Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Drones would fly in Canada

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According to the British military historian John Keegan, it was no accident the airplane was invented in the United States.

America's vast distances, he said, were seen "as the enemy of collective life," which could only be defeated by a machine that "could cover real distance and perform useful tasks."

Well, if geography was the mother of invention for the Wright brothers, so it should be for the Canadian Forces.

With three oceans and a vast (and disputed) Arctic archipelago to defend and monitor, it is remarkable that the military has such a limited capability to inject not only force, but even simple surveillance across the country and over its oceans.

Until now, the task has seemed daunting, not to mention expensive, but that was before the age of the drone, the unmanned aerial vehicles that could easily traverse the country and close the distances that are the enemy of rapid response, whether for search and rescue, or ordinary sovereignty patrol and enforcement.

Some drones can fly as high as a jumbo jet and remain aloft for 35 hours, while smaller versions perform nimble tactical surveillance.

Drones have been around for decades, but the Afghan and Iraq conflicts accelerated their development, raising the spectre that piloted aircraft may soon be relegated to the history books.

Canada, however, has lagged behind in the field. The military leased small surveillance drones, no bigger than a Piper aircraft, for use in Afghanistan, where they performed useful service in reconnaissance.

Much smaller versions were also tested in the Arctic, where they could be invaluable in search-and-rescue missions, feeding back images of a major crash, as well as monitoring the Northwest Passage, which Canada claims as sovereign territory.

Despite various test programs and temporary leases, however, Canada has yet to exploit the potential of a fleet of drones with varying sizes and capabilities.

The military, of course, has long recognized their value.

In 2011, prior to the Libyan campaign, Canadian military leaders wanted to spend $600 million acquiring a fleet of armed drones, but the request was abandoned after the air war in Libya ended.

Since then, however, the military has come back with a plan to purchase a variety of UAVs for domestic and international use, including some that could be armed with missiles. The program could cost more than $1 billion, but the Harper government has put the program on hold amid uncertainty about a variety of defence options, including the controversial F-35.

On balance, however, it seems that whatever decisions are made about defence procurements over the next 20 years, drones should be a priority. (Airships, a separate subject, should also be considered for use in the high Arctic because of their special ability to actually land with heavy loads).

There is no doubt anymore they are the future of warfare and the technology will only get better.

In fact, theorists are already questioning if the era of the piloted aircraft is coming to an end and, if so, whether Canada should only be looking for a stop-gap measure to replace the CF-18 because the F-35 could well be nearing obsolescence by the time it is actually in full service.

The defence department, however, cannot base the country's future needs on uncertain scenarios, so it will need to make a decision on the country's next piloted fighter jet.

The American use of drones as robot-assassins that strike enemies in foreign countries is controversial, but it has no bearing on whether Canada should embrace the technology.

The fact is drones are efficient, affordable, effective and safe.

They have a place in the arsenals of military and civilian agencies, particularly in Canada, a place that is often described as having too much geography.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 A14

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