This past July, the Harper government awarded a three year, $22.6 million contract to Ottawa-based CAE Inc., Canada’s leading supplier of aircraft modelling and flight simulation technology. Given the Harper government’s interest in developing drone-strike capabilities and its persistent rhetoric of the usefulness of drones in asserting Canada’s claim to the Arctic, this announcement is worrisome.
According to an official press release, the contract “covers support for experiments, mission rehearsals, demonstrations, exercises, as well as operational and maintenance training.” Much of the work outlined in the contract—which includes the option for two separate one year, $8.47 million extensions—is to be done at Carleton University’s Visualization and Simulation Centre.
“This is about saving lives,” gushed Carleton President Roseann Runte when the university announced the deal. “This is about saving money. It makes sense to locate such programs at universities, because that is where interdisciplinary training occurs.”
Soon, We’ll All Be Drones
The Canadian Forces have been using unarmed drones—unstaffed aerial combat vehicles (think planes without pilots)—for surveillance in Afghanistan since 2007. They’ve also used them in Canada’s Far North and in a slew of recent exercises in the Arctic.
If we rewind to last year’s NATO-led foreign intervention in Libya, however, we see that the Harper government wants Canadian drones to pack a harder punch.
Government documents obtained by the Ottawa Citizen show that in the dying days of the Libya mission, some of our senior defence leaders petitioned the government to spend up to $600 million to develop armed drones.
These requests didn’t fall on deaf ears. On July 23 of this year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper approved the Department of National Defence (DND)’s request for information about drone technology from industry leaders like CAE Inc. The request stated that these aircrafts should be able to carry precision-guided munitions to “allow the [Canadian Forces] to fill critical deficiencies,” for use in the Canadian Arctic. Companies are required to provide relevant figures by Sept. 28.
According to the same documents from DND, the government’s budget for these drones is around $1 billion. The push for drones comes at a time when our government plans to buy 65 F-35 fighter jets for a seemingly indeterminate amount of money.
Originally, the government had planned to purchase the jets for $16 billion, but has since admitted that those figures may not be accurate. Inaccurate financial projections and the fact that the F-35s may not give Canadians the best bang for their tax bucks, considering they would not be operational until at least 2018, have invited criticism of the Harper government on this issue.
For once, however, the most pressing issue may not have anything to do with budgets, jobs, or the idealized economy. Instead, we might ask, what is Canada planning to do with these drones?
Drones in their current form first appeared over Bosnia in 1994. American armed forces found drones singularly useful in monitoring the movements of opposition troops.
2001 saw the first use of armed drones when the U.S. used them to support military operations in Afghanistan. In Feb. 2002, the U.S. made history by using a drone to strike at an individual target that the government claimed to be Osama Bin Laden. It was the first time that a drone strike had been used to strike a target on its own, rather than support a ground forces operation.
Since then, the Bush and Obama administrations have used armed drones to enforce American foreign policy objectives on the other side of the planet without risking the loss of American lives.
The use of American drones in Pakistan to strike strategic, non-military targets without having American forces on the ground has led to tense political dialogue, highlighted by the release of President Obama’s “kill list.” This list was released earlier this year and names individuals to be targeted and killed by drones for political purposes.
Canadians need not think that there is anything intrinsically wrong with the use of drones in warfare. They are merely a more sophisticated form of the hot-air balloon, the airplane, and the cruise missile. What Canadians should ask, however, is what role Canada will play in the unfolding legacy of drones as instruments of terror and assassination.
What does our government intend to do with our drones, if and when we get them? If, as Carleton President Runte said, the program at Carleton is about “saving lives,” we should ask our government and the university to dig a little deeper.
Are we able to save lives by becoming drones ourselves, or are lives saved by challenging how those in power use resources for the development of technology that might, were it not in flight over the Arctic plains, be beneficial for us all?
This article first appeared in the Leveller, Vol. 5, No. 1.