Staples and McCorkle Op-ed: Canada should reject armed drones

Embassy News
Wednesday, March 6, 2013

If the Canadian Forces possessed a fleet of armed drones, would Prime Minister Stephen Harper be readying them for Mali?

It’s an important question, given the Canadian military’s long-standing desire for Predators and the government’s interest in providing military support to the French troops battling ethnic Tuareg and Islamist rebels in the former West African colony, while avoiding putting any Canadian troops in harm’s way.

Along with the transport capability provided by our heavy-lift CC-117 cargo planes, drones would be an obvious choice for a Canadian contribution to the counter-insurgency mission.

The Americans are already flying unarmed drones over Mali from neighbouring Niger to provide the French military with surveillance capability. The United States military is establishing a new, larger drone base in Niger, and officials told the New York Times that, for now, Predator drones will be unarmed and will fly only on surveillance missions, although they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens.

The new base shows the US has clearly identified West Africa as the next front in its controversial drone war, and Canada could climb aboard.

Weaponized drones for the Canadian Forces is an issue that has completely avoided scrutiny in Ottawa, even though plans to acquire new drones have been progressing slowly through National Defence for several years. That’s likely because the Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System, or JUSTAS, program is being touted as providing a high-altitude long endurance capability for Arctic sovereignty, not for remotely controlled assassination missions.

But buried inside the JUSTAS program is a more lethal variety of drones. National Defence’s report on major Crown projects for 2012-2013 noted that JUSTAS “will complement existing reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition capabilities, increase maritime and arctic domain awareness and provide precision force application in support of Land and Special Operations Forces.”

Of course drones aren’t new to the Canadian Forces. The unarmed Heron aircraft deployed in Afghanistan is used for surveillance purposes. But to weaponize the Canadian drone program, the military could outfit the Herons with ground attack missiles, or acquire a fleet of the notorious Reaper MQ-9, the drone so widely used by the CIA in Pakistan and Eastern Africa. These drones can fire up to 14 Hellfire missiles.

The military has used every opportunity to argue for armed drones, but the government has not given the authorization as yet. In 2007 The Ottawa Citizen reported that National Defence had asked the Conservative government for approval to buy the US-built Predator drones for the Afghanistan mission.

But that request was denied because of concerns in Cabinet and the federal bureaucracy that the deal would be non-competitive.

In 2009, military officers were once again pushing for missile-equipped Herons operating out of Kandahar Air Field, but the costs and the anticipated end of the mission were just too much.

Then came the air war over Libya in 2011, and another chance to pitch for armed drones. Documents obtained by the Citizen showed that military leaders saw the Libyan war as a possible way to move its stalled drone program forward. The cost was $600 million, but the Libyan war ended before the military could get the armed drone program approved and airborne.

Now there is Mali. Is this the next opportunity to pitch an armed drone program as a contribution to both the French campaign in Mali and the US-led war against al Qaeda in Western Africa?

Let’s hope that this program continues to be delayed indefinitely. Here’s why.

First, the legal standing of the use of these weapons is gravely in doubt. “The US policy of using aerial drones to carry out targeted killings presents a major challenge to the system of international law that has endured since the Second World War,” said United Nations special rapporteur Christof Heyns.

Second, drone attacks dramatically undermine the ability to win the support of the local population, a key reason for NATO’s failure in Afghanistan. Stanley A. McChrystal, the retired US general who led the Joint Special Operations Command responsible for the military’s drone strikes, told Reuters that drones could be a useful tool but were “hated on a visceral level” in some of the places where they were used and contributed to a “perception of American arrogance.”

Third, there’s growing concerns over civilians killed by the houseful in the pursuit of targeting people by drones. The US carries out such strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, often far from any battlefield and without warning. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that as many as 1,007 innocent civilians have been killed by drone strikes since 2004, including 175 children.

Has the Canadian government considered the legal, operational and moral implications of the use of armed drones in this manner? Is the Canadian public, which is accustomed to watching the furor over drones play out on American television, even aware of what our military has in store for Canada?

I doubt it. That’s why the Harper government should limit its JUSTAS program to investigating the use of unarmed drones for surveillance roles abroad, and Arctic sovereignty and monitoring roles in Canada, and slam the door shut on armed drones for the Canadian Forces.

Steven Staples is the president of the Rideau Institute. Meagan McCorkle is an intern at the institute through the Human Rights program at Carleton University.

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