Parliamentary debate lacking as Canada edges closer to purchasing armed drones

Published by Brent Patterson on

This year, the Canadian government is evaluating a bid to purchase MQ-9 Predator drones equipped with Hellfire missiles.

In November 2016, then Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said: “The future is changing, and we need to be rapidly changing with it.”

By June 2017, the Canadian government’s Strong, Secure, Engaged policy document reflected the commitment to purchase armed drones.

That document includes the bullet points: “50. Invest in medium altitude remotely piloted systems. 91. Invest in a range of remotely piloted systems, including an armed aerial system capable of conducting surveillance and precision strikes.”

Now, Defence Minister Anita Anand and Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi are facing imminent decisions on this “investment” in armed drones.

Timeline to purchase armed drones

According to the Government of Canada’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) webpage, it intends complete the evaluation of bids as early as this year and award a contract of up to $5 billion on the acquisition of armed drones as soon as next year.

The webpage provides the timeline of 2021 (request for proposal), 2022-23 (bid evaluation complete), 2023-24 (contract award), 2025-27 (first delivery).

The Ottawa Citizen has reported that the L3 Technologies MAS Inc. and Israeli Aircraft Industries Heron TP drone along with the U.S. government and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. MQ-9 drone have qualified under the Invitation to Qualify process.

That October 2019 article also notes that Defence department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande said the release of the Request for Proposal (RFP) was expected to happen in 2020-21. Additionally, the Calgary Herald article reported in April 2021 that the contract is expected to be awarded in 2022-23 and the first delivery in 2024-25.

The Government of Canada webpage on this procurement says: “Request for proposal: 2021” (in line with Lamirande’s comment), while the awarding of the contract, while still imminent, seems to have shifted to 2023-24 with the first delivery to 2025-27.

Precision strikes?

The government and military appear to believe that armed drones can deliver “pinpoint strikes” from the air against enemy forces.

In 2015-16, the Royal Canadian Air Force imagined a hypothetical mission in which an armed drone equipped with a Hellfire missile and two laser-guided bombs would fly from a Canadian Forces Base in Kandahar, Afghanistan and seek out insurgents.

Sajjan even commented that an armed drone “allows for an easier decision-making process where you’re not putting a human being at risk.”

And yet the reality is very different.

An estimated 300 to 909 civilians, including 66 to 184 children, were killed by U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan between January 2004 and February 2020. In August 2021, a U.S. drone strike also killed 10 family members including 7 children.

More widely, an estimated 910 to 2,200 civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia between 2010 and 2020.

Decisions to be made

Operationally, the plan for armed drones appears to be moving forward.

Last spring, Royal Canadian Air Force Lieutenant-General Al Meinzinger said: “We have not finalized the basing locations [for the armed drones], but there certainly will be a centralized ground control node in Ottawa.”

Meinzinger also sees 300 service members deployed to the drone force.

Several years ago, Green Party MP Elizabeth May described armed drones as “unjustifiable weapons”, while in May 2021 NDP leader Jagmeet Singh commented: “I don’t on first blush think that is in line with what I would do.”

With the military making decisions about where the drones would be based, and the evaluation of bids possibly being completed this year with a contract awarded as early as next year, the urgency for a parliamentary debate is intensifying.

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