Canada’s air force will have to wait a few extra years to get the armed drones it has been promised for more than a decade — because, among other things, the pilotless aircraft require special modifications to fly in the Far North.
The federal government had planned to acquire by 2025 a fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones, built by U.S. defence contractor General Atomics.
But the Department of National Defence (DND) acknowledged recently that the acquisition date has been pushed to 2028 — more than 11 years after drones were identified in the Liberal government’s defence policy as an important priority for modernizing the country’s air force to meet modern threats.
That delivery date is also more than two decades after the previous Conservative government weighed the idea of acquiring an earlier version of the Reaper, the MQ-1, known as the Predator.
The U.S., the U.K., Italy, France and Spain have all acquired the MQ-9 Reaper, but DND says it has its own important considerations.
“The Canadian RPAS [Remotely Piloted Aircraft System] configuration will require significant development work in order to address RCAF requirements which differ from our Allies’ requirements,” DND spokesperson Andrew McKelvey told CBC News in a written statement.
“For example, the need to operate at high Northern latitudes, including in the Arctic, requires the use of satellites and aircraft antennas and communication components not previously integrated on the MQ-9.”
The manufacturer insists the aircraft has proved itself in the High Arctic.
In an online promotional pitch, General Atomics said the MQ-9B “operates well in cold weather conditions” and the airframe has a state-of-the-art anti-ice/de-icing system. In September 2021, the company conducted a demonstration flight to the 78th parallel in Canada’s Far North.
DND plans to add Canadian tech
Despite that achievement, DND remains cautious about the drone’s ability to withstand the harsh environment.
“Additional testing and qualification work will be required to ensure the RPAS can be operated and maintained in Canadian climatic conditions,” McKelvey said.
Beyond the concern about the MQ-9’s ability to perform Arctic surveillance and strike missions, McKelvey said the department also intends to incorporate Canadian technology in the aircraft.
“There is also some developmental effort required to integrate the Canadian-made WESCAM MX-20 EO/IR sensor onto the platform,” he said, adding that drone operators also need to be trained and the aircraft certified for operations in Canadian airspace.
Over the past two decades, DND has not had a stellar record when it comes to taking development programs and turning them into useable military equipment delivered on time. The CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopter and the C-295 Kingfisher are just two examples.
The troubled procurement programs involving existing military hardware — in use by one of the country’s allies — being adapted for Canadian purposes are equally notorious.
They include the navy’s Victoria-class submarines and the air force’s CH-147F Chinook helicopters — which were intended for the Afghan war but were delivered well over a year after major combat ended.
The words “developmental” and “Canadianization” are red flags for anyone who follows the glacial defence procurement process in this country, said Dave Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, an Ottawa-based organization that occasionally has hosted conferences partly sponsored by major defence contractors.
The good news, he said, is that defence planners have actually acknowledged — and have perhaps even accounted for — the additional engineering development that will be needed for the drones, instead of providing overly optimistic or unrealistic delivery forecasts.
But Perry pointed out that the original iteration of the drones project leaned heavily on the notion of a sole-source contract — something the Liberals, when they came to power, said they were determined to avoid by going out for bids.
So a competition was launched, which identified two manufacturers. One dropped out, leaving the San Diego-based General Atomics, one of the dominant players in the drone market, as the only bidder.
“I think that the pursuit of the competition here … certainly added a significant amount of time,” said Perry, one of the leading defence procurement experts in the country.
He said the federal government should have recognized from the start that “it was going to be very difficult to have a circumstance to get a non-American platform” to fit with what Canada wanted — especially since the Reaper and the Predator are surveillance systems that both plug into the highly classified U.S. intelligence system.
And since most of the developmental concerns relate to adapting the MQ-9B for the Arctic, Perry said he wonders why the air force can’t proceed with a limited purchase of Reapers that could operate over Canada’s more temperate coastlines and on expeditionary operations overseas.
Appearing last month before a House of Commons committee, former national security and intelligence adviser Richard Fadden, who also served at one point as deputy defence minister, said the federal government needs to show more flexibility in acquiring military equipment, especially with the world in such a volatile state.
He said he’d be in favour of suspending normal procurement procedures — in limited circumstances — to move projects along more quickly.
“The military should be able to advise the government on those acquisitions that are critical now,” Fadden testified on Sept. 26. “And they should waive procurement rules. They should accelerate the processes whenever necessary.”
Last month, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of $313 million US in munitions to Canada — including 219 Hellfire missiles and laser guided bombs — to strap on to the Reapers Ottawa intends to buy. The approval came through even though the contract with General Atomics has not been finalized.