In The Media

Our drones should watch — not kill

by Fraser Holman

August 29, 2013

In an effort to remain competitive, the Canadian military is exploring the use of Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs). Where will this lead? Without privileged access into their decision-making process, we can only speculate.

Military forces exist to apply, or threaten to apply, controlled violence in support of legitimate government policy. UAVs must fit effectively into this framework, which means their contributions must be controlled and accountable. That means eliminating roles where UAVs might operate autonomously — whatever the enthusiasts may think about letting them loose on our behalf.

UAVs could be used offensively or defensively; the Department of National Defence might naturally lean to the latter role. But this division is of very limited value, as means that appear defensive in nature can easily be construed as supporting offensive objectives. Better to identify roles as armed or unarmed, which closely parallel the separation into active and passive weapons systems. Here it is clear that the Canadian preference will be for passive, unarmed applications. They can serve vital roles such as surveillance in its many guises: decoying, communication relay, target designation and many related functions.

Surveillance roles can be accomplished by UAVs in smaller and more efficient platforms, over longer distances and greater mission endurance, without fatigue. They can feed reams of data to ground controllers or to human combatants who can then execute the necessary coercive force, with full human control of the results. Arming a UAV might seem like a useful efficiency, and it is — but so far it is freighted with the risk of misapplication of force. And in circumstances where our military would wish to exercise the armed ground-strike version it would be acting in coalition with others, like the United States, who do have, or aspire to have, such weapons systems.

Canada’s far North is a critical component of our nation, comprising much more of our territory than the narrow strip of populated countryside in the south. Right now we’re largely blind up there — but UAVs would serve admirably in the surveillance of the North in ways that our current technology cannot. High Altitude Long Endurance (so-called HALE) vehicles would operate at altitudes above 50,000 feet where no other air traffic would conflict.

They could be directed to areas of particular interest while also establishing patterns of normal activity across the entire territory. For comparison, ground-based radar systems are limited to line-of-sight — they can’t see beyond the next hill. And they are very limited in number. Satellite sensors are either at very high orbit (geosynchronous, 36,000 kilometres) at the equator — with extremely oblique sightlines to the north — or are in low (300 to 800 kilometres), probably polar orbits with very short dwell-time on any particular target area under their track. Satellites do not manoeuvre and are confined to their established orbits.

Thus, the UAV has the advantages of proximity (giving improved sensor resolution), virtually unlimited dwell-time, and responsiveness to direction. These are enormous advantages that will mean, in the long run, Canada will want to use such systems for northern security.

The armed roles that are discussed occasionally in the media will be interesting to explore and develop for those with global interests and needs, and the technical capacity to do so. But it is unlikely that such roles will have a domestic Canadian application, and the ultimate need of our military is to defend our homeland. So it would be a stretch to think that Canada will leap in to these armed roles at present.

Major-General (Retired) Fraser Holman accumulated over 3,600 hours pilot-in-command time during his military career and is an honorary Colonel of the Canadian Forces College. His paper, The Future of Drones in Canada: Perspectives From a Former RCAF Fighter Pilot, was recently published by the Canadian International Council and Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Annual Defence Procurement Conference

Ottawa, Ontario

October 25, 2022


G7 Update

by Heather Hiscox (feat. Andrew Rasiulis), CBC, June 30, 2022

Inside Policy: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

by Editorial Staff (feat. Rob Huebert), MLI, June 30, 2022

Canada to upgrade Latvia battlegroup to a brigade, boost number of troops

by Editorial Staff (feat. David Perry), Kelowna Now, June 29, 2022

What slowdown? Canada's economy to top G7 on high oil, crop prices

by Julie Gordon and Rod Gordon (feat. Kevin Birn), Saltwire, June 29, 2022

Alliance renforcée

by Céline Galipeau (feat. Stefanie von Hlatky), Le Tele Journal, June 29, 2022

1.6 million public chargers needed in Canada for EV transition

by Larysa Harapyn (feat. Brian Kingston), The Financial Post, June 29, 2022

Passport? What passport?

by Martin C. Barr (feat. Andrew Griffith), Laval News, June 29, 2022

Oil production test looms for OPEC heavyweights Saudi Arabia, UAE

by Editorial Staff (feat. Ellen Wald), S&P Global, June 29, 2022

Eric Nuttall & Amrita Sen - Oil & Energy Update

by Eric Nuttall (feat. Amrita Sen), Nine Point Partners, June 29, 2022

All talk, no traction

by Maura Forest and Andy Blatchford (feat. Robert Huebert), Politico, June 29, 2022

U.S. pushes for Russian oil price ceiling. Feasible?

by Matt Levin (feat. Ellen Wald), MARKETPLACE, June 28, 2022

Russia Ukraine Update

by Susan Bonner (feat. Andrew Rasiulis), CBC Radio One, June 28, 2022

Un sommet de l’OTAN pour tenir tête à la Russie

by Marie Vastel (feat. David Perry), Le Devoir, June 26, 2022

A geopolitical alternative system of co-operation for nations

by Staff Reporter (feat. Swaran Singh), The Zimbabwe Mail, June 26, 2022

Analyst says high oil prices spurs little drilling

by Lee Harding (feat. Kevin Birn), Western Standard, June 26, 2022

It’s time for Canada to get serious about defence

by John Ibbitson (feat. James Fergusson and Rob Huebert), The Globe and Mail, June 25, 2022

Trudeau meets with Rwandan president, expands diplomatic mission in Kigali

by CBC Newsroom Staff (feat. Colin Robertson), CBC Newroom, June 24, 2022

With New Threats Looming, Canada Commits Billions to Air Defense

by News Desk (feat. Andrea Charron), New Express News, June 24, 2022

Drop in oil prices is not a quick fix for global inflation

by Editorial Staff (feat. Amrita Sen), The National, June 24, 2022

Highs and Lows of the Spring Sitting

by Peter Van Dusen (feat. Andrew Griffith), Prime Time Politics, June 24, 2022

Oil Incurs Second Weekly Loss As Analysts Differ On Inflation, Demand

by Ship and Bunker News Team (feat. Amrita Sen), Ship And Bunker, June 24, 2022


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Suite 1800, 150–9th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3H9


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 5S6


Phone: (613) 288-2529
Email: [email protected]


Making sense of our complex world.
Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.


© 2002-2022 Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Charitable Registration No. 87982 7913 RR0001


Sign in with Facebook | Sign in with Twitter | Sign in with Email