The View From the Ground

Renee Filiatrault on what it means to have an eye in the sky for the boots on the ground.
By: /
December 14, 2012

Just about everything in a war zone takes on a different meaning than you would find sitting safely back in Canada. A good rain, for example, is always welcome – not just because it’s the desert and generally too hot, but also because, when it rains, improvised explosive device (IED) wires hidden in the sand on the side of a dirt road are revealed. Similarly, the debate over the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), takes on a different meaning when viewed from the ground. Canada’s experience in Afghanistan has provided a pragmatic view that should not be lost in the debate over the use of UAVs.


Occasionally during my own 14-month tour in Kandahar, there were rare moments when the relentless noise of rocket sirens, jets, and helicopters would die down and I could hear a tiny sound – similar to that of a lawnmower – puttering around above. In those moments, particularly if I was trying to sleep, I could not help but smile at the knowledge that there was an “eye in the sky” ensuring that those of us on the ground were safe. Even better, it was comforting to know that the eye in the sky was not just watching us, but was also watching the enemy.

If I could hear it, so could the enemy. This is what the military calls “secondary effects”: UAV surveillance and overwatch is one of the easiest and surest ways to discourage insurgent activity. In Afghanistan, this meant discouraging the planting of IEDs that were directed at both military and civilian targets, and were responsible for most of the losses Canada suffered. Ian Glenn, CEO of ING Engineering, the Canadian company responsible for the ScanEagle – one of the UAVs in action during my time in Kandahar – calls it the “unseen angel.”

Further, as a pooled resource, the ScanEagle (and those contractors deployed with it) was a guardian of not just Canadians and Afghans, but of members of all 47 nations contributing to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. It made the UAV capability – what the military calls a “higher asset” – one of the most coveted and precious capabilities a battle-space commander could have. Consequently, allocation of UAV hours and “taskings” among commanders and areas of operations led to some of the more contentious discussions in the field. The benefit of a UAV convoy escort is obvious, and it makes a difference when getting into a light armoured vehicle (LAV). Ultimately, all information in stability operations, whether revealed by a rainy day or a UAV camera, helps provide an accurate depiction of an area of operations, and keeps people safe.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that the UAV capability is also a nimble and rapidly deployable capability that can work across environments, from desert to sea. In fact, the ScanEagle and its team are currently serving on the HMCS Regina, part of the multinational flotilla conducting counterterrorism operations in the Arabian Sea.

The UAV does not have to be limited to the military environment. Looking to the future, there is no reason – legal or otherwise – not to explore civilian use in search-and-rescue operations or, in what is increasingly becoming a reality, the monitoring of environmental disasters.

Clearly, the most debatable questions surrounding the use of UAVs concern those that are armed with ordnance and headed to a target. Now, more than ever, the world is aware of, watching, and witnessing military operations. Following the drone-launched missile strike that killed Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tweeted the footage of the hit. Watching a military strike in which a target is killed was previously reserved for those conducting the operation. The information battleground in the age of social media has made it available online in an instant for the entire world to see. Not surprisingly, some are checking their moral compass for direction. However, in that context, it is important to remember that while the vehicle might be new, the questions are not.

The legal parameters that NATO has always used that authorize coalition forces to consider a person a “high-value target” and “medium value target” are the same whether you’re sending an armed UAV to do the work, or an armed soldier. In both scenarios, the potential for civilian casualties is a reality, and the challenge of mitigating that risk is not new.

During my tour, there was a further shift in both the focus and response to civilian casualties. In 2009, NATO commander in Afghanistan general Stanley McChrystal issued a tactical directive limiting the use of air-to-ground munitions except under extremely prescribed circumstances. It was not welcomed by all. Some felt it delayed the approval for air support and put soldiers’ lives at increased risk – which it did. McChrystal readily stated and accepted that risk as part of the ongoing efforts to prevent unintended civilian deaths. It worked, and the number of civilian casualties started to drop.

However, it has put a fine point on the type of questions that state leaders and militaries have always had to consider. Recently, Brigadier-General Derek Joyce, military advisor to the national security advisor to the prime minister, spoke publicly about Canada’s investment in UAVs and the Canadian policy on their use. It is particularly telling that he did so boldly and with opposing views in the room. In this new age, the luxury of sending troops to do the hard work and looking the other away when it gets complicated is no longer possible, nor welcome. As ever, we must consider the ground truth that Canada fought hard to learn.

Also in the series


The Case for Humanitarian Drones

Jack C. Chow on how drones can dramatically change aid – if only we can overcome the stigma associated with them.

The Case Against Humanitarian Drones

Nathaniel A. Raymond, Brittany Card, and Ziad Al Achkar on why drones should not be deployed in humanitarian operations

Drones for Human Rights

Christopher Tuckwood on why UAVs should be added to the human rights tool box.

Drones in the Field

From kamikaze killers to stealth stalkers, OpenCanada runs through the ways drones are being used in the field today.

Lethal Drones

Council on Foreign Relations fellow Micah Zenko on how UAVs are a different kind of weapon, and one that is quickly proliferating.

Why Drones Win

Amitai Etzioni on why, in terms of morality and efficiency, drones win hands down.

Drone Proliferation

Denis Stairs on why the proliferation of military drones could be both a stabilizing and destabilizing force.

The Slow Death of the ‘Non-Combatant’

Jennifer Welsh on how targeting processes for drone strikes challenges how we traditionally distinguish non-combatants in war.

Where Drones Fit in Fields of Violence

There are serious concerns to navigate when it comes to the political geography of remote warfare.

Gregory Johnsen on Yemen, the U.S., and Drones

OpenCanada's interview with the author of The Last Refuge.

The Robotics Revolution

Brookings senior fellow Peter W. Singer on the broader implications of the use of drones for surveillance and war.

Drones For Good

Matthew Schroyer on why so many people get drones wrong – they're not all heartless, pilotless killing machines.

Letting Drones Reach their Potential

Ryan Calo on why the potential uses of drones for good are endless and should be protected from citizen backlash.

Drone Knowns and Unknowns

Joshua Foust on why the discussion around drone strikes is muddled and vague at best.

Are Drones Right for Canada?

Major-General Fraser Holman (Retired) on how Canada might best make use of UAV technology.