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A Heron unmanned drone, operated by the Canadian military, sits in a hangar at Kandahar Airfield. (Bill Graveland/The Canadian Press)
A Heron unmanned drone, operated by the Canadian military, sits in a hangar at Kandahar Airfield. (Bill Graveland/The Canadian Press)

Military to disband drone team after Afghan mission ends Add to ...

The military will ground Canada's spy plane program after the Afghan combat mission ends this summer.

The commander of the prop-driven CU-170 Herons, which operate out of Kandahar Airfield, said the Canadian Forces will disband his squadron once troops pull out of Kandahar.

Maj. Dave Bolton, the new and final commander of Task Force Erebus, said his team will then go on to other jobs within the military.

"There's a lot of very young people that were involved with this program," he said in an interview.

"There's probably going to be a hiatus of somewhere between two and five years. But those people will still be in the military, and those people will have this experience, and they'll be able to move forward with the yardstick when the time comes."

The Herons were leased as part of the independent Manley commission report to extend Canada's military mission in Afghanistan until 2011.

The vehicles, which are flown by controllers on the ground, help Canada and other members of the U.S.-led coalition keep watch over roads where insurgents are believed to be planting roadside bombs or planning ambushes.

The commander of Canada's air wing in Kandahar, Col. Paul Prevost, lauded the work of Task Force Erebus during a ceremony this week in which Maj. Bolton took over command of the drone squad.

"People don't realize what Erebus does until Erebus doesn't do it," Col. Prevost said.

The Canadian drones fly without any weapons, primarily to conduct surveillance.

The United States and other allies employ armed drones. The MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers are used for so-called surgical strikes against high-value targets, such as top insurgent commanders and al-Qaeda leaders.

Militant sanctuaries in northern Pakistan have been repeatedly bombarded, sometimes causing civilian casualties.

Canada leased the Herons from MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates of Richmond, B.C. in a deal worth roughly $95-million. The agreement is set to run until July of this year, when Parliament has mandated the withdrawal of the Canadian military from combat operations in southern Afghanistan.

Maj. Bolton speculated on other uses for the drones. The military could use them to keep an eye on Canada's coastal and border areas, or during major events such as the recent G8/G20 summits and the Olympic Games held in Vancouver.

Other government departments may also want to use the drones.

"It takes almost no imagination to come up with ways to use it, and not all those ways are military," Maj. Bolton said.

"All those things where you want to put a (closed-circuit television) on top of something, that's what it's used for. Now, whether it will be the military that uses it domestically, that's for the government to decide."

The air force is working on a long-term unmanned aircraft program named JUSTAS.

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