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.

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