Canada's Military Wants New Drones, Fighter Jets and the Arctic

The Harper government might be belt tightening, but they'd still like a new drone fleet and fighter jets.

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Jul 9 2014, 6:50pm
An Israeli-made Heron surveillance drone, similar to the model Canada flew in Afghanistan. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Canadian military has released details on its new $100 billion wish list for new gear, and it's a revealing look at how the service views the future of war.

The laundry list of hardware was released as part of Ottawa’s new procurement strategy, which was hastily installed following the government’s bungling of the F-35 acquisition process. It’s also a signal for the defence industry, one designed to give contractors a heads-up as to what Canada will be shopping for over the next two decades.

The guide, which is basically a rough draft for government spending, includes high-tech surveillance equipment, so-called "next-generation" fighter planes, a new drone fleet, and cash injections prolonging the life of some aging ships and planes.

The announcement comes amid a standoff between budget overseers in the Department of National Defence and the rank and file of the Canadian Forces. It also highlights how the Conservatives' procurement approach has changed since bungling the purchase of a fleet of new fighter jets last year.

The laundry list of military hardware isn’t a done deal. The acquisition guide was prepared by Defence but it hasn’t been approved by top bureaucratic bigwigs just yet.

As was pointed out in a backgrounder provided to Motherboard by the department, “It is important to recognize that the majority of the initiatives listed in this guide have not received Government of Canada approval. The initiatives are subject to change as the security environment evolves, technologies emerge and mature, and priorities are refined to reflect Canadian Armed Forces needs.”

That approval isn’t quite the rubber stamp that it used to be. After a botched fighter jet acquisition process left Canada on the hook for millions, and no closer to actually getting any planes, Public Works yanked control of much of the process away from the military, and into the hands of Ottawa bureaucrats.

That has fuelled more resentment between top military brass and the civilians keeping tabs of the books. This guide—a relatively conservative strategy that reflects a penny-pinching approach from the Harper government towards military hardware—is no doubt a symptom of that tension.

Aerospace Systems

Finally putting to print what has been public knowledge for awhile, the government says it will be picking up however many drones $500 million to $1.5 billion will get you.

While it’s been reported that the drones will be more of the surveillance variety than the kill-people-in-Pakistan type, the guide makes clear that the Forces are looking to acquire weapons systems for “domestic and international operations” to go along with the drones.

Philippe Lagassé, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and a fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, says it's the first indication that the Forces are looking to acquire weaponized drones.

“I suspect that would be two different fleets,” he said, meaning one fleet for surveillance, and one for dropping ordnance and supporting fighter jet operations.

An American MQ-1 Predator drone. Image: Wikimedia Commons

It’s unclear how (or if) the Forces plan to use weaponized drones against foreign targets. Armed drones would fill in the  gap in Canadian military hardware exposed when Washington put out a rousing call for its allies to lend a hand with cruise missile strikes and drone attacks on Syrian chemical weapons facilities. Canada currently has neither.  

Right now, Canada does have some drones, but they’re mostly surveillance planes. While it's not clear how many drones the Air Force owns, what with some of them being leased from allies, the Forces also plan on replacing older models. For the new drones, Lagassé says Canada will probably piggyback on an American or Israeli contract to buy them. 

The big-ticket item that observers were waiting for—what next-generation fighter jet Ottawa will pick to replace the aging CF-18 Hornet—was a bit of a letdown. The procurement guide doesn’t specify much about what will go into the new jets, other than they’ll cost more than $1.5 billion, with "final delivery" between 2026 and 2035.

Whether the Harper government goes with the Lockheed Martin “Serious Mistake” F-35s, the Boeing “Less than Half the Price” Super Hornets, the Dassault “Canadianized” Rafale fighter, or something else altogether, it needs to decide soon so it can continue to support NATO efforts or defend Arctic airspace from Russian infringement. (Per that last bit, the drone program seems like a pretty ideal way to keep track of Russian expeditions into the Canadian-claimed land of the North Pole.)

