Friday, November 20, 2009

Canadian Heron UAVs to remain unarmed

The Canadian military has decided against putting missiles on the unmanned aerial vehicles it now operates in Afghanistan.Defence Minister Peter MacKay was briefed in March by air force officials on the various options for arming the drones, according to documents obtained by the Ottawa Citizen.Such aircraft, also known as UAVs, are used by various militaries in Afghanistan to conduct surveillance on insurgent activities. In addition, the U.S. uses armed UAVs to conduct attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan on insurgent leaders.

The Canadian Forces is currently leasing Israeli-built Heron UAVs from MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates of Richmond, B.C. That deal, worth $95 million, has a number of Herons operating out of Kandahar Airfield. The UAVs are flown by Canadian Forces personnel but maintained by civilian contractors.

Canadian air force spokesman Maj. Jim Hutcheson said a number of factors were considered before the idea of arming the UAVs was dropped. "After due consideration of all relevant factors, including costs, capabilities and timelines, it was decided that no project would be initiated to arm the Heron UAVs," he said.

The lease on the Herons runs until January 2011. There are options in the contract to extend that. Stephen Priestley, a researcher for the Canadian-American Strategic Review, noted that there are no technical hurdles to arming the Herons. But there would have been additional costs, requiring the existing contract to be amended, he added.

The Canadian military has plans to eventually purchase long-endurance UAVs over the next several years. Dubbed the Joint Unmanned Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS) program, it is not expected that those aircraft would be flying until after 2012.

That project, estimated to cost more than $1.5 billion, calls for the UAVs to eventually be outfitted with weapons. In total, 18 of the aircraft would be bought.

MacDonald Dettwiler is expected to bid on that program. Company official David Hargreaves has said the firm is confident that its experience in Afghanistan with the Heron will show the Canadian Forces the value of that UAV.

In addition, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of San Diego has teamed with General Dynamics Canada of Ottawa to try to sell the Predator UAV. Originally, the Canadian Forces had wanted to purchase the Predator, now used in Afghanistan by the U.S, but the Harper government decided not to act on that recommendation.

Previously, the Canadian Forces was operating the Sperwer UAV in Kandahar, but that aircraft did not have the range or endurance, according to military officers. The military also flies other smaller drones in Afghanistan


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