Unarmed VS. Armed: the Canadian UAV debate

With the Canadian Forces securing a deal to acquire ten unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones to the general populace, the debate of armed versus unarmed UAVs has intensified. The Canadian government signed the $14.2 million contract to have all ten of these unarmed UAVs delivered by 2021. These RQ-21A Blackjacks, manufactured by Boeing, are similar to the U.S. Navy’s MQ-1 Predators, with the difference being the Predators are equipped with ammunition.

This will not be Canada’s first time operating UAVs.  Previously, Canada rented Israeli-built UAVs during the Afghan war and contributed to the air campaign in Libya. The contract for leasing these unarmed UAVs expired in 2011, and the Canadian Forces were not approved to re-extend the agreement or purchase more until five years later. With the commissioning of the Blackjacks, the Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS) programme was finally able to start designing possible surveillance missions and train personnel.

Although these UAVs will not be ready until 2021, a heated debate has already begun about the relevance of having unarmed drones.  The advocates for unarmed drones note that these drones are for surveillance and reconnaissance use only. These UAVs are versatile and can be used by all three branches of the Canadian Forces: the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force. Domestically, these drones will be ideal for Arctic surveillance and patrolling our vast borders. Abroad, these drones would be used for in-theatre missions, such as gathering intel on travel routes, terrain information, potential targets, and enemy positions. The information provided by UAVs proved to be essential to the Canadian Forces in the Afghan war.

Further argument against armed UAVs notes the moral and ethical complications involved, stating that it is much easier to ‘fire and forget’ when the pilot operating these systems is miles away. Using UAVs to target and kill suspects could be considered unethical behaviour which would put Canada in a controversial position. The anti-armed UAV camp claims that this would reduce moral attachments, making it painless to kill.  Acquiring these UAVs would subject Canada to the type of scrutiny and debate that the U.S. faces.

Public concern over acquiring armed UAVs revolves around the notion that Canada is a peacemaking country, and does not require armed UAVs abroad. Therefore, these unarmed UAVs should be kept at home and be used purely for surveying our borders.

Canada’s chief of the defence staff, General Jonathan Vance, is supportive of the decision to acquire  UAVs; however, he has stated that “there’s little point to having a UAV that can see a danger, but can’t strike it if it needs to.” Those in favour of armed UAVs note the benefits of operating machinery that will act quickly to fire at enemies and prevent our troops from harm. Furthermore, the use of armed UAVs will omit the need to send in Canadian troops into theatre of operations and any potential line of fire. The missiles on UAVs will shoot any enemy targets who are firing at Canadian forces.  As with any shootings in the military, there is an accountability system in place when firing missiles, meaning that pulling the trigger requires multiple levels of authorization.

Additionally, the argument has been made that remote piloted weapons remove the emotional factor at play in carrying out an attack. With the Blackjacks reported range of 2400 kilometres, the emotional element is absent as the pilot with UAV control will be unable to fully distinguish a target’s facial expressions that would deter foot soldiers from firing. The distance factor also allows the pilot more time to make a calculated decision and better plan their attack than pulling the trigger in rapid response with anger or fear, possibly resulting in friendly-fire.

The Royal Canadian Air Force has tried to influence the government into procuring armed UAVs, stating that these machines be equipped with “precision-guided munitions.” In various reports filed by the RCAF over the last decade, they state that these UAVs will be subject to multiple levels of liability and transparency.

As military technology continues to move towards developing unmanned vehicles and weaponry, the debate between unarmed versus armed UAVS will continue to have a substantial impact on Canada’s procurement sector. Perhaps the RCAF’s lobbying for armed UAVs will see the next round equipped with munition.

Photo: “ScanEagle Remotely Piloted Air System”, a UAV similar to the Blackjack RQ-21A (2013), by Defence Images via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Claudia Nieroda

About Claudia Nieroda

Claudia Nieroda graduated from the University of Guelph with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Throughout her undergrad career, she participated in an exchange at the National University of Singapore, taking courses extensively in the field of International Relations. In her final year, she successfully wrote and defended a thesis paper exploring the advantages of soft-authoritarian regimes in South East Asia in terms of political and economic development. Claudia loves adventure and travel, visiting over 35 countries and 5 continents, and is currently pursuing a career in the field of international relations.