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JUSTAS for All: Canada's Coming Drone Army

by C. L. Cook Canadian Foreign Policy

Also posted by C. L. Cook:

In his 1980 hit 'Games without Frontiers,' venerable British rock star and social activist Peter Gabriel evokes a near-future world where, "if looks could kill they probably will" in a "war without tears."
Canada's military currently leases several Heron UAVs from an Israeli company
A little more than a quarter of a century later, drone weapons patrol the skies of the forever war zone known as The Arc of Instability, occasionally sending to the earth from on high Hell Fire missiles down into suspect automobiles and the believed lairs of insurgent terrorists, obliterating they, their hidey-holes, and anything within the blast path.
It's a tidy operation, often referred to as "surgical."
There is no risk or fear the "surgeons" will be lost in battle; no danger blood, or tears will be shed by them. The good doctors performing these ministrations do so remotely, hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles from the theatre of war.
Imagine: They can leave home in the morning, suffer rush-hour traffic on the way to work, spend the morning virtually soaring above the far-off fringes of empire, break for lunch, and fire missiles into wedding parties before five.
Not just a job, indeed.
It's a model of the new age of perpetual war pioneered by Israel and America, and it's a model the generals and their paymasters in Ottawa would like to emulate, making of Canadian Forces' distant warriors, able to kill people a half world away by remote control and still make it home for the puck's drop.
With 129 Canadian soldiers dead in Afghanistan, and public patience with the nearly eight year-long deployment there wearing thinner with each corpse delivered home, the prospect of conducting casualty-free engagement with the enemies of our friends is an enticing possibility. It is this prospect more than any other single attribute of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) behind the Canadian Forces' Joint Unmanned Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS) project.

Though former pilot and current head of the CF project JUSTAS, Leftenant-Colonel Gord Smith is cautious about arming Canada's soon to grow remote-controlled air force with Hell Fires and other weapons, saying it's important they "walk before they can run," he recognizes the importance of the burgeoning fleets of the machines, and their limitations.

Writing for Vanguard, a Canadian defense magazine and website, Chris Thatcher quotes Smith saying;

“Whether we get to the point of a HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) machine is really going to be a resources-based decision. It gets prohibitive and starts to defeat the argument that UAVs are cheaper and more expendable. Ownership is not as inexpensive as people make it out to be — where you may diminish the requirements for people to operate the air vehicle, you start to pick up and intensify the requirement for a more robust information management backend to manage the data that comes off the device.”

More than merely monetary concerns, Smith's reservations about the vehicle include the time lag issue, where the situation on the ground can change dramatically between the time images are received and sent to HQ by the UAVs and the time action is sanctioned and executed. As more mistaken attacks occur, and civilian body counts escalate, tasking Canadian UAVs for the kind of assassinations and ground support missile launching increasingly common for U.S. forces is something none in JUSTAS want to see. Smith says,

“We’re not in a position to even consider that now. We’re going to evolve our inventory to eventually get there. We’re not going to put hellfire missiles on our first UAV, notwithstanding the fact that some people may want to see that. We’ve got to crawl a little before we walk, and then walk before we run.”

Reservations aside, the Harper government is determined to get more UAVs into the field and increase the roles of those vehicles. Last December, the Conservatives announced a 750 million dollar investment in the technology. The next decision they will make is where to spend that $750 million. Israel and the U.S. are the two UAV super powers, but it looks like Israel Aeronautic Industries (IAI) and its Canadian partner MacDonald Dettwiler Aeronautics (MDA) are front-runners. They inked a 100 million dollar contract to supply an unrevealed number of UAVs in August of last year.

David Hargreaves, a vice-president of integrated information solutions for MDA, pitches for an Israeli contract, saying;

"We did a big evaluation and we believe Israel is better at this than the Americans. They have been flying longer and have learned a lot of lessons. A lot of aspects of their program are very advanced. They have the technology and experience. They build them right."

Just and Right

As the bodies of the latest two Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan are returned to their families for burial, the chance for the government of Canada today and those that will follow to make military commitments to NATO, the UN, and the American military without risking Canadian lives is particularly poignant and tempting.

Canadians are often told, it is their willingness to engage in international conflicts militarily that gains the country status amongst our allies. As a secondary nation, the addition of UAVs to Canada's arsenal promises the CF an ability to "punch beyond their weight" on the world stage.
The vehicles also hold the promise of a more effective reconnaissance capability at home in the country's vast, rugged, and inaccessible border regions - most notably the far north, (they've already been used domestically to monitor the pacific coastline and security of the G20 meetings held in mountainous Kananaskas, Alberta last year). But, before heading too far down the new, remote-controlled militarist road, Mr. Harper and his aspirant successors must consider the collateral costs to the country's prestige, and to its soul.

While there may be few tears shed for the anonymous "others" that fall through the agency of Canada's military, there is a price to be paid. No longer a "peacekeeping" but war fighting nation, Canada has become, since the 9/11 attacks, barely recognizable to its pre-attack state and hardly discernible from its war obsessed neighbour to the south.


Where Peter Gabriel may be right about the dirth of tears robot armies need shed, on the other side of the War on Terror there are real people,

more often than not civilians, supplying an endless river of them.

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