieutenant-General Michael Hood, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, told a Parliamentary committee this past April that industry “hopefully will be delivering a solution to us in the next three to four years.”
It’s possible that Canada could do what it did during its time in Afghanistan and sign a lease agreement with an allied nation to deliver armed drones on an interim basis in the near future.
Either way, Sajjan himself said, the Canadian government will need to start work on exactly what it wants its drones to do.
“It’s not just about procurement and capabilities,” Sajjan told VICE News at the Halifax Security Forum on Friday evening. “It’s about making sure the right policy is in place, the right legislation is also in place, and making sure we have the right mechanisms and we have the right conversations before we make those policies.”
When asked specifically if Ottawa would consider green lighting targeting killings, much like the United States Air Force has done in recent years, Sajjan wouldn’t say, except to iterate “for us, it’s how we, in Canada, decide to use it.”
The concern has certainly been present. During the in-person and online public consultations on the government’s defence review, Canadians worried that drone attacks could lead to “violations to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” and noted that “U.S. hits in Pakistan are increasingly hitting low-ranking operatives (civilians) and we need to manage that risk,” according to summaries posted online.
Jameel Jaffer is a Canadian, the founder of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, and the author of the Drone Papers, which uncovered previously-secret details of the Obama administration’s armed drone program. When asked about the Trudeau government’s look to expand into armed drones, he told VICE News that it really comes down to how Ottawa constitutes the program.
“Most of the problems associated with drones are not specific to drones. The problems arise mainly from the idea that the battlefield is borderless, that there is no specific geographic area at which we are at war. Instead: the whole planet is a kind of battlefield.” Jaffer said. “I’d be much more alarmed if I saw reports that the Trudeau administration were considering adopting that set of arguments that the Obama administration adopted.”
Jameel continued that “You have yet to think through some of the implications of entrenching the distance between us and the violence that we’re responsible for. That’s the big advantage, or disadvantage, of drones.”
Based on the requirements detailed in the request for information published by the Department of National Defence, there are likely only two companies that have the capacity to build the drones that Canada is looking for: General Atomics, which produce the Reaper and Predator drones favoured by the U.S. military; and Israel Aerospace Industries.