Canada’s role in drone warfare

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

The rise of remotely piloted systems, otherwise known as drones, has occurred quickly over the past few years. To the military, drones are called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and they are operated by pilots who are remotely located, a valuable advantage to limit the number of wartime casualties. They are often used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance purposes in situations in which manned flight is considered too dangerous. At the end of the 1990s, the U.S. had less than 50 drones, but today the Pentagon’s arsenal counts over 7,000. While the American military’s engagement in drone warfare is well known and debated, Canada has quietly been updating its own position on the use of weaponized drones.

In late 2001, Canada joined a coalition led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and sanctioned by the United Nations (UN) to dismantle the Al-Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan. Then Prime Minister Jean Chretien committed Canadian forces to the effort, and they conducted operations in Afghanistan for over 12 years. During this time, soldiers had to rely on the U.S. to provide drone support, which prompted a debate among the Canadian military about whether to acquire its own drones. The military then tried to acquire its own fleet in 2016, with Canada approaching its allies about the possibility of buying second-hand drones. However, it wasn’t until the summer of 2017 that Canada first authorized and subsequently acquired armed drones to add to its arsenal.

For the first time, Canada’s most recent defence policy, released in June 2017, authorized the Canadian military to purchase and use armed and unarmed drones. This shift in policy reflected the military’s growing need to invest this area of technology, as it is quickly multiplying among potential adversaries. The report outlines the ways in which drones will be used by the military, including to conduct surveillance and precision strikes, and to work as bomb disposal robots and naval mine countermeasures.

In addition to armed drones, the defence policy also authorized the use of unarmed drones to aid global satellite communications, especially in the Arctic. Trials are currently being conducted and will last into early 2019, at which point the drones will be used to detect oil spills, survey ice and marine habitats, and monitor activity on the oceans. The policy cites the ability of drones to reach areas that manned aircraft cannot, to lessen environmental burdens, and to reduce costs.

However, there is a debate over military drones that has continued due to the U.S. use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Libya. The Canadian government has upheld the position that it will not use drones for lethal action assassination and that it will respect domestic and international laws, but humanitarian concerns about the collateral damage of armed and remotely operated drones have persisted. The watchdog Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that of the nearly 10,000 people estimated to have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen since 2002, an estimated 1,488 were civilians. Drones have also been linked to high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, as populations that persistently fear the threat of drone attacks exhibit psychological trauma.

So far, in addition to their pledge to uphold domestic and international law, Canada has signed the “Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” discussions for which were initiated by the U.S. in 2016, and it has since been signed by 52 additional countries. These actions demonstrate Canada’s willingness to engage multilaterally with other nations to establish transparency, accountability, and clarify ethical and legal dilemmas.