Canada's chief of defence staff announced this week that the Canadian military needs new drones and he wants those drones to be armed — an upgrade that doesn't come without its share of controversy.

Gen. Jonathan Vance's comments came on the heels of a U.S. air strike in Somalia over the weekend that killed 150 militants linked to al-Shabaab. The strike was partly carried out by unmanned drones.

But military use of armed drones is fraught with controversies, from the perceived ease at which drone operators pull the trigger, to the number of civilian deaths associated with drone strikes.

The benefits of using drones, however, are difficult to ignore — namely the fact drone operators don't run the risk of dying in a strike, as fighter-pilots do.

"It's high time that Canada bought that kind of a drone," says Elinor Sloan, an international relations professor at Carleton University. "Arming them simply provides options in a war zone."

As Canada gets set for a possible debate on the topic, here's a look at some of the pros and cons of using armed drones.

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Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance said the military needs armed drones, saying there is little point to having them if they cannot strike. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Cheaper, more efficient

The use of armed drones is just the next step in the increasing "stand-off character" of warfare, Sloan argues. Humans used to fight hand-to-hand and developed tools to get further and further away from close-up combat.

"Drones just put that effort still further away from direct human contact," she says. "But a human is still in charge and directly tethered to that platform."

Drones are safer for those operating them since pilots can be thousands of kilometres away from their targets, with no risk of physical injury.

And they're relatively cheap, says Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor of international affairs, also at Carleton University. "There are multiple different uses for them — not just killing machines."

Drones can be better for warfare because of their precision; their surveillance capabilities allow them to follow a target for hours or days before deciding whether to strike.

This allows for what Jesse Kirkpatrick calls "tactical patience."

"It allows individuals to be operating in a cool remove that will allow them to maybe not engage in atrocities that some do after the stress of battle takes its toll on them," says Kirkpatrick, the assistant director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at Virginia's George Mason University.

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Al-Shabaab fighters display weapons as they conduct military exercises in northern Mogadishu, Somalia, in this photo from Oct. 2010. The U.S. military said at least 150 fighters from the group were killed over the weekend in a strike that used both manned aircraft and unmanned MQ-9 Reaper drones. (Farah Abdi Warsameh/Associated Press)

Sloan and Carvin both say drone pilots often don't act alone — up to 25 people can be involved in a mission, including the U.S. president.

Despite drones' ability to be more effective, Kirkpatrick says that "cool remove" can be unsettling.

"You have someone who seems to be hunting individuals from 3,000 miles away and can patiently wait for them," he says. "I think that image bothers people."

Civilian casualties

Despite the benefits, some say there is a high civilian death toll associated with drone strikes. The problem is those numbers are incredibly difficult to verify.

"We just don't have good data," says Carvin. "Those reports are based on the U.S. program, and are based on reports from far-off areas that we don't have access to."

She adds that some of the reports only looked at a small number of drone strikes, which can skew the data. "They're deeply methodologically flawed."

Drone pilots are sometimes disparagingly called "chair pilots," as there is a perception that their distance from the scene of a strike allows them to more easily pull the trigger. 

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Drone operators fly an MQ-9 Reaper training mission from a ground control station at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Some drone pilots have been disparagingly called 'chair pilots' because of how they control drones from thousands of kilometres away. (Airman 1st Class Michael Shoemaker/USAF/Reuters)

But Kirkpatrick says he found drone pilots suffer psychological trauma at a comparable rate to fighter pilots.

"That can lead us to speculatively conclude that it's not like playing a video game — the killing and the harm feels very real," he says.

Secrecy, myths

The public perception of the U.S. drone program in particular has not been helped by the fact it is shrouded in secrecy.

"One of the main issues is its lack of transparency, and there are significant issues for democratic oversight, participation and civilian control of the military," says Kirkpatrick. He adds this secrecy makes it very difficult to determine how many civilians are being harmed.

The U.S. government claims no civilians have been killed, but that's debatable based on who they define as a combatant.

"Observers say the only reason you can claim this is that the definition of what it means to be a combatant is way too broad," says Sarah Kreps, an associate professor of governance and law at Cornell University who has written two books about drones.

Whether the Canadian military eventually moves to using armed drones may be a debate that's missing the point; Carvin says it doesn't make a difference if the military kills people with F-18 fighter jets or with armed drones.

"[Drones] are a shiny object and we all get distracted because it's a new technology and that's understandable," she says. "But what we need to be asking is: 'What is the actual policy that we're using this for?'"

Canada should consider buying drones, she says, if they can potentially contribute to the country's future military missions — not just because everyone else has them.