I think the experts are wrong — dead wrong.
Acquiring armed drones — MQ-1 Predators or the larger MQ-9 Reaper, Washington’s attack drones of choice — would risk involving Canada in all manner of military follies and morally questionable acts of assassination. Because deploying armed drones is so easy — and so low-profile — when compared to fighter-bombers, their presence in the arsenal would solidify an expectation in the CAF that their primary role is to serve in expeditionary campaigns run by the U.S. or NATO.
Our military, in other words, would want to serve alongside its big brothers in drone campaigns and, inevitably, would end up using those drones to target individuals. Coalition targeting practices are applied to all, modified by some caveats; once in, we’d be engaging in the same kind of morally shaky acts we’ve seen the Americans commit in the name of fighting terrorism. Let’s not kid ourselves.
And the slippery slope implied by armed drone technology would be less troubling if we could fully trust the strategic vision of our principal ally. Great powers usually get some things wrong — but the past few decades have seen multiple instances of incredibly bad military and geopolitical judgement on the part of the United States. Almost everything they’ve tried (apart from the successful late-Cold War air-land campaign of the first Gulf War) seems to have turned to manure.
Despite the courage and skill shown by the Canadian Armed Forces and our allies when we’ve participated in these American-led campaigns — and our commendably serious attempts to actually understand the contexts in which we’re fighting — too often we’ve found ourselves overwhelmed by the unintended, disastrous consequences of intervention. High technology, cultural insight and valour have been unable to overcome the indefinite staying power of committed revolutionaries and insurgents.
In any event, the benefits of armed drones in the field have been oversold. No half-way competent military adversary has any trouble sweeping Predators from the skies. Armed drones are useful in permissive environments — where the operator can kill selected bad guys (and their families) at leisure, providing persistent, close air support if necessary. But helicopter gunships, A-10’s, our recently acquired long-range artillery (the M-777, with guided projectiles) and light attack aircraft can deliver the same close support as drones — and more cheaply. (Operating experience with drones suggests they do not save any money, either in acquisition or in operation.)
In the meantime, we do have serious issues in defending North American airspace. Canadian politicians and soldiers have long understood that defending the North American continent is job one. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt, speaking at Queen’s University, stated that the U.S. “would not stand idly by” if Canada were threatened with attack. Prime Minister Mackenzie King responded by affirming Canada’s duty to never to allow an enemy to attack the U.S. via Canadian land, waters or airspace. Experience with the U.S. military strongly suggests that while individual American officers may not be able to quote Roosevelt or King, they still expect Canada to play its part in defence of the continent.
We should invest our modest military resources in the defence of North America — with small special forces units and disaster relief contingents available for the occasions when, for reasons of alliance solidarity or desperate human need, we absolutely must send people with guns overseas.
As for drones, Canada should obtain them — for surveillance and reconnaissance only, and preferably high-capability ones that can offer us situational awareness of our entire territory, independent of whatever information our allies choose to share with us.
Author: Michael Dawson