With Russian Tu-95 heavy bombers flying near Canadian air space and the ongoing contest for solid international borders in the North Pole, Canada's army is looking to the Arctic with the future of war: drones.
For the first time ever, National Defence deployed a team of scientists and technicians from Defence Research and Development Canada, a wing of its military technology branch, to test unmanned vehicles in Canada's northernmost lands.
Though Canada already deploys several drones for various military operations, including surveillance missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the significance of the DRDC mission lies in the landscape the experiment.
Determining how the harsh Arctic climates affects the unmanned systems, which will be key in patrolling a space where most humans could never venture into, offers a series of questions for the researchers on an emerging theatre of operation for NATO.
"Unmanned systems offer many potential benefits to the Canadian Armed Forces," said Dr. Simon Monckton lead scientist on the mission, in a government release. "But we must carefully study the strengths and weaknesses of these technologies before moving forward."
The team of 14 military and civilian DND personnel carried out experiments with two ground drones and one aerial helicopter UAV, testing out their capabilities in search and rescue, "hazard mitigation," and communications.
The mission, performed at CFS Alert, the northernmost outpost of the Canadian government, was part of a grander plan to test out how Canada can deploy UAVs to its most contentious northern borders.
Unmanned systems offer many potential benefits to the Canadian Armed Forces
"The project team deployed vehicles into situations that might be dangerous or difficult for a Canadian Armed Forces responder at a remote location to support search and rescue and hazardous material operations," said Monckton.
Timed on the heels of a diplomatic standoff with Russia, it's clear the Canadian government was investigating potential drone capabilities as it ramps up its Arctic presence.
Not since the Cold War, when American spy planes regularly crossed Canada's air space, have discussions of an increased Arctic military presence been on the minds of Canadian policymakers. But given the wealth of oil and natural resources at stake in upcoming diplomatic determinations on who owns the melting Arctic land, Canada and Russia both have its eyes on the far North.
In the latest defence procurement plan released in June, the government earmarked increased drone capabilities that could easily aid its patrol of vast Arctic air spaces.
Whether or not those future systems would be weaponized has yet to be seen. So far, no weaponized drone, akin to a Predator or Reaper in the employ of the US Air Force, is in the Canadian military toolbox.
While the vehicles tested by DRDC were clearly support machines for troops, rather than anything offensive, it still signals the Harper government's interest in seeing how soldiers can perform in the Arctic in the future with unmanned vehicles by their side. There promises to be increased militarization of the region given the current geopolitical climate with Russia.
Add to that recent reports that the US wants to install anti-missile defence radars in Alert, the same place the drone technology was tested by DRDC, and you can feel the military momentum shifting to Canada's Arctic.