OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is quietly shopping for drones for the military and expects to see expressions of interest from the defence industry by mid-April.
But the tire-kicking exercise is setting the stage for a potentially bruising policy debate over whether the remotely controlled aircraft should be armed and under what circumstances they would employ deadly force.
The Royal Canadian Air Force has lobbied hard over the last few years for the capability to fire weapons from whatever drone is selected and has even written the assumption into mandatory requirements, according to a series of access to information records obtained by The Canadian Press.
Under the heading "Lethality," the high-level requirements review — dated June 5, 2013 — explicitly states that whatever system is chosen, the RCAF expects the remotely piloted aircraft to be capable of "carrying and employing precision-guided munitions."
A separate slide presentation, dated Dec. 12, 2013 and intended as an update for the project management office at National Defence, noted there would have to be support for a precision-strike capability, but anticipates "public concern."
The Pentagon and CIA run drone programs which have been subject to increasing scrutiny and criticism, particularly in light of the dramatic rise in strikes over the last eight years and claims of civilian casualties.
The intelligence agency's program of targeted assassination has been the most controversial, prompting the Obama Administration to pledge three years ago to create "clear guidelines, oversight and accountability” when it comes to decisions to employ lethal force.
A Washington-based think tank of former generals and policy experts has been monitoring the promise and issued a report card this week that gave the administration a failing grade, particularly around transparency.
A spokesman for National Defence, Evan Koronewski, acknowledged the air force wants a strike capability, but the drones Canada intends to buy will "be used primarily for surveillance and reconnaissance" of the coastlines and the Arctic.
"The policy and operational questions posed by the use of these systems are significant and require careful thought and discussion within Canada and internationally," Koronewski said in an email.
"However, it is clear that the legal implications of the use of these systems vary depending on the context and legal framework. Any such system acquired by Canada would be compliant with Canada's domestic and international legal obligations and employed in a manner that is consistent with these obligations."
But Errol Mendes, a University of Ottawa professor and an expert in international law, says there will have to be more than careful thought and discussion.
He says the Trudeau government should start now to develop a framework of transparency and accountability for the use of those weapons system, if only to avoid the kind of public debate and condemnation that's happened in the U.S.
"The issue is quite pertinent given the huge range of debate that's gone all of the way up to the president," said Mendes, who recently lectured the NATO council on the subject.
Introducing a Canadian program "must be done with utmost care and supervision" and with highly trained operators, he said.
"That whole area needs to be studied very, very carefully. I am not actually against well-trained and well-focused use of weaponized drones, which meet the parameters of international humanitarian law. So, I'm not against it. I know others are, but I am not."
What needs to happen, Mendes said, is that every time the weapons are fired, it is cleared at the top, by either the defence minister or the prime minister. He says there needs to be a clear chain of responsibility that stretches beyond the military to the political level.
Retired colonel George Petrolekas, of the Conference of Defence Association Institute, says he knows there's been debate, but hasn't seen any evidence of the policy architecture that would be needed to run a drone program.
He also suspects that the ballooning federal deficit will put a crimp in plans to acquire drones around 2020.
Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press