The Canadian military’s almost decade-long quest to buy unmanned aerial vehicles has been partly hung up by an internal debate about whether the air forces needs one — or two — different fleets of drones, the Canadian Press news service has reported.
A series of internal briefings, stretching back over two years, show that military planners were forced to go back to the drawing board in early 2013 after consultations determined what the country wants to accomplish with the remotely piloted planes might be too broad for just a single type of aircraft, the news service noted.
The military expects the drones to not only provide surveillance at home and abroad, but also carry weapons, such as Hellfire missiles, for precision strikes during overseas missions, the Canadian Press reported added.
The CP report dovetails into an article that I had in May. In that article, I reported that the Canada military hopes to have a fleet of drones fully operating by 2023.
But even that 2023 date is tentative as the government still has to approve the project to buy the unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as UAVs.
More from that article:
Military staff privately acknowledge that the plan to buy the pilotless aircraft to conduct surveillance off the country’s coasts, in the Arctic and on overseas missions, has fallen behind schedule because of a lack of money and lack of personnel to staff the new squadron.
At the time, the RCAF declined an interview on UAVs. Air force spokesman Maj. James Simiana stated in an email that “this project is still pre-definition phase and pre-Government announcement.”
But in an April 10 presentation in Ottawa, Col. Phil Garbutt told industry representatives that the project is still a priority and one of the “Big 5” the air force wants to push in the future. He noted the RCAF hopes for the first UAVs to be available for operations in 2021 and that all drones, personnel and infrastructure would be in place by 2023.
Details of Garbutt’s presentation were provided to the Citizen.
But industry representatives privately question whether that timetable will be kept, noting there has been little movement on the project, estimated to cost more than $1 billion.
In his presentation Garbutt acknowledged the dates for the project, dubbed the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Targeting and Acquisition System (JUSTAS), were “notional.”
The first of the UAVs were supposed to be operating starting as early as 2010. That was then pushed back to early 2012 and again changed to 2017 by military officers as they dealt with ongoing delays to the project.
In 2012 the Citizen reported the RCAF had determined it needed 369 people if it wanted to create a new squadron for unmanned aircraft as promised by Harper. Finding those individuals was a problem, according to the military.
Canada has operated UAVs previously. During the Afghan war, the government approved the lease of Israeli-built UAVs from MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates in Richmond, B.C. Those unarmed aircraft operated out of Kandahar airfield.
During the Libyan war in 2011, senior Canadian defence leaders pitched the idea of spending up to $600 million for armed drones to take part in that conflict.
Documents obtained by the Citizen showed that military leaders saw the Libyan war as a possible way to move the stalled JUSTAS program forward. According to a briefing presented to then Defence Minister Peter MacKay, they pointed out the purchase of such aircraft for the Libyan conflict could kick-start their larger drone project.
The war, however, was in its final stages when the briefing was provided and the proposal didn’t get approval from the Conservative government.
The Canadian Press report has further details:
One briefing, prepared for former associate defence minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay in early 2013, says five of eight companies that responded to a request for information in the fall of 2012 proposed a mixed fleet.
The documents show the federal government was prepared to spend to up $3.4 billion to buy and service military drones over 20 years, but those numbers are being revisited because of the delay.
With the political firestorm over the F-35 stealth fighter in mind, the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic wing of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office, told the military it wanted to see three viable, “fully costed options.”
The documents, obtained by The Canadian Press under access-to-information legislation, also show that the air force has tried and failed six times since 2005 to acquire either a permanent fleet of drones or temporary capability.
It did succeed in getting a small fleet of Israeli-built Herons for operations in Kandahar, but that was only because the Manley commission, which examined the war in Afghanistan, made it a condition of Canada’s continued involvement.
The leased aircraft were handed to the Australians following the end of Canada’s Kandahar deployment in 2011.
Drones are becoming ubiquitous not only in many modern militaries, but commercially.
The fact National Defence hasn’t been able to get its act together shouldn’t be surprising given the budget restraints imposed on it, said University of Ottawa defence analyst Philippe Lagasse.
The air force’s budget and expectations for replacement aircraft are often directed toward single fleets and having industry come back to say expectations don’t match the technology must have thrown officials for a loop.
“Should it be going faster? Sure,” said Lagasse. “Is it easy to do? No.”
It is hard to move faster when National Defence has been saddled with so many competing projects and no overarching policy guidance, he added.
A rewrite of the government’s defence strategy has been in a holding pattern before cabinet since late last fall.
The newly released documents underscore the importance of drone technology, describing it as a “critical enabler” without which surveillance of the country’s vast expanses “will be less effective.”
The absence of unmanned aerial vehicles is also being keenly felt as the military looks at other nations and sees what it could be doing — especially on the domestic front where it has been called upon to deal with the aftermath of floods and storms.
“Had a (UAV) capability existed it would have been utilized in most, if not all, recent natural disasters,” said an April 2013 slide presentation drawn up by the project management office.