Drone squadron can’t get off ground
Lack of planes, personnel results in delays for Canadian military program
The Canadian Forces will need more than 350 people if it wants to create a new squadron for unmanned aircraft, but the capability promised by Prime Minister Stephen Harper more than six years ago is still being studied within the military.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay has been told the drone program will require 369 personnel, according to documents obtained by the Citizen. The details of the program, called the Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System or JUSTAS, were provided to MacKay in 2010 by then Maj.-Gen. Tom Lawson in an update on how the proposed purchase was progressing. While Lawson has since been promoted to chief of the defence staff, the top military job in the country, the JUSTAS program has fallen behind.
The first of the drones, also known as 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.
But now the air force can’t say when a contract for unmanned aircraft might be finalized, let alone when the UAVs would be operating. It also can’t say where the needed personnel for the new squadron would be coming from.
“JUSTAS remains in the options analysis phase while the RCAF refines its force structure requirements,” Maj. James Simiana stated in an email. “This will ensure the correct balance of manned and unmanned aircraft to meet Canada’s security and defence needs.”
In the run-up to the 2006 election, Harper promised that under a Conservative government, Goose Bay in Newfoundland and Labrador would become home to a new 650-member military rapid reaction unit as well as a new squadron operating longrange UAVs. Once in power in 2006, the Conservatives reiterated their pledge to create the rapid response unit at Goose Bay as well as the UAV squadron. The government has not followed through with either.
The Citizen had earlier reported that the plan to buy the pilotless aircraft to conduct surveillance off the country’s coasts, in the Arctic and on overseas missions, fell behind schedule because the military didn’t have enough people to fly the drones.
The federal government asked industry several months ago for details about which aircraft might be available. The Defence Department had also told the Citizen earlier this year that it hoped to request preliminary approval for the purchase sometime in 2013. But in the air force’s latest update, it is no longer committing to any timeline. The project is estimated to cost at least $1 billion.
The Canadian Forces has used unarmed UAVs at various stages during the Afghan war. But it has been trying to purchase a fleet of armed drones for years. In 2007, the Citizen reported the Defence Department had asked the Conservative government for approval to buy the U.S.built Predator drones for the Afghanistan mission, but that request was denied because of concerns in Cabinet and the federal bureaucracy that the deal would be non-competitive.
The government eventually approved the lease of Israeli-built UAVs from MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates in Richmond, B.C. Those unarmed Heron 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 show that military leaders saw the Libyan war as a possible way to move its stalled UAV program forward. According to a briefing presented to MacKay, they pointed out that the purchase of such aircraft for the Libyan conflict could kick-start their larger project to buy UAVs for both domestic and international missions. The war, however, was in its final stages when the briefing was provided and the proposal didn’t get approval from the Conservative government.
At least one company has already made an unsolicited pitch to provide UAVs to the Canadian Forces.
The U.S. aerospace firm Northrop Grumman has proposed the government buy a fleet of Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles. Those would be used for a variety of missions and to provide surveillance along Canada’s coastlines, in particular, in the Arctic. The aircraft could operate from Goose Bay, Montreal, or Comox, B.C., the company suggested.
The Global Hawk is capable of staying aloft for up to 35 hours, transmitting video to ground stations during its flight. Unlike the Predator, it is only for surveillance and is not armed.