Much has been made in the media recently over Canada’s efforts to procure Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) with a precision strike capability through the Joint Unmanned Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS) program. One commonly raised issue is the potential for Canada to engage in the same kind of targeted strikes that the United States has been carrying out against suspected terrorists outside of declared war zones for more than a decade. However, there are several reasons why Canada is unlikely to deploy UAVs in the same manner as the United States.
For starters, Canada could not hope to deploy UAVs on the same scale as our neighbour to the south. As of 2014, the Pentagon possessed more than 7,000 UAV platforms. This inventory includes nearly 250 MQ-1 Predators and over 100 MQ-9 Reapers, both of which are strike-capable platforms. The CIA operates its own armed UAVs, but accurate numbers surrounding its drone program are harder to determine. To give its drone program a truly global reach the US relies upon its extensive network of overseas airbases and installations to launch and recover vehicles used in targeted strike missions.
In contrast, Canada lacks both the numbers and the global force projection capabilities to emulate the US drone program. Public Services and Procurement Canada announced the intention to purchase 12 UAV platforms for Canada. Depending on the costs of the future acquisition, it is not inconceivable that Canada’s UAV inventory will consist of less than a dozen total aircraft. This future fleet will also be expected to fulfill a variety of roles including emergency response, search and rescue, and both domestic overland and maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, particularly over the Arctic. This would leave only a portion of Canada’s already limited UAV fleet available to conduct expeditionary strike sorties which, if Canada’s past military deployments are any indication, are unlikely to be undertaken unilaterally.
When Canada deploys its military it does not do so independently. Instead, Canada supports its allies as part of a coalition usually at the invitation of a government or under a mandate from an international organization such as NATO or the UN. For this reason, it is highly unlikely that Canada would engage in targeted strikes outside of designated conflict zones. If Canada were to field armed UAVs, conducting precision strikes in support of a sanctioned combat mission, it would be well within the laws of armed conflict to target enemy combatants. In fact, when documents related to the JUSTAS program outline the expected role of a precision strike capability, it is in terms of “providing support to Canadian and allied deployed forces.” Because the use of lethal force against enemy combatants is a reality on the battlefield, it should matter very little if it is UAVs or manned fighter aircraft that are used to employ it.
The relative organizational clarity under which Canadian UAVs would be operated also decreases the likelihood that Canada’s UAV usage would be subject to the same criticism as the US drone program for a lack of transparency. In the United States, targeted drone strikes are carried out by an array of forces including the Air Force, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and the CIA. This division leads to needless complexity and opacity. Each organization has different authorities, policies, accountability mechanisms, and oversight. For instance, JSOC counterterrorist operations are reported quarterly to Congess’ armed services committees, while the details of CIA drone strikes remain classified as covert actions.
Canada does not have a foreign intelligence service with a comparable mandate, resources, or scope to the CIA. Canadian UAVs would be operated solely by the Department of National Defense (DND). This means that precision strike missions carried out by Canadian UAVs would be governed by military law, including the laws of war and the specific rules of engagement applied to the conflict zone.
Canada would also have a hard time demonstrating a similar legal argument for conducting targeted strikes as has the United States. While the legal framework for the US drone program is currently outlined in a classified Presidential Policy Guideline, the US maintains legal justification for its targeted strikes through the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). Three days after 9/11, the AUMF was passed by the United States Congress granting the President the authority to use all necessary and appropriate force against those whom he determined planned, authorized, committed, or aided, in the 9/11 attacks. The AUMF remains in place today and has become the basis for military action, including targeted drone strikes, against individuals and organizations such as ISIS and other Islamic militant groups.
Without the same kind of legislative cover, Canada would quickly find itself in a legal quagmire were it to engage in a similar campaign of global drone strikes. Short of enacting the Emergencies Act for only the fourth time in Canadian history, Canada lacks the specific legal architecture to enable it to conduct unrestricted drone warfare against terrorist groups all over the world.
While there is little chance that the usage of armed UAVs by Canada will mirror the more controversial aspects of the US drone program, that does not mean there is nothing to be learned from the American experience. Canada would be well advised to conduct the procurement process for UAVs openly while making a strong case for each of the capabilities that UAVs can provide. The government should also be proactive in developing strategic guidance and policy frameworks around precision strikes and messaging these to the public. Finally, if a Canadian UAV delivers a precision strike in support of coalition and Canadian ground forces, DND and the government should ensure the assessment of the aftermath is conducted in an open and transparent manner.
Danny Garrett-Rempel graduated from the University of Victoria in 2009 with a BA (Hons) degree in History. He recently completed a Master’s degree in Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military, Security, and Strategic Studies. His research interests include Canadian defence policy, Middle Eastern security, and counterterrorism.