Photograph of a drone in flight

An Alternative Future For the Canadian Air Force

Today being Canada Day, with the Snowbirds flying in formation over North Bay, seems an appropriate opportunity to discuss the future of the Canadian Air Force. Previously I have discussed why the F35 is not an appropriate aircraft for Canada’s 21st century military. In brief: the airframe is extremely expensive and unsuited to Canadian conditions, the country lacks the infrastructure to support the aircraft during sustained combat operations, and the fuel limitations of the F35 means that it cannot reach the Northwestern Passage, an area of increasing strategic interest for Canada and the most likely region to see future conflict.

My alternative for the Canadian Air Force is a radical departure from traditional military organizations, but one that I believe has far greater benefit to the nation over the long term. I would propose that the Canadian Air Force concentrates its human assets on rescue, interdiction and troop support, and transition the major portion of every other aspect of its mission, including surveillance and combat, to drones.

This proposal runs sharply against the heroic image that the Air Force (particularly the fighter wing) has nurtured since WWI. But a modern military does not win battles on romantic heroism. It might recruit with such ideals, but a military force faces its practical test on the battlefield; and encouraging a solution derived from a romantic “knights of the air” mystique against 21st century threats exhibits the same mindset, and long-term effectiveness, as the Polish army mounting cavalry charges against German invaders in 1938. The military succeeds in its mission because it uses the best tools, intelligence, and application of force available: and Canada’s mission, especially in the Arctic, is most effectively prosecuted with drones.

It may surprise most to learn that Canada has a long experience with drones: the CL-89 “Midge”, developed by Canadair in the 1960’s, was one of the first drone systems successfully deployed in a war zone, and was purchased by several countries. This was followed by the radically designed contra-rotating CL-227 Sentinel.

Starved of a sustained program of government funding and support, Canadian innovation in UAV technology has lapsed since in the 1980s. In Afghanistan, Canadian forces are dependent on outsourced technology:  French SAGEM CU-161 Sperwer UAVs have played a surveillance role; more recently, Heron models, purchased from Israel, have participated in offensive action.

This leaves Canada at the mercy of foreign sources for UAV technology: the cancellation of the Sperwer program left the Canadian military with no drone support in Afghanistan until the Heron was brought in. The JUSTAS program, now in Phase II, seeks to determine the next classes of UAV that Canada will purchase, and has included transcontinental overflights of Northrop Gruman Global Hawk drones. All the drones currently in competition for JUSTAS are foreign, primarily of US and Israeli manufacture.

Let’s look at some of the advantages UAVs provide:

Photograph of two pilots in a UAV control roomReduced or eliminated Canadian causalities during conflict
Because they are piloted remotely, the most dangerous part of a drone crewman’s day is driving home after a shift.
The skill set to pilot a drone is already built into the vast majority of Air Force applicants.
It takes years to train a good fighter pilot, an investment of millions of dollars. But anyone who has played Microsoft Flight Simulator can run a drone after just a few weeks of training.
Photograph of an ultralight drone in flightDrones have far greater range and can remain on station for far longer periods
Due to the fact that they are not man-rated, drones can be “long-loft” devices, remaining in flight for days at a time, depending on the propulsion system used. Global Hawk drones have crossed Canada during service trials, with no need for mid-air refuel.
Because they can be built far smaller, drones have a greatly reduced radar and visual signature.
Adding stealth technologies to a UAV is far more effective and better understood. Depending on how they are constructed and powered, UAVs can fly higher, lower and longer than fighter jets, and faster or slower (the latter being an advantage for surveillance and ground support). For example, the Zephyr UAV has been aloft for more than 60 continuous hours in trials.
Alternative fuels are an option
Napoleon Bonaparte claimed that an army marches on its stomach, but a modern military runs on petroleum. Drones do not require jet fuel: prop-driven UAVs can run on biofuel or solar. Intelligent systems onboard drones can use thermals and rotary wind shear to gain lift; modern aerodynamic design can provide extremely high glide ratios and operational ranges that do not require power of any kind.
Lower risk, lower loss, lower cost.
The most expensive UAV system available, the Global Hawk, is less than ⅕th the price of an F-35. Most systems are far cheaper: Canada could order hundreds, even thousands, for the price of one fighter jet.The physical destruction of a drone due to an accident or enemy action is easily compensated for; the loss of a $300 million airframe and a fighter pilot with years of training, from a fleet of only 50 aircraft, not so much.
Drones can, in theory, outperform any piloted aircraft.
The performance envelope of a drone is determined by material strength and thrust. In a traditional fighter, the limiting factor is the physical endurance of the human pilot.
A greater return on investment
Drones can be built, completed and maintained almost entirely within Canada, using local tools and talent. Rather than a few Canadian companies being sub-contractors to the F-35 program, the nation can build the drones in-house and benefit directly from the technological innovation.
Drones are far more adaptive to changing battlefield conditions and scope of conflict
A peacekeeping mission is far better (and faster) complemented with a dozen drones and a maintenance crew of a few personnel than the massive commitment required to support a single F-35. Drones can easily be ruggedized for Arctic missions.
UAVs are far more suited for 5th generation warfare
The fourth generation of warfare, which we are currently experiencing, is characterized by non-traditional asymmetrical forces on a fluid battlefield without defined fronts or differentiation between military, civilian, and government. To this, fifth generation warfare will add “swarm” attacks, rather than the force-on-force engagements that have characterized warfare for the last several thousand years.“Swarm” units are loosely coupled, self-arranging, and attack on all vectors: physical, electronic and psychological. Some swarm units will be human, others remotely controlled, and some entirely artificial and autonomous. Fifth generation warfare overwhelms, confuses and demoralizes traditional military forces, demonstrated perhaps most notoriously and effectively during 9/11 and in General Paul K Van Riper’s defeat of an entire carrier group using only small craft during the Millennium Challenge 2002 war game exercise.

UAV technology is advancing rapidly; by no longer supporting a drone program directly, Canada misses out on the secondary and tertiary effects of research and innovation. Provided with solid funding and long-term commitment, Canadian designers and researchers – artificial intelligence programmers, aeronautical engineers, and scientists – could develop drones in a 10-year timeframe that were optimized for native conditions, and cover a wide range of purposes.

In my opinion, Canada should invest in the absolute minimum number of fighter airframes required to replace the CF-18 fleet and fulfill our commitment to NATO – I would suggest the tried, proven, and far cheaper F/A-18E/F Super Hornet – while adding a few A-10s for ground support, with the rest of the Air Force budget devoted to developing UAVs for combat and surveillance and a C3 support system.