The political questions about Canada's drones have just begun

Defence reporter Paul Weinberg tapped into Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plans for armed drones in a recent issue of Now magazine (“Aerial acrobatics: Despite obfuscations, RCAF says Canada still hot on armed drones,” NOW, 14-21 February 2013). Weinberg reports that for defence analysts and peace activists, the political questions have just begun.

Get ready for all the questions now being raised about the legality of such missions to start migrating north, as the Harper government decides how to acquire armed drones under the Department of National Defence’s Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS).

While the reported $1 billion program is way behind schedule, it’s being closely monitored by the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute, which has just launched a petition and public education campaign aimed at scuttling the idea of armed drones in Canada’s arsenal.

A year ago, then-associate defence minister Julian Fantino dismissed reports that Canada might acquire such vehicles as “mere speculation,” but RCAF spokesperson Holly-Anne Brown confirms to NOW that the force is still on track for the purchases.

The program, she says, is “primarily” about giving Canadian Forces more scope in terms of “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.” (DND has announced the use of smaller unmanned, unarmed craft for Arctic patrols.)

As to larger versions like the Reaper or Predator, capable of carrying weighty “precision-guided munitions,” she says this represents “a secondary” function “in support of deployed operations.

“[JUSTAS] will contribute to equipping the Canadian Forces with the tools they need to be a modern, multi-role force taking on the challenges of the 21st century,” adds Brown, who refuses to be pinned down on a deadline.

The nature of those challenges is, however, not being mapped out. The U.S. and Israel are the only countries employing these weapons at present, according to defence org Global Security. Meanwhile, those working to minimize global conflict fear unmanned vehicles encourage participation in wars because their use means far fewer military casualties and hence less anti-war backlash on the home front.

“We would be making all of the same mistakes the Americans are making,” says the Rideau’s Steven Staples, pointing to the number of civilians inadvertently killed by these supposedly precise weapons. (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates about 500 to 900 civilians have been killed by drones in Pakistan alone since 2004).

At York U, Michael Skinner, a researcher at the Centre for International and Security Studies, points out that the future of aerial war lies with remote-controlled supersonic jet fighters that can get in and out of tricky combat situations. He also suggests that future developments in unmanned aerial tech could make the controversial F-35 stealth jet fighter the Tories have put on hold due to ballooning costs “obsolete.”

“Once the government starts using the [current] armed drones, it will be easier to sell the buying of the next generation of unmanned aerial vehicles, which could be in operation in five years” and will be programmed to fire without the assistance of a human operator at base.

“Politically, governments don’t want to talk about it. You are talking about robotic warfare. That is politically volatile,” he says.

Tags: Armed drones, Drone warfare, Drones, Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS), NOW Magazine, Paul Weinberg, Rideau Institute, Steven Staples