The Canadian Air Force is moving ahead with its weaponized drone program, and it's hoping to find a model that's good for everything from blowing up enemy convoys to helping drowning sailors.
The government published the call-out to the defense industry on Friday, asking military contractors to spell out how they would build a Canadian drone fleet.
The Joint Unmanned Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS), after years of trying to acquire non-weaponized drones, is now searching for a single type of unmanned aerial vehicle to do many different things, including dropping bombs.
The Royal Canadian Air Force is hoping to get as many as 12 drones, and wants them to be a veritable Swiss Army knife — able to run top-of-the-line surveillance, but also capable of dropping precision missiles.
Canada is alone amongst its major military allies in lacking drone capabilities. In recent years, Ottawa has leased drones from the Israelis to conduct reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan.
The government plans to acquire some of the drones as soon as possible in order to cover Arctic surveillance — a project that's become increasingly relevant as Russian interest in the North has spiked, while Russia's relations with NATO have sunk. The final JUSTAS program, though, will deliver the 12 heavy-duty unmanned aircraft, and the government is hoping to find a contractor that can build the drones in Canada.
The air force gave a few examples of what this jack-of-all-trades drone is expected to do, in its request for information.
In one scenario, Canada dispatches a drone from an Arctic port in Nunavut to oversee "Poseidon's Journey" — an around-the-world sailing event — and airdrops a survival kit onto a group of sailors after their boat capsizes.
In another, the drone is dispatched from the East Coast, to track and surveil the MV Python, a motor yacht thought to be carrying "illicit drugs and potentially terrorists." And while on the fictional Operation BLACK BEARD, the drones must track pirate vessels off the coast of Somalia.
Having a single type of drone to cover a variety of tasks, on its face, seems efficient. But two of the air force's own scenarios also highlight why the approach may cause concern.
One hypothetical mission included in the document, entitled "Expeditionary [Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance]/Strike Sortie Scenario," has the drone flying from a Canadian Forces base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to scope out an insurgent base near the city. The air force straps one Hellfire missile and two laser-guided bombs to the drone, sending it to take out a white pickup truck with a mortar mounted on the back. A live video feed allows the drone operators to inspect the damage after the strike.
In another scenario, the air force tasks the drone — almost certainly, without any sort of weapons onboard — to do fly-overs of a G20 summit near Quebec City.
"The mission is tasked to conduct surveillance of the Summit site security zone, report activities that may threaten security, assist in the monitoring of crowds and access control, and record data for legal purposes," the document reads.
Over the course of the mission, the drone is used to warn civilian aircraft that the airspace above the summit is restricted, track the American president's motorcade, and to conduct reconnaissance on a car parked near the summit. The military imagines that the operator, which uses the drone's thermal imaging to tell that the car's engine is still warm, reports the vehicle to the ground security team — who, in turn, "identifies the vehicle occupants as a group of underage drinking teenagers," who are then handed over to police.
The last time Canada hosted a G20 summit, police and intelligence tactics netted a flurry of complaints from civil liberties groups — and that was before they had drones.
Canada has been contemplating a big drone buy for some time. The JUSTAS program has been looking for a suite of — unarmed — drones for years, but has failed to award any contracts. The Department of National Defence, however, has been pushing to go ahead with the deal, publishing a wishlist in 2014 saying it would be looking to spend roughly $500 million to $1.5 billion on a fleet of drones. In December, government memos obtained by VICE News show that the government was looking into the infamous American Reaper and Predator drones as a possibility for its air force.
The push for armed drones might also be part of the new Trudeau administration's effort to reimagine its fighter jet acquisition program. The new government has vowed to scrap the Lockheed Martin F-35 contract, but wouldn't say what aircraft it would prefer, except that the new program would be cheaper.
The drones likely won't be outfitted with missiles and munitions while flying domestically — they will have both a 'Reconnaissance Mission Configuration' and a 'Force Application Configuration,' and the same system that fires missiles can also be outfitted to deploy survival kits — but the plan nevertheless represents a huge leap for Canada.
From a privacy standpoint, concerns have already been raised about the data that the drones can collect.
"There is a strong argument that UAVs may be a surveillance game-changer," wrote the Office of the Privacy Commission of Canada in a 2013 report.
The report warned that, should the government of Canada buy drones equipped with high-end radar and electromagnetic surveillance technology — the kind of technology that can see through walls, right into someone's home — government surveillance may become infinitely cheaper, more efficient, and increasingly powerful.
The request for proposals makes no mention of any privacy protections that should be included with the drones.
It does, however, note that the drones should have sensors "that enable the crew to covertly detect, identify and track targets (at least as small as humans with weapons.)"
While it's not clear which model of drone Canada is looking to buy, it's clear that it wants it to be interoperable with America's drone warfare program.
"The requirement for interoperability with our Five Eyes (FVEY) partners is central to the JUSTAS concept of operations," the document reads, referring to the five-member intelligence-sharing partnership of Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
The air force is also looking into the future for technology that has yet to be perfected — technology that may allow the drones to operate autonomously.
The document reads that the drones should be able to operate with new sensors, including "air-to-air radar or sense-and-avoid technology once these systems become available," ultimately so that they can loiter for hours at a time while tracking and surveilling a target.
Sense-and-avoid technologies are currently being perfected at places like the Robotics Institute, which could effectively create self-flying drones.
The drones will also be required to carry a "SIGINT payload" — a "signals intelligence" pod that attaches to the drone that can intercept radio and other communications.
Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling