Arming Canada’s Kandahar drones an option being discussed

OTTAWA — Defence Minister Peter MacKay has left the door open to arming Canada’s reconnaissance drones in Afghanistan, even though the military has written off the idea. Slapping munitions on the CU-170 Herons, which operate out of Kandahar Airfield, has been considered almost from the moment the leased unmanned aircraft arrived in theatre.

OTTAWA — Defence Minister Peter MacKay has left the door open to arming Canada’s reconnaissance drones in Afghanistan, even though the military has written off the idea.

Slapping munitions on the CU-170 Herons, which operate out of Kandahar Airfield, has been considered almost from the moment the leased unmanned aircraft arrived in theatre. The prop-driven planes, operated by remote control, are currently used only for surveillance and were acquired as a result of the Manley commission into the Afghan mission.

Heavily censored documents obtained under Access to Information by The Canadian Press show the air force commissioned a technical investigation into weaponizing the drones in late 2008, just as the Kandahar air wing, which also includes helicopters and transport planes, began flying.

The country’s top military commander, Gen. Walter Natynczyk, on March 17, 2009, presented MacKay with the option to install missiles on the Israeli-made drones, which have been used in the skies above Gaza.

The plan was initially rejected, but MacKay said the option is not off the table.

“There’s been no decision taken as to arming them,” he said recently.

“They have tremendous utility when it comes to the protection of our forces, the allies and citizens. So we’re looking at all the options. And we’re having that discussion internally.”

The air force’s assessment concluded that weaponizing the Heron is feasible, but it “would require a number of technical upgrades.”

MacKay said the fact the aircraft are leased presents another wrinkle and there are “certain contractual considerations” that come into play if the drones are to be taken out of the surveillance role.

A defence official speaking on background said, with only 12 months to go in the country’s combat mission, it was unlikely the minister would authorize such stark redefining of the Heron’s role. But the option is deliberately being left open in case ground commanders need extra assistance as the battle to control Kandahar heats up this summer.

MacKay noted that the U.S. and other allies have armed drones in theatre. The MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers are used for so-called surgical strikes against high-value targets, such as senior insurgent commanders and al-Qaida leaders.

Militant sanctuaries in northern Pakistan have been repeatedly bombarded, sometimes causing civilian casualties.

At the end of last month, a drone strike killed one of the two top Taliban commanders in Kandahar province.

Hovering as high as 30,000 feet or more above the battlefield, the unmanned aircraft strike so suddenly without warning and deliver such explosive firepower that soldiers often describe it as witnessing “the wrath of God himself.”

But it’s just that sort of destructive power that worries human rights lawyers and international experts.

The United Nations investigator on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, warned the use of drone aircraft could be regarded as a breach of international law. He said the United States should have to demonstrate appropriate precautions and accountability.

One of the opposition parties demanded on Tuesday that MacKay totally renounce any thought of putting weapons on the Heron and called on the military scrap future plans for such a program.

“We’re opposed,” said New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris. “I think it’s morally repugnant to use that kind of robot warfare. We should make a statement as a country that says these kinds of weapons are unacceptable.”

Canada leased the Herons from MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates of Richmond, B.C. in a deal, worth roughly $95 million. The agreement is set to run until July 2011, when Parliament has mandated the withdrawal of the Canadian military from Afghanistan.

The air force is working on a long-term unmanned aircraft program named JUSTAS, which includes a provision for combat drones.

The head of the 1st Canadian Air Division, Maj.-Gen. Yvan Blondin, who was recently in Kandahar predicted it will likely be five years before Canada can procure armed UAVs.

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