Think carefully about the push for drones

The Hill Times talks to Steve Staples and others about the Harper government’s plan to acquire armed drones for Canada (Matt Moir, “Feds should think carefully about Canadian military’s push for drones, say experts, critics,” Hill Times, 27 May 2013 — subscription required):

The federal government should think very carefully about the military’s push to obtain drones, experts and critics say.

“These drones have a psychological impact on the countries that possess them and the militaries that use them, and they tend to use them for targeted killings,” said Steven Staples, president of the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa-based think-tank.

The Canadian Forces are pursuing drone technology under a program called Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS). According to a Department of National Defence status report, “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.”

“As we’ve learned in Afghanistan, the misuse of firepower has a tremendously negative impact on our ability to succeed in our missions. When civilians are killed, it turns populations against us and it gives our opponents the opportunity to use it against us in the battle for hearts and minds,” said Mr. Staples in an interview with The Hill Times.

Mr. Staples said that surveillance-only drones monitoring Canada’s coasts do not alarm the Rideau Institute. “There’s probably not a lot of difference between a plane that has a pilot and a plane that doesn’t have a pilot when it’s used for surveillance. In fact, we’ve suggested in the past that Arctic surveillance might be better handled by high altitude, long endurance unmanned aircraft,” Mr. Staples said. But there is another element to the JUSTAS program. The RCAF wants to equip drones with weapon technology.

Last year, in an appearance before the Senate Defence Committee, RCAF Commander Lt.-Gen. André Deschamps said that armed drones are a requirement of the Canadian Forces.

“Clearly, in foreign operations, during complex missions, like in Afghanistan or Libya, for example, the advantage of drones is that they remain in position for long periods of time and they see a lot. The capability for action is also very important being able to have a short- or medium-range weapon is very important. So the capability to be armed, if required, especially internationally, will be part of the needs identified for the drones,” said Lt.-Gen. Deschamps at a Feb. 27 meeting.

But Michael Skinner, a researcher with York University’s Centre for International Security Studies, said he is uneasy about Canada embracing the weaponization of UAVs.

“I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan and one of the first grievances people mention against the United States and the West, in general, are the drone attacks. They’re not as clean as politicians would like us to believe they are,” Mr. Skinner told The Hill Times in an interview.

Not everyone is opposed to armed drones for the Canadian Forces, of course. Liberal defence critic John McKay is quoted in the article as supporting armed drones when their use is “consistent with international standards of engagement.”

And others are positively enthusiastic:

Alexandre Wilner, a visiting researcher with the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, is a proponent of armed drones.

“Drone technology, simply put, [is the] wave of the future. We’re going to see unmanned use of machines and robots in both surveillance—so policing efforts and those kind of things—but also in terms of military use in all future battlefields. So certainly I think Canadian Forces need those capabilities and probably starting in the air is the best bet,” said Mr. Wilner.

In response to some of the concerns about the use of armed drones, Mr. Wilner said, “Most new technologies when first applied to the battlefield are controversial… there’s a certain degree of pushback.”

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Tags: Armed drones, Canada, Canadian Forces, Drones, Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS), JUSTAS, Military procurement, Rideau Institute, Steven Staples