Published by Senator Colin Kenny on 28 February 2012
A front-page article in the National Post this month reported that our government is considering purchasing drones - perhaps half a dozen - as it begins to reappraise its commitment to 65 expensive F-35 fighter jets.
Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are aerial robots used for surveillance or attack. Canadian troops have used them for surveillance on the battlefield in Afghanistan; the Americans are turning to them as a cost-effective component of maintaining military supremacy in South Asia and elsewhere.
If the government is serious about purchasing UAVs, I tip my cap. When I served as chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, we recommended their use to defend our coastlines. Drones are also extremely useful in saving lives on the battlefield.
Six armed drones similar to the MQ9 Reapers that the U.S. is currently using in combat would be a good start - but only a start. I believe that Canada will have many times that number of drones in the air within a decade.
However, the suggestion that the government might be considering using drones as substitutes for fighter jets makes no sense. Down the line, drones will be able to do everything that pilot-flown jets do today. But that isn't going to happen anytime soon, and certainly not before our fleet of CF-18 fighter jets have been retired. We would be well-advised to buy fighter jets, even if (due to cost or technical concerns) they're not F-35s.
Fighter jets are the toughest, sharpest teeth in any country's air defence. They protect our airspace, and allow us to pitch in on allied missions abroad. Canada used our CF-18s in Kosovo and in Libya, and in the coming decades we will deploy fighter jets again. Nobody knows when. Nobody knows where. But everybody knows that in some situations requiring quick and drastic responses, fighter jets will be needed.
So, if fighter jets are going to eat up a large portion of our military budget, why should we also augment that force by also purchasing armed drones?
Because, for a start, our defences on our east and west coasts are porous.
Our Maritimes Forces - combining inputs from the Royal Canadian Navy, the RCMP, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard and our two satellites - are responsible for coastal surveillance and patrol, and detecting and removing sea mines. But they have no real-time picture of what is out there.
Our primary surveillance mechanism is the ancient Aurora aircraft, which is expensive to fly and can't stay in the air as long as drones. Canada is an open target for any ship that can slip in - including those involved in human trafficking. Given the state of our defences, ships can penetrate our waters and plant mines that may be activated only long after the deploying craft have left the scene.
We need better coastal surveillance. Drones would give us that in spades. They can tell good guys from bad guys from 50,000 feet. Not every drone used for coastal patrol would need to be armed, as unarmed drones are just as useful at maintaining a close watch on our ocean approaches. But if Canada is going to invest in drones, it should have at least some that are armed - if necessary, for example, armed drones could fire a rocket across a suspect ship's bow, and send it on its way.
Drones are the future of battle space. Canada was slow to acquire them for Afghanistan, but when they arrived they were a godsend. They allowed our troops to see over the next hill or around the next corner, avoiding ambush.
The advantage of arming drones is obvious - it puts machinery at risk instead of soldiers. It makes sense to purchase drones in conjunction with fighter jets, because they complement each other.
You don't want your military wasting fighter jets on coastal surveillance, and fighter jets can't be deployed every time Canadian troops get in fire fights in places like Afghanistan.
Armed drones have become controversial because of the way the U.S. government has been using them to exterminate terrorists (and unlucky civilians in proximity to terrorists) in Pakistan, from control centres thousands of miles away. Even the unarmed versions have aroused the ire of civil-rights activists because of estimates that up to 30,000 of them could be overflying the United States by 2020, monitoring personal activities with the kind of clarity that many conventional cameras won't give you from a few feet away.
No question, there are moral issues here. But drones are going to play a huge role in the way nations defend their interests in coming decades. It would be prudent for Canada to start buying them - then use them prudently.