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The federal government has officially launched a competition for the purchase of armed drones after nearly two decades of delays and discussion around whether Canada should buy the controversial weapons.

A formal request for proposals was released Friday to the two companies shortlisted to bid on the $5-billion contract, which could see the Canadian Armed Forces launch a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles in the next few years.

A formal contract is not expected for another year or two, while the first drone isn’t scheduled for delivery until at least 2025, with the last to arrive in the early 2030s.

The request does not say how many vehicles the government plans to buy, and instead leaves it up to the two companies to say how their bids will satisfy the military’s needs while benefiting the Canadian economy.

It does reveal the aircraft will be based at 14 Wing Greenwood in Nova Scotia and 19 Wing Comox in British Columbia, while the main control centre will be in the Ottawa area. Yellowknife is also identified as a forward operating location.

The drone force will include around 240 air force members, with 55 in Greenwood, 25 in Comox and 160 in Ottawa.

While delivery is still years away, the fact the military has reached even this point represents a major step forward after almost 20 years of work to identify and buy a fleet of UAVs to conduct surveillance over Canadian 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 taking 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 drones and another 50 were developing them.

One major reason: no federal government had authorized adding drones as a permanent fixture within the military 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.

Some have previously 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 about the scenarios in which force might be used, including whether drones could be deployed for assassinations. Officials have suggested they would be used in the same way as conventional weapons such as fighter jets and artillery.

“While the (drones) will be a medium-altitude long-endurance system with a precision strike capability, it will only be armed when necessary for the assigned task,” the Defence Department said Friday.

“At all times, employment of precision strike capability will adhere to the Law of Armed Conflict, as well as any other applicable domestic or international laws. Use of force will be applied following rules of engagement applicable to the CAF.”

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