“Canadian Drones” by Denis Stairs*

*Moderator's Note: This article appeared originally under the same title in The Ottawa Citizen on 17 May 2012. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of both the author, The Ottawa Citizen and CDFAI. Watch for an expanded version of this article in a future issue of CDFAI’s quarterly journal, “The Dispatch,” which can be located on their homepage.

"Canadian Drones"

We call flying military robots ‘drones’. Military and intelligence professionals refer to them as ‘UAVs’, or ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ If they carry weapons as well as cameras, radar and other surveillance sensors, they’re identified as UCAVs, or ‘unmanned combat aerial vehicles’.

Drones come in helicopter and fixed-wing formats. Some are as small as a model airplane. Others, like the General Atomics ‘MQ-9’ (variously called the ‘Predator B’, or ‘Guardian’, or more grimly, ‘Reaper’) have wingspans as wide as 66 feet (20 metres), a range of 1,000 nautical miles (1,850 kilometres), a flight endurance of 14 to 28 hours, depending on load, and a cruising speed of 150-170 knots (276-313 kph). Earlier this month, General Atomics announced a new model under development with an 88-foot wingspan and a 42-hour endurance capacity. Some drones currently in service can operate at altitudes over 50,000 feet. Versions are planned for 70,000 feet. These are not experimental devices. They’ve had extensive operational use since the Vietnam War, and their numbers and configurations are proliferating.

So are the countries that deploy them. The United States, France, Israel and Iran have operational armed drones of their own, and the Americans have made them available to the United Kingdom, Italy and Turkey. Israeli models have been sold or leased to Turkey, too, and also to Russia, France, Germany, India and Canada. China, Russia, the U.K. and others have drones under development. A French reconnaissance drone with a 200-kilometre range was deployed by Canada for a time in Afghanistan, and has also been used by Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, and Sweden. And these are only partial lists of the publicly known players. Because drone technology was initially geared largely to classified military and intelligence operations, public knowledge and debate have been slow to emerge. But the implications are starting to attract attention. Three main debates are underway.

The first results from the growth of civilian and private sector uses of the technology, particularly in the United States. These aren’t considered here. The debate focuses on threats to privacy.

The second debate is concerned with issues of morality and international law that arise from the clandestine use of drones in foreign jurisdictions. Sovereignty is violated. Innocent bystanders are hurt or killed. International rules of law are ignored. Discussion of such matters is worth having, but it’s unlikely to constrain government behaviour.

The third debate is about military utility. In the Canadian context, such discussions could significantly affect procurement priorities and expenditures, and the government knows it. The navy has been testing the ‘ScanEagle’, a relatively small surveillance and reconnaissance drone manufactured by Boeing, with a view to deployment on frigates in the Mediterranean. In mid-February, it became clear that the federal cabinet had been considering the purchase of a half-dozen ‘MQ-9 Reapers’ in lieu of some of the much more expensive F-35s it had planned to order.

It is time for the military implications of such options to be carefully considered, not only by government experts, but also by well-informed independent observers. How reliable are drones? How much cheaper are they? Do they make the avoidance of ‘collateral damage’ harder or easier? Will they generate undesirable incentives to opt for warlike behaviour?

And what are the international consequences of continuing drone proliferation? China appears to be working hard on drone development. Meanwhile, the Americans, worried about Chinese naval expansion, are developing UCAVs that can attack targets 1,500 nautical miles away from their home carriers — roughly triple the range of conventional carrier-based jets. Will such adversarial drone deployments produce stalemates, or further de-stabilize difficult relationships?

In Canada, could drone technology help with Arctic surveillance? If so, should it lead us to re-think the acquisition of Arctic and patrol vessels? What other Canadian military priorities could drones help us to meet at lower cost? These and other questions like them are wide-ranging. The answers could have transformative implications. Now is the time to think them through.

Denis Stairs is the Chair of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute Advisory Council.