Canada is expected to take delivery this year of the first of three surveillance planes – with a combined price tag of $247-million – in a deal brokered by the U.S. government that will give the military new tools to snoop from the sky.
The 350ER King Airs, which are being outfitted with cutting-edge surveillance gear, represent a new capability for the Canadian Armed Forces operations “at home and abroad,” Department of National Defence spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande said. The deal was arranged through the U.S. government foreign military sales program.
The equipment being installed is transforming the planes into “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” or ISR, machines to track subjects from high up. Gear includes the same MX-15D targeting equipment with a powerful camera that Ukraine is using on its military drones to surveil Russian targets and direct air strikes against the invading forces.
The Canadian plane also includes high-tech warning systems that detect incoming threats and a countermeasure system to protect the aircraft.
The government says these planes, for Canada’s special forces, or Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, are primarily intended for offshore use and would only be used to surveil Canadians domestically – in support of civilian authorities – with the approval of the federal cabinet.
The Defence department, however, is declining to offer many details about precisely what a U.S.-registered aircraft, an earlier model of the King Air, was doing Feb. 10 in the skies above Ottawa while the city’s downtown was paralyzed by convoy protests.
The plane, with registration number N330TT, was spotted doing precise and repeated circles around Ottawa in a pattern that Steffan Watkins, a researcher in the capital who tracks ship and plane movