Eye on AfghanistanCanada's next UAVs will carry bombs

Published 5 March 2009

The UAVs Canadian forces are using in Afghanistan will soon do more than surveillance duty; Canada has leased Heron UAVs from Israel for the purpose of using them in offensive operations

Unlike the UAVs currently patrolling the Afghan skies, Canada’s next generation of pilotless aircraft will carry bombs or guided missiles, says Canada’s top air force commander. “Armed UAVs with air to ground weapons are a valuable capability and it’s a good option to have,” said Lt.-Gen. Angus Watt, who was in Kandahar. It is the first time the chief of air staff has confirmed the Canadian military’s intention to buy weaponized drones. Watt has expressed skepticism about armed UAVs in the past. He reiterated some of those concerns this week, but said the weapons are a worthwhile capability. “Canada very much respects the law of armed conflict and you have to satisfy a number of conditions before you drop a weapon on anything,” he said. “In the case of the UAV, those conditions will be very difficult to satisfy.” The Gazatte’s Archie McLean writes that Watt’s comments were under a security embargo until he left Afghanistan Wednesday.

Canada is currently leasing several Heron UAVs from Israel that are flying over Afghanistan right now, conducting surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Under a program called JUSTAS — the Joint UAV Surveillance and Target Acquisition System — Canada is exploring weaponized models such as the United States is currently using to hunt and kill insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The program still needs government approval and could cost as much as $750 million.

The next generation UAVs “have a huge role to play in the future of the Canadian Forces,” Watt said. Pilots are already testing the Heron. They sit in front of screens, manipulating joysticks, trackballs and control boxes like an elaborate video game. Capt. Brent Peardon says it’s actually pretty similar to a conventional aircraft except he has fewer senses to guide decision-making. “You’re not experiencing the three-dimensional realm the same as a pilot,” Peardon says. “You have to pay extra close attention to our instrumentation and parameters.”

The Heron looks like a cross between a glider plane and a 1,100 kilogram insect with a 16.6-meter wing span. It can fly for up to 24 hours at a time and carries equipment designed to detect IEDs or other explosive material on the ground. It has advantages, too, over the older Sperwer UAVs, which are smaller and sound like a flying lawn mower. “The Heron can go further, it can stay up longer, it can do it without being detected and it provides very high fidelity image back to the operators here,” says Col. Christopher Coates, the air wing commander.

While Canadians are just starting to ramp up their robot fleet, the United States has been using them for increasingly sophisticated jobs. According to P. W. Singer, the author of the book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, the United States has more than 5,300 UAVs, including the heavily armed Reaper drone, which can carry four Hellfire missiles and a pair of 227 kilogram laser-guided bombs. The united States also has thousands of ground-based robots, including one that can shoot down incoming rockets, artillery or mortar rounds. In Afghanistan, Canadian combat engineers use robots to diffuse IEDs in the same way police bomb squads do in Canada.

UAVs may never eliminate conventional aircraft completely, but for some jobs - the dull, dirty, or dangerous ones — they are particularly well suited. Darren Daigle, an operations manager with MDA, the company maintaining the Herons as part of the lease, envisions them being used for long cargo flights, search and rescue patrols or forest fire fighting.

Canada’s new UAVs could be flying as soon as February 2012.