The Canadian military has set the stage for its purchase of a fleet of armed drones by requesting the United States provide it with 219 Hellfire missiles as part of an overall program that could be worth up to $5 billion.
Canada, the U.S. government and American drone manufacturer General Atomics are in the final stages of the purchase of a fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones that will be operated from a command centre in Ottawa. A contract is expected to be in place by next spring, if not earlier, military and defence industry officials say.
In the meantime, the U.S. government announced Sept. 15 that Canada intended to buy 219 Hellfire missiles and assorted other weapons and equipment for the Reaper drones.
That purchase is worth more than $400 million. The money is expected to come from the budget earmarked for the Canadian military’s drone project. That overall program could cost up to $5 billion, according to National Defence estimates.
The U.S. government in a news release noted that the proposed sale of the Hellfire missiles “will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by helping to improve the military capability of Canada, a NATO ally that is an important force for ensuring political stability and economic progress, and a contributor to military, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations around the world.”
The U.S. also pointed out that the missile deal would improve Canada’s ability to meet current and future threats by allowing for drone patrols in its northern arctic region. In addition, it would allow Canada to fulfill its missions with NATO and the North American Aerospace Defence command (NORAD), according to the U.S. government release.
Canada’s planned competition for a drone fleet hit a snag in May 2022, when one of the two firms capable of providing such equipment decided to drop out of the competition.
That left General Atomics, which submitted its proposal in August 2022, National Defence spokesperson Jessica Lamirande said.
“Should the finalization phase conclude successfully, contract award is expected within this fiscal year,” she said. “Following contract award by the end of this fiscal year, we expect the first delivery in 2028.”
The Liberal government outlined its plan to purchase armed drones in its 2017 defence policy paper. The aircraft will give the military the ability to conduct surveillance and gather intelligence on overseas missions as well as to attack targets with a variety of missiles and bombs. The Canadian Forces also noted the new capability would give it the capability to use the drones for domestic missions, such as monitoring forest fires as well as public demonstrations.
The MQ-9 Reaper, a more powerful and larger version of the General Atomics Predator drone, has been used extensively in the Pentagon’s controversial program of targeted killings of Islamic extremists and other U.S. enemies. Critics point out that more than 2,000 innocent civilians have been killed during those attacks.
The Canadian drones would be capable of being armed for overseas operations. “At all times, they will be operated by qualified RCAF pilots in conformance with all aeronautical rules and regulations and in compliance with rules of engagement and laws of armed conflict,” Lamirande said.
In 2021, then RCAF commander Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger told The Canadian Press news service that there a ground control centre for the drones would be located in Ottawa.
The actual aircraft would be located in detachments in eastern and western Canada, but specific locations have not yet been revealed by the Canadian Forces.
The drone force will need around 300 personnel, including pilots, technicians and maintainers.
The Canadian Forces has tried for years to get its own fleet of drones capable of operating at longer ranges. During the Libyan war in 2011, senior Canadian defence leaders pitched the idea of spending up to $600 million for armed Predators for that conflict.
Documents obtained by this newspaper showed that military leaders saw the Libyan war as a possible way to kick-start their drone program. The war, however, was in its final stages when the proposal was made and the plan didn’t receive approval from the Conservative government.
During the Afghan war, the Canadian government approved the lease of Israeli-built drones. Those unarmed aircraft operated out of the Kandahar airfield.
David Pugliese is an award-winning journalist covering Canadian Forces and military issues in Canada. To support his work, including exclusive content for subscribers only, sign up here: ottawacitizen.com/subscribe
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