Are Drones Right for Canada?
My note will focus on the military application of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in, for, and by Canada. In the interest of full disclosure, the reader should be aware that I am a retired fighter pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, with continuing personal interests in, but not active involvement with, air power in Canada.
My view is that, for the foreseeable future, UAS (or “drones”) will have considerable value and wide use in the field of surveillance and reconnaissance, but little direct application in the fields of weaponry, and the least in the arena of air-to-air combat, at least for Canada.
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Attractive characteristics of UAS include their capacity to conduct long endurance missions in dangerous and dirty (think radioactive) environments. This suits the needs of the surveillance mission very nicely. Surveillance requires long-term monitoring of both local and regional locales in order to discern patterns of activity that can be exploited, or that can reveal hostile intent.
Much of today’s surveillance is reliant on satellite coverage from various orbits with quite different revisit rates, and with sensors that are variously affected by atmospheric weather conditions. While not strictly a UAS, this form of surveillance is perhaps the ultimate in unmanned systems, with endurance measured in years or tens of years. Aerial vehicles (operating in the atmosphere) have the advantage of being able to actually hover or circle in the desired area of interest, while satellites have to obey the laws of physics and continue on their designated orbital paths.
Special “geostationary” orbits retain a particular position over the Earth (actually, by rotating at the same rate as the Earth), but these orbits are confined to the equator and therefore have very oblique angles of view to Canada, and, indeed, cannot see the surface at our most northerly latitudes at all. They are also affected by intervening weather, and by sheer distance (40,000 km orbital height). UAS that can linger in the North afford the possibility of closer and better-targeted surveillance. They can also be automated to a considerable degree without much risk, and this is particularly true in the North, where other aerial traffic is still quite limited. That is, they can operate on “autopilot” for extended periods, and airspace can be isolated or reserved for such missions without impacting civilian life to an unacceptable degree.
Turning briefly to the types of UAS that deliver weapons, it should be clear that these need human supervision. The military is all about the application or threat of controlled violence to coerce changes in behaviour. Control is the essential element, and it has been exercised by trained soldiers, sailors, and airmen to date. Even in using a remote platform such as a UAS, control must be retained, which means that real-time decisions must be made by remote means, through extended communications links. These links will be vulnerable and delicate in today’s electromagnetic spectrum, and will certainly limit any delivery of weapons by UAS.
It might be noted that cruise missiles have a well-established capacity to attack designated targets on what might be thought of as a suicide UAS mission. But these missions are thoroughly and completely planned in advance and cannot be readily retargeted in flight. The Tomahawk is perhaps the best-known version of such a vehicle, and it is a one-way, one-time mission. UAS are, by definition, systems that will be reused and retargeted. In today’s world, the urgent need is for weapons that can be delivered quickly and accurately when a fleeting target is recognized. Predator and Reaper drones appear to afford this option. However, this type of option has not been a Canadian priority, much as the cruise missile has not. And, in my view, this will not change for us any time soon. There are too many risks associated with identifying fleeting targets and exercising full control over the final attack.
Finally, even if the challenges of controlling attacks on targets on the ground can be managed, those associated with attacks on other aerial vehicles in an air-to-air mode are still well beyond current technology. At least in my view.