DND at the back of the drone line despite contractor pitches
A total of 16 companies have come forward to express interest in providing the Canadian military with drones, but more consultation is in the offing, and it's likely other federal departments will be using the technology well before it arrives at National Defence.
The Trudeau government started browsing the defence marketplace earlier this year, asking contractors for information about what kind of systems were out there, when they are available and potential program options.
The absence of the capability has come up in presentations submitted to the current defence policy review undertaken in the spring by the Liberals.
The consultation paper that kicked off public feedback noted unmanned systems — regardless of whether they are in the air, on land or under the sea — have become "integral to modern military operations."
It also says unmanned aerial systems have been used with "great effect" on operations, including by Canada when the previous Conservative government leased drones from the Israelis.
That lease was dropped after Canada ended its Kandahar combat mission, and since then, troops and sailors have only experimented with micro-drones. The latest involves the recent $14-million purchase for the army of the small RQ-21A Blackjack, which launches via cable system.
The government consultation paper made clear that pilotless planes "offer several advantages that manned aircraft cannot provide."
Even still, a spokesman for Public Services and Procurement Canada says the military is a long way from committing to anything, or even issuing a request for proposals.
"The (Joint Unmanned Surveillance and Target Acquisition System) project team is analyzing the information gathered, and will use it to develop detailed cost estimates and planning documents to help inform available options for this program," said Nicolas Boucher in an email.
It's conceivable that other federal departments will be operating drones before the military.
Last spring, Transport Canada issued a tender call for an unmanned aerial system to survey ice and oil spills in the Canadian Arctic.
Going forward, additional consultations will be required to further refine a strategy that addresses National Defence's short and long term needs.- Nicolas Boucher, spokesman for Public Services and Procurement Canada
The department is only looking for one drone, which would conceivably replace three manned, civilian turbo-prop aircraft that patrol the region.
The Fisheries Department also conducted its own test program on the West Coast in February.
And that is to say nothing about the explosion in commercially available drone technology.
However, National Defence's equipment acquisition guide, which was updated in May, does not foresee the military getting such a capability until at least 2026, a quarter century after the plan was first suggested.
Boucher's written response did not speak to the timeline, but did say that government needs more information to determine project risks, costs and potential economic benefits.
"Going forward, additional consultations will be required to further refine a strategy that addresses National Defence's short and long term needs," he said.
Drones first discussed in 2000
The request for information was at least third time the Canadian government has gone to industry looking for ideas over the last decade and a half.
The Defence Department first began pitching for the technology in September 2000, but the project didn't get any traction until 2003 when medium-altitude drones were leased for experimentation.
The military deployed French-manufactured Spewer remotely piloted planes during the early phases of the war in Afghanistan.
The former Conservative government even promised to create a drone squadron during the 2005 election, and soon after being elected, it implemented a $500-million acquisition program.
But a shortage of staff, which were reassigned to the CH-47F Chinook helicopter program, and political disagreements over whether the drones should be armed caused delays. The program is now estimated to be between $1 billion and $1.5 billion.
The Harper government, at the insistence of the Manley commission, temporarily acquired Heron remotely piloted surveillance planes to support troops during the latter half of the Kandahar combat mission, but the lease was handed over to the Australians after Canada withdrew in 2011.
To arm or not arm? That is the question
The air force has pushed for armed drones.
The country's top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, publicly supported the notion last winter.
"If we are in operations against a force like ISIS, the surveillance piece is important but we also want to contribute to the strike," he said. "In my view, there's little point to having a UAV that can see a danger but can't strike it if it needs to."
But there are also critics who say while a drone strike capability is important, the Canadian government hasn't done enough homework, or put in place a legal framework of accountability for using the weapons.
- An earlier version of the story referenced the 21A Blackjack drone being purchased for the navy. In fact it was purchased from the U.S. Navy for the Canadian Army.Jul 21, 2016 3:57 PM ET