The Canadian government is finally forging ahead with plans to set up its own fleet of armed drones, joining several of its NATO allies.
Ottawa is looking for an unmanned aircraft that can reach anywhere in its massive territory, keep an eye on its territorial waters, and, when necessary, acquire targets and fire missiles.
It looks increasingly likely that Canada will be buying something resembling the MQ-9 Reaper, a preferred plane for the U.S. armed drone program.
In a briefing for industry players, a representative from the procurement arm of the Canadian government laid out Canada’s desire for its long-range, medium-altitude drone. The total cost for the program could range from $1 billion to $5 billion.
Part of what makes a drone system more attractive than a conventional aircraft is that it can loiter over a target area for upwards of six hours, meaning it can track individuals for long distances and periods of time.
A spokesperson for the Department of National Defence confirmed that “domestically, the RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft system) will be routinely used for surveillance and reconnaissance of Canadian Maritime approaches and the Arctic.”
That sort of capability will be useful as the Northwest Passage becomes more easily navigable, and foreign ships begin moving through the Arctic seaway.
As VICE News reported in 2017, the Canadian Air Force posited that its drones could aid in search-and-rescue operations in the Arctic; intercept drug shipments in the Carribean; bomb targets in Afghanistan; and surveil public protests in Toronto.
The government spokesperson stressed that “while RPAS will not need to routinely carry weapons during operations in Canadian airspace, situations may arise that would require such capabilities.” As with any fighter jets flying in Canadian airspace, they stressed, they would be bound by Canadian law and the military chain of command.
Abroad, the drones would operate under the same law of armed conflict that governs conventional aircraft.
In 2015, not long after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected, Ottawa signalled interest in purchasing armed drones, which can be brought online much faster than the current generation of fighter jets—they require much less pilot training, for example.
Upon taking office, Trudeau promised to reboot a procurement process to replace its aging CF-18 fighters—a process that is still moving sluggishly, as his government initially followed through on a promise to scrap plans to purchase the U.S.-made F-35, only to turn back around and allow it to vie for the contract all over again.
As an interim measure, the Canadian military has had to buy a package of refurbished CF-18s to keep up its coastal surveillance and its obligations under NORAD, and to ensure it is able to participate in foreign operations if asked.
The current drone plan, which would see the first aircraft arriving by 2024 and operational the following year, would go a long way to filling a potential and much-feared operational gap.
Last year, the government announced two possible suppliers for the platforms: Quebec-based L3 Technologies and a partnership between the U.S. government and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.
L3 Technologies is working with Israel Aerospace Industries to pitch a modified version of its Heron drone, which has become a favourite of the Israeli Defence Forces (Canada has actually leased these systems from Israel).
General Atomics is proposing Canada buy the MQ-9B SkyGuardian—a successor to the MQ-9 Reaper and the MQ-1 Predator, which became synonymous with the Obama administration’s overseas drone operations. Somewhat confusingly, L3 Technologies is also producing parts of the SkyGuardian platform.
It’s still possible that Canada could go with a third supplier.
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