Drones debate is just getting started

This article was originally published in Esprit de Corps magazine.

Canada’s Drones Debate Is Just Getting Started

Steven Staples

Civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes are “extremely regrettable. But such incidents have been rare…,” according to Postmedia reporter-columnist Matthew Fisher. In his commentary last month, he went on to remind readers that the number of civilians killed by the Taliban’s roadside bombs is “much higher,” and that drones “have already saved Canadian lives.”

Matthew Fisher is probably the only person to ever characterize civilian deaths from drone strikes as being rare, and his column signals that the debate on Canadian drones is about to get underway in earnest. A recipient of the military-funded Conference of Defence Associations’ annual journalist award, Matthew Fisher tends to reflect the military’s communications line on controversial issues. Similar letters arguing in favour of armed drones written by military figures have appeared in newspapers.

The increased media coverage is good news, because Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plan for armed drones is not much more than a faint blip on Ottawa’s radar screen. So faint, in fact, that Green Party Member of Parliament Elizabeth May actually contradicted a concerned constituent writing about the issue, replying reassuringly that “there are no plans to purchase armed attack drones.”

After a second look at the Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System, or JUSTAS, and media reports about the military’s plans for armed drones, the typically well-informed MP explained to supporters that, “In the now well-worn fashion of the Harper Conservatives, these plans have been cloaked in secrecy. As an MP I have tools available and will use them to press for solid information on these plans.”

The Canadian Forces have tried to avoid scrutiny of their drones plan. When asked, officials tout the JUSTAS program as providing a high-altitude long endurance capability for Arctic sovereignty, not for remotely controlled assassination missions. But buried inside the JUSTAS program is a more lethal variety of drone.

National Defence’s report on Major Crown Projects for 2012-2013 noted that JUSTAS “will complement existing reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition capabilities, increase maritime and arctic domain awareness and provide precision force application in support of Land and Special Operations Forces” (emphasis added).

Defence companies have taken note. As David Pugliese reported in last month’s Esprit de Corps, despite delays in the program’s timelines, companies remain somewhat optimistic. MDA is promoting the Israeli-made Heron, and DND briefed the government on how the Heron could be weaponized during its use in Afghanistan. General Atomics, and its Canadian partner CAE, is promoting a maritime version of its controversial Reaper aircraft. Northrup Grumman is offering its unarmed Global Hawk for surveillance missions, and its weapons-capable Firebird aircraft.

Controversy over the U.S.’s covert drone program and revelations about President Obama’s targeted killing program have awoken opposition to armed drones in the U.S., and the controversy is spilling over into Canada. More than 5,000 emails against armed drones have been delivered to the Prime Minister’s and other party leaders’ offices, and opposition parties are laying out their positions on the question of armed drones.

Liberal MP John McKay told The Hill Times that the use of armed drones is acceptable under some circumstances. “I have no principled objection to the arming of drones. But, and there’s a big but here, it has to be consistent with international standards of engagement,” Mr. McKay, the party’s defence critic, said.

The NDP response to letter-writers was even more cautionary. “The use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan raised serious legal and ethical questions with regard to the nature of the weaponry and the possibility of wrongfully targeting civilians and causing disproportionate collateral damage,” they said, adding that the party opposed armed drones in Afghanistan and that future use by the Canadian Forces should be contingent upon “a full assessment being done first, including due consideration of the moral, legal and strategic implications of their use.”

The debate over armed drones will differ from other military programs. Yes, the anticipated $1 billion cost will be a factor, but so will the weapons’ potential use in targeted killings, and the ensuing implications for the Canadian Forces under international law.

The last legal controversy embroiling the Canadian Forces, the transfer of detainees into the hands of torturers in the Afghan security forces, was widely cited as the real reason behind Prime Minister Harper’s proroguing of Parliament in late 2009. Surely even Stephen Harper, the military’s greatest booster, would want to avoid a repeat of that situation. Let’s hope that he forgoes the weaponized drones plans, and confines their role to unarmed surveillance and sovereignty protection, exclusively.

More on Ceasefire.ca’s No Attack Drones campaign.

U.S. Department of Defense photo

Tags: Armed drones, Canadian defence policy, Canadian military spending, David Pugliese, Drones, Esprit de Corps magazine, John McKay, Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS), JUSTAS, Liberal Party, Matthew Fisher, Military procurement, New Democratic Party, Rideau Institute, Steven Staples