Ottawa Citizen

Drone squadron can’t get off ground

Lack of planes, per­son­nel re­sults in de­lays for Cana­dian mil­i­tary pro­gram

- DAVID PUGLIESE Military · Aviation · Politics · Warfare and Conflicts · World Politics · Canadian Forces · Stephen Harper · Peter MacKay · Newfoundland and Labrador · Arctic · Afghanistan · British Columbia · Kandahar · Philadelphia Union · United States of America · Northrop Grumman · Grumman Memorial Park · Montreal · Royal Canadian Air Force · Happy Valley-Goose Bay · Kandahar International Airport · Northrop · Comox

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.

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