The Canadian military wants armed drones. Here’s why we should say no.
Almost all the defence policy experts in Canada these days seem to think that that the Canadian Armed Forces need to acquire drones suitable not just for surveillance, but for engaging the enemy in low-intensity wars.
I think the experts are wrong — dead wrong.
Acquiring armed drones — MQ-1 Predators or the larger MQ-9 Reaper, Washington’s attack drones of choice [more here] — would risk involving Canada in all manner of military follies and morally questionable acts of assassination. Because deploying armed drones is so easy — and so low-profile — when compared to fighter-bombers, their presence in the arsenal would solidify an expectation in the CAF that their primary role is to serve in expeditionary campaigns run by the U.S. or NATO.
Our military, in other words, would want to serve alongside its big brothers in drone campaigns and, inevitably, would end up using those drones to target individuals [I doubt that very much]…
…the benefits of armed drones in the field have been oversold. No half-way competent military adversary has any trouble sweeping Predators from the skies. Armed drones are useful in permissive environments — where the operator can kill selected bad guys (and their families) at leisure, providing persistent, close air support if necessary. But helicopter gunships, A-10’s, our recently acquired long-range artillery (the M-777, with guided projectiles) and light attack aircraft can deliver the same close support as drones — and more cheaply. (Operating experience with drones suggests they do not save any money, either in acquisition or in operation.) In the meantime, we do have serious issues in defending North American airspace [see: “Russian Bombers and Cruise Missiles: Should Me Worry?“; “NORAD Note: Russian Bomber (with cruise missiles) Strikes in Syria“]. Canadian politicians and soldiers have long understood that defending the North American continent is job one…
We should invest our modest military resources in the defence of North America — with small special forces units and disaster relief contingents available for the occasions when, for reasons of alliance solidarity or desperate human need, we absolutely must send people with guns overseas [that may be about all we will be able to do if the new government goes this way: “The Canadian Military: Fighting Famine Rather than Foes? Drones vs Fighters?“; and keep in mind that the Conservatives in their later years in power were trending hard in this direction: “Another Decade of Darkness for the Canadian Forces? Part 2“].
As for drones, Canada should obtain them — for surveillance and reconnaissance only, and preferably high-capability ones that can offer us situational awareness of our entire territory, independent of whatever information our allies choose to share with us [the Aussies are buying this type for maritime use, more here].
Michael Dawson was the Canadian political advisor to the commander of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command from 2010 to 2014.
Mr Dawson hardly leans towards a Rideau Institute posture (e.g. “The Canadian Forces, or, The Byers Disarmament Plan“)
–an earlier post based on his writing: