Drones: The end of manned fighters?

By Tyler Hooper

A maintenance airman inspects an American MQ-9 Reaper UAV in Afghanistan. Reapers are capable of striking enemy targets with on-board weapons, and have conducted close air support and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Canada leased Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs in Afghanistan, but none of them matched the capabilities of the Reaper. (USAF)

A maintenance airman inspects an American MQ-9 Reaper UAV in Afghanistan. Reapers are capable of striking enemy targets with on-board weapons, and have conducted close air support and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Canada leased Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs in Afghanistan, but none of them matched the capabilities of the Reaper. (USAF)

Much of the talk surrounding the Canadian military, with regards to its air force, primarily discusses the procurement of Canada’s next generation fighter jet, which, at the moment, many speculate will be Lockheed Martin’s F-35. But as drone technology becomes increasing popular amongst militaries, particularly by the U.S. — who has already used drones in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan — a discussion has ignited on whether drone technology can ever fully replace the manned fighter.

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has yet to publically decide whether it will acquire sophisticated drones in the future. Previously, the Harper government had shown interest in procuring the high-altitude Global Hawk surveillance drone, but never followed through with the plan. However, in the fall of 2014, the Department of National Defence tested drones in the high arctic, begging the question: Does Canada need drones, and could they eventually replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF) squadrons of fighters?

 

Drones and the arctic

In 2013, the Commander of the RCAF, Lieutenant-General Yvan Blondin, told the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence that he needs drones for the arctic and to assist with overseas operations.

I need to use the drones. They have got the range and endurance to be able to go on long patrols and be our eyes in the sky in the Arctic,” he said. “It is a Canadian requirement. That is, first and foremost, why we want to get some drones.”

His comments sparked criticism; some argued that Canada’s 18 Aurora surveillance aircraft and RadarSat-2 satellite (used primarily for arctic surveillance) are powerful enough to monitor potential foreign activity in the arctic. In addition, some worry that the RCAF’s plea for drones could result in the technology being used in combat operations overseas against foreign countries.

There are also those who suggest other nations could use drone technology to spy on Canada. In fact, the Canadian Press recently uncovered a government report that revealed that Canadian intelligence looked at how Russia or China could use drone technology to spy in the Canadian arctic.

 

The first Heron unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) built for Canadian operations in Afghanistan, 2008. Primarily used as a surveillance UAV, the Heron can be equipped with modular radar, sensor and electronic intelligence packages. Some variants have also been armed. (cpl andrew saunders, combat camera)

The first Heron unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) built for Canadian operations in Afghanistan, 2008. Primarily used as a surveillance UAV, the Heron can be equipped with modular radar, sensor and electronic intelligence packages. Some variants have also been armed. (cpl andrew saunders, combat camera)

Challenges and hurdles

Drone technology is not entirely new to Canada; the RCAF and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have used and tested smaller drones for search and rescue operations, but there is an inevitable, larger discussion that needs to be had about Canada’s acquisition of more sophisticated drone technologies.

“The issue surrounding drones in Canada of course is to move to a much more sophisticated and larger, more capable drone system [such as the Predator drone or aforementioned Global Hawk],” said Professor James Fergusson, Director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.

But with these more sophisticated systems comes challenges and hurdles both the government and military need to consider if it ever wishes to start replacing its manned fighters.

Critics and experts alike have primarily highlighted the main challenges when it comes to training and operating advanced drone technology. For example, drones are particularly useful for reconnaissance and surveillance missions but lack the capabilities to handle air-to-air combat.

“As the technology exists, drones, I think, are complimentary to manned fighters in modern air combat at the moment,” said Paul Mitchell, a professor with the Department of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College.

“I don’t think the artificial intelligence is at a sufficient stage in order to deal with those particular things,” he added, referring to certain complex combat scenarios. Mitchell also highlighted that there are potential legal and technological hurdles, such as figuring out flight regulations for drones and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and the challenge of using the technology in busy urban environments with various flight paths.

“It also means of course that you have to develop new training procedures, you have to invest a fair bit of money,” added Fergusson.

Fergusson elaborated by pointing out that drones are not like squadrons of planes — there’s a completely different infrastructure, one that requires the training of individuals who are flying these machines hundreds of miles away. There are also issues in regards to communication between drones and satellite technology, particularly in the high arctic, where satellites and satellite signals are less prevalent than other parts of the world.  

And, of course, don’t forget the price tag that comes with newer, advanced technology.

“We’re not going to go down that road and invest in that technology, we just don’t have the funds, nor really do we like to gamble with advanced technology,” said Fergusson. “[But] we are going to look at, sometime…some sense of a mixed fleet of drones, fighters and some patrol aircraft.”

Mitchell echoed similar sentiments. “In a combat environment, there’s still a lot of questions [as] to whether or not things like predators, reapers, and those types of things really are going to be capable of surviving in that type of environment at the [present] time,” he said. “I don’t really see drones replacing manned fighters in the near future, what I really see these things doing is complimenting manned operations.”

In essence, the first logical step for the CAF and Canadian government would be to establish a system in which drones and manned fighters could compliment each other in both defence missions and combat roles.

This doesn’t mean that drones won’t ever replace manned fighters; in fact, Fergusson suggested, “The F-35 will probably be the last manned fighter we will use.” But for the next couple of decades, the RCAF would be wise is to acquire drone technology that can ensure it compliments whichever next generation fighter jet it acquires.