Should the Canadian Armed Forces purchase armed drones?

by Ernie Regehr (First published in Legion Magazine, July/August 2016)

There is no surprise in a Defence Chief wanting drones and wanting them armed, but to insist, as has General Jonathan Vance, that “there is little point to having a UAV that can see a danger but can’t strike it,” seems at best odd. After all, the list of military systems that are very good at seeing danger without having any capacity to strike at it includes some pretty key items.

The CP140 surveillance aircraft does carry a torpedo in its anti-submarine role, but that is its only strike capacity, and a torpedo brings nothing to its sovereignty patrols, surveillance missions, or search and rescue assistance. Satellites, coastal radars, or underwater surveillance in the Arctic (the objective of the Defence Department’s long-running Northern Watch project) are certainly not rendered pointless by the absence of a strike capacity.

Drones in Canada would presumably serve what the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the Minister of National Defence calls a renewed “focus on surveillance and control of Canadian territory and approaches, particularly our Arctic regions.” Enforcement and strike capabilities are implied in “control,” but given the decades-long post-Cold War consensus that there is no military threat to Canadian sovereignty and territorial integrity, the real security need is not for defence in that sense but for effective intelligence and surveillance in aid of civilian regulatory, law enforcement, and emergency response authorities.

Indeed, when military monitors now detect threats to public safety and well-being, the Department of National Defence is rarely the lead response agency. When coastal radars, for example, detect unauthorized aircraft, which for more than a half century have overwhelmingly been civilian, the response, sometimes assisted by interceptions with military aircraft, falls to civilian police. The Russian strategic bombers that visit international air space adjacent to North America from time to time are the exception, but they represent no military danger and striking at them is definitely not in NATO’s peacetime playbook. In the maritime environment, the Coast Guard and Department of Fisheries and Oceans are the lead agencies when surveillance points to breaches of Canadian regulations and laws, or international identification requirements.

Any added value that drones might bring to Canadian security would come via their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance duties and their support for search and rescue. Arming them would do nothing to make them more effective in those roles.

But should drones deployed overseas be armed? Again, the context is important.

The Government has not ruled out participation in international military coalition operations, but it specifically proposes to reduce the focus on direct combat and to concentrate instead on “training of local forces and humanitarian support” – not a compelling case for acquiring a fleet or armed drones.

The Government has also promised a renewed “commitment to United Nations peace operations,” and while complex UN peace support operations do regularly involve combat elements, they are not traditional war-fighting scenarios. UN operations rely much more on surveillance and monitoring in support of military and police stabilization forces than on defeating an adversary. The overriding objectives of UN peace support operations are to create space for political engagement, to protect civilians and confront spoilers, and to facilitate humanitarian and reconstruction efforts. Intelligence and surveillance capacity, along with sufficient numbers of international security personnel, are much more pertinent than the precision strikes that armed drones are said to offer.

In short, armed drones make no sense in homeland security operations, the primary focus of Canadian Forces, and are not priorities for expeditionary missions that are to focus on training local security forces and, especially, on UN peace support operations.


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