Canadian Forces service members can also look forward to some upgrades to the CH-146 Griffon helicopters by 2020—when they will turn 28 years old. The guide reads that the updates to the helicopters will be “so that the aircraft can continue to be operationally relevant.” 

"Relevant" is, of course, not exactly the highest goal for military hardware. While the helicopters are largely used for search and rescue and special tactical operations, Ottawa sent six to Afghanistan, despite the objections of Canada’s top commander. Three soldiers—two Canadian, one British—died when one of the 'copters crashed near Kandahar.

But for those Canadians who are more interested in displays of Canada Day bravado than in drone strikes: have no fear. The Canadian Government is pouring somewhere between $500 million to $1.5 billion into buying replacement aircraft for the flashy Snowbirds fleet flying over Parliament Hill every year, so that the Canadian military has a fleet of otherwise useless planes with an “air display capacity” serving as “key recruitment tool for the Canadian Armed Forces.” 

Land Systems

With the Afghan mission over and the likelihood of a Canadian ground war in the next ten years at virtually zero, it’s no surprise that DND's plan for the Forces’ land units are a little more limited.

Mostly, the procurement guide runs through system upgrades and replacements—new artillery, updated small arms, improvements to the fleet of light armoured vehicles—but it also adds a few new systems.

One of the interesting projects is an “Advantage IED Detection and Defeat” system. Considering that 97 of the 132 Canadian combat fatalities in Afghanistan were due to explosives, mostly roadside bombs, the new system will be a welcome addition when it's finally purchased in 2025.

The new IED equipment is expected to “examine land and air based remote detection and multi-sensor land mine detection systems that will exploit emerging technology…[and] an integrated stand-off detection, warning and defeat system for route clearance and convoy operations.”

It’s not tremendously clear what this sort of equipment will look like, though the air components will likely consist of easily deployed, small-scale drones. As for the land system, Ottawa might be looking to signal-jamming systems, which are favoured by the Americans, and are supposed to interrupt the detonation signals sent by insurgents via remote control or cell phone.

For the Americans, the jamming systems have been a blessing and a curse—effective at stopping some, not all, IEDs; but also known for creating electronic chaos. On the bright side, that technology has been improving in recent years.

Canadian company Aeryon produces multiple quadcopter models. Image: Wikimedia Commons

A separate contract will be tendered to outfit Canadian Forces armoured vehicles to detect and withstand the sort of fatal IED blasts that were so deadly in Afghanistan. The Forces are pretty much required to do as much, after ratifying a NATO agreement requiring more adequate protection for combat vehicles.

Those in the Forces can also look forward to new boots sometime between 2026 and 2035. As our VICE colleagues reported last year, some shoddy footwear that Ottawa picked up in 2012 are reviled by the servicemen and women. If soldiers want other boots, they need to pay out-of-pocket.

Soldiers with an environmental conscience can rest easy knowing that, by 2025, new camp facilities will “improve energy efficiencies and reduce the environmental footprint of military base/compounds in an operational environment.” To do so, the Forces are looking to create a micro-energy grid, develop portable solar and wind power generators, and “waste to energy systems.” Which, yes, means turning trash and turds into electricity.

Naval Systems

With Canada’s enormous coastline and fleet of ships that won’t stop catching fire and crashing into each other, it’s a wonder that the cash pool for Canada’s navy makes up only about a tenth of the funding laid out in the strategy.

One of the marquee items will be a shiny new patrol ship that's geared towards the Arctic—one of the obsessions for the Harper government. Designed to hold up to 85 personnel, the ship can also play host to the CH-148 Cyclone helicopters that Canada is finally getting, maybe, after a slew of production overruns.

While the price tag for the new patrol ship is listed as “more than $1.5 billion,” previous estimates for the vessel exceeded $3 billion. The ship is expected sometime between 2021 and 2025.

