Wednesday, February 15, 2012

John Ivison: Ottawa sets sights on armed drones

Feb 14, 2012 – 11:30 PM ET | Last Updated: Feb 14, 2012 10:58 PM ET

U.S. Department of Defense / Wikipedia

A U.S. Reaper drone prepares for takeoff in Afghanistan. Canada has leased drone aircraft for surveillance in the past, but they have never been armed.

The Harper Cabinet has discussed a potential solution to its F-35 fighter jet dilemma — the use of armed drones.

Sources said the Department of National Defence is preparing to tender a contract for around six remotely piloted vehicles such as the MQ-9 Reaper, which the U.S. Defence Department estimates cost around $30-million each. A spokesman for DND dismissed the suggestion that armed drones could replace the F-35s, or augment a reduced number of aircraft, as speculation.

The Canadian military has previously leased drones from Israel and the CU-170 Herons flew reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan. But the Herons were never armed and a move to fit munitions on to any unmanned aircraft would inevitably draw criticism from opposition parties. When the idea was raised two years ago, then New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris dismissed it as “morally repugnant” and “robot warfare.”

However, delays and cost overruns to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 strike fighter jet are causing headaches in many NATO capitals. Peter MacKay, the Defence Minister, admitted Tuesday that “the program has not been without problems in timelines and cost estimates.”

He said the government remains committed to giving the air force “the best opportunity for mission success” but refused to confirm that the government still intends to buy 65 F-35s.

In Question Period, the Prime Minister said that there is a budget for the F35s and “the government will operate within that budget.”

The problem for the Tories is that the cost of the planes is likely to rise considerably from the estimated $75-million per plane. Buying 65 jets would burst the $9-billion budget allocated for the F-35 purchase.

The U.S. Defence Department estimates the cost of each F-35 at $195-million this year. The Pentagon said Monday it intends to reduce spending on the F-35s next year and delay future spending because of the soaring costs and technological problems.

The cost per unit is expected to come down as more jets come off the production line but sources suggest the number of planes that Ottawa will be able to afford will be closer to 40 than 60.

Plan B may be a combination of cheaper jets and armed drones. U.S. Defence Department figures suggest the price of Boeing’s Super Hornet is $86-million this year and, in an open competition with other planes like the Eurofighter Typhoon, Saab Gripen and Dassault Rafale, that price could drop considerably. Maintenance and training costs would also be much lower than the untested F-35.

But it is the addition of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that will add to the speculation the government is re-considering the whole F-35 purchase.

The Wall Street Journal reported in December that the Obama administration is trying to sell armed drones to its allies to ease the burden on the U.S. in conflicts like Afghanistan and Libya. So far, Britain is the only country that has been allowed to buy drone technology, purchasing 12 Reapers. But both Italy and Turkey have applications pending to buy armed UAVs.

Canada’s Defence Department has long talked about purchasing UAVs. A spokesperson for San Diego-based General Atomics said her company has been trying to sell its Predator and Reaper drones to Canada for years but she was unable to confirm that a new contract has been put out to tender.

The attraction for the government, apart from the price, is the increasing flexibility of UAVs to conduct domestic patrols along Canada’s borders and mount offensive missions. Robert Gates, the U.S. Defence Secretary, has said that, while manned aircraft are still needed, the U.S. Air Force must recognize “the enormous strategic and cultural implications of the vast expansion in remotely piloted vehicles.” The U.S. is now training more pilots for UAVs than any other weapons system and they are used increasingly for “hunter-killer” roles. The MQ-9 now carries laser guided bombs, Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, and tests are underway to allow it to use Stinger air-to-air missiles.

REUTERS/DoD/U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago

AU.S. Marine Corps F-35 Lightening II is escorted by two USMC F-18 Hornets as it flies towards Eglin Air Force Base.

The Harper government has argued consistently one reason to stay in the F-35 program is the industrial benefits that have accrued to some Canadian companies. However, one industry insider said more work would likely flow from an order for a less expensive jet from Boeing or Saab. The government is set to unveil a comprehensive review of the Canadian aerospace industry, led by former Industry Minister David Emerson. If his review were to encompass the F-35 purchase, it could provide the Tories with the perfect cover to cancel a program that is turning into a political millstone.

National Post
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