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Royal Canadian Air Force commander Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger in his office at National Defence headquarters, in Ottawa, on Dec. 12, 2019.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada is inching closer to the purchase of armed drones for its military as details around how the controversial weapons will be used are starting to come together after nearly two decades of delays and discussion.

In an exclusive interview with The Canadian Press, Royal Canadian Air Force commander Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger said a formal request for bids from the two dronemakers shortlisted for the competition – worth up to $5-billion – is set to kick off in the fall.

At the same time, preparations are under way so the military is ready to begin using the unmanned aerial vehicles when they start to arrive in the next three to four years. That includes plans to establish a central hub in Ottawa where pilots will fly the drones.

“We have not finalized the basing locations, but there certainly will be a centralized ground control node in Ottawa,” Meinzinger said.

“And we will have an east and a west maintenance detachment where we will locate vehicles, air vehicles and launch and recovery teams. And then we’ll have one northern base, which will be used when it’s necessary to be used.”

The entire drone force will comprise about 300 service members, he added, with technicians, pilots and others drawn from the air force and other parts of the military. The exact makeup of that force, and even how many drones will purchased, remains a work in progress.

Despite the outstanding questions, the fact the military has reached even this level of detail represents a major step forward after almost 20 years of work to identify and buy a fleet of UAVs to conduct surveillance over Canada’s vast territory and support missions abroad.

Aside from purchasing a small number of temporary, unarmed drones for the war in Afghanistan – all of which have since been retired – the military has never been able to make much progress on a permanent fleet.

That was despite drones having taken on an increasingly important role in militaries around the world; a report in the Royal Canadian Air Force Journal in late 2015 said 76 foreign militaries were using them and another 50 were developing them.

One major reason: No federal government had authorized adding drones – armed or not – as a permanent fixture within the Canadian Forces in the same vein as fighter-jet or helicopter squadrons until the Liberal government included them in its 2017 defence policy.

The government and military say the unmanned aircraft will be used for surveillance and intelligence gathering as well as delivering pinpoint strikes from the air on enemy forces in places where the use of force has been approved.

Yet some have criticized the decision to buy armed drones given concerns about their potential use in Canada and numerous reports of air strikes by other nations, particularly the United States and Russia, causing unintended damage and civilian casualties.

The government has also said little around the scenarios in which force might be used, including whether they could be used for assassinations. Officials have suggested they would be used in the same way as conventional weapons such as fighter jets and artillery.

“To date, there has not been much information about how Canada plans to use armed drones beyond broad sketches and assurances from leadership about their responsible use,” said Branka Marijan, a senior researcher at the arms-control group Project Ploughshares.

“This is not sufficient. Clarity on when, where, how and for what purpose the armed drones would be used are needed.”

The Liberal government’s decision to move ahead on buying drones with the ability to attack from the sky was taken without any political debate, which Marijan said stood in contrast to allies such as Germany.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh on Wednesday indicated he opposed the purchase of armed drones, saying they did not align with his party’s belief that the military’s primary role should emergency assistance at home and peacekeeping abroad.

“So I don’t on first blush think that is in line with what I would do,” he said. “And it’s not in line with the vision that I have for a Canada that is providing … peace and building a safer world.”

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