Another big-ticket item will be the replacements for the Navy’s Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment vessels, which are essentially support ships for the rest of the navy. The two ships—with an option for a third—will replace the Protecteur and Preserver ships. Both are over 40 years old, and the former has been out of commission since it caught fire in February.

But given that the ships are supposed to be decommissioned in three years—and the replacements aren’t expected until 2020—Canada could be in the lurch for a support ship of the West coast. The Preserver is stationed in Halifax, while the Protecteur docks in Esquimalt, BC.

HMCS Regina being refueled by Protecteur in the Pacific Ocean. Image: US Navy/Wikimedia

That means that any operation to which Canada wants to contribute ships will need to be done in conjunction with an ally. Lagassé says lacking the refuelled ships will definitely make the Canadian navy dependent on her allies, but there's not much else the service can do. “You accept a capability gap,” Lagassé said.

Also falling under the do-less-with-more-category is the $1.5 billion earmarked between now and 2035 to fix up the four Victoria-class submarines pawned off on Canada by the English, one of which caught fire and led to the death of Lieutenant Chris Saunders. There had been calls to simply write-off the diesel-electric submarines, which were bought on the cheap by the Chrétien government for $750 million from the English in a colonial hand-me-down.

While the submarines are supposed to be out of commission by the mid-2020s, the new procurement guide says the contracts won’t even by awarded until 2025 at the latest. Delivery won’t come until a decade later.

Lagassé says there might actually be a useful purposes for the anachronistic submarines—they’re quieter than many newer models, which makes them ideal for training purposes. When they’re not on fire, at least. The American Navy considers our quiet and outdated subs as an asset.

Also tucked in the goodies list is a brand new Maritime Intelligence Surveillance Tracking Acquisition and Reconnaissance program—basically, hardware and software for real-time surveillance. The tender information says Canada will be buying a surveillance drone for its Halifax Class frigates, with a data link that will allow it to stream video back to the ship. The system could allow for a linkup with other wings of the Canadian Forces as well as “coalition partners.”

Given that the Canadian military has recently been caught running surveillance on peaceful demonstrations in Canada, that may raise some eyebrows. Lagassé says giving the Forces drones and high-tech surveillance gadgets won’t just mean they can watch Russian frigates in the North, it will mean their counter-intelligence and domestic surveillance units will be all the more capable of keeping an eye on Canadians at home.

“If you have an axe,” said Lagassé, "it suddenly becomes the solution for everything.”

Joint and Other Systems

Beyond just helicopters that we hope don’t fall out of the sky, and submarines we hope don’t catch fire, Canada is also looking to make sure that the security of the country isn’t compromised by hackers (some of which are suspected Chinese agents) trying, sometimes successfully, to break down the government’s cyber security infrastructure.

The feds are pumping somewhere between $100 million and $249 million into cyber architecture to protect “everything from [Canadian Air Force] weapon systems to…corporate enterprises.”

Given that the new systems won’t be online until at least 2025 (like so many other things in the new guide), it’s sort of troubling to wonder about the current adequacy of cyber security architecture protecting our military.

But while we grapple with the infinite expanses of the internet, Ottawa is hoping to tackle something a little easier to map—space. The so-called Surveillance of Space 2 “will procure either a sensor or a system of sensors for the purpose of tracking man-made objects in Earth orbits having altitudes of 6000 km or greater above the surface of the Earth.” The Forces will be piggybacking on the US Joint Space Operations Center to do so.

While the sequel usually sucks, the new up-to-$250-million worth of space defence equipment could be a nifty add-on to the new continental missile defence system that Harper is coyly tiptoeing around.

Other than the Space 2 program, the Tories are also throwing cash towards Polar Epsilon 2, a satellite and radar surveillance program of Canada’s bordering oceans; upgrading the missile defence capabilities on its Halifax Class frigates; and finalizing the Mercury Global project, which will integrate communications and surveillance with Canada’s NATO allies. Four different programs are being created to address non-traditional threats, totalling somewhere in the $200 million range.