In The Media

The case for armed drones in Canada

by Roland Paris

The Montreal Gazette
August 31, 2012

The next great debate in Canadian defence policy is likely to centre on the acquisition of armed drones by the Canadian Forces — as well it should, given the potential for such weapons systems to be misused.

At the time of this writing, Ottawa has not revealed whether it intends to buy unmanned aerial vehicles in addition to — as a partial substitute for — the federal government’s increasingly expensive plan to purchase 65 manned F-35 fighter jets.

There are compelling reasons to consider drones for the Canadian Forces. We have the longest coastline in the world, with relatively few ships and plans to patrol it. The Arctic is particularly costly and difficult to patrol regularly, yet untapped undersea oil and gas reserves are fuelling international competition over control of the Arctic. Drones, which are generally cheaper to purchase and operate than manned aircraft and patrol ships, could help to fill large gaps in Canada’s coastal and offshore surveillance and defence system.

Moreover, drones are powerful weapons in coalition warfare. The Libyan campaign of 2011, for example, relied in part on American drones to identify and attack targets. Since then, NATO announced that it would spend nearly $4 billion to purchase and operate armed drones over the next 20 years. These systems also offer Canada a means of participating in coalition military operations overseas without endangering the lives of Canadian pilots.

David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen unearthed evidence that senior Canadian defence officials pitched the idea of buying armed drones in 2011. In February 2012, unnamed sources in the Department of National Defence told John Ivison of the National Post that the department was preparing to tender a contract for a half-dozen armed drones. There have also been reports that the U.S. defence contractor, Northrop Grumman, is developing an updated version of its Global Hawk drone to operate in the punishing Arctic, and that it is hoping to sell this system to Canada.

The mounting costs of the F-35 program will almost certainly drive Ottawa to decide whether or not to purchase drones within the next few years. The odds strongly favour a positive decision. Although the federal government is unlikely to completely abandon its plan to replace aging CF-18s with newer, manned fighters, the size of this acquisition may be reduced — and cheaper drones are likely to fill part of this gap, among others.

Before Ottawa decides to buy armed drone systems, however, a critical question needs to be debated and resolved: How exactly will Canada use the weapons carried by these drones?

For several years, the United States has employed a growing fleet of armed drones to kill people it deems a threat to the U.S., including in countries where the U.S. is not currently at war, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have claimed that such assassinations are legal. These claims are not convincing. Rather, they encourage other countries to acquire drone technology and perhaps eventually to use this technology in their own assassination campaigns.

Canada should have nothing to do with such activities. Before acquiring lethal drones, therefore, the Canadian government should clearly indicate that it will not participate in or facilitate “targeted killing,” either overtly or covertly. Indeed, Ottawa should be doing what previous Canadian governments, regardless of party, have traditionally done very well: leading an international effort to develop new multilateral rules in an area of international concern — in this case, rules to limit the misuse of robotic weapons.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with armed drones or the idea of Canada equipping its armed forces with such weapons systems. If they are managed wisely — and if the doctrine governing their use includes clear and effective safeguards — drones may be an important addition to Canada’s arsenal, not to mention a means of patrolling our coastlines and coastal seas. Without such safeguards, however, the costs of acquiring armed drones will be much more than financial.

Roland Paris is university research chair in International Security and Governance at the University of Ottawa and research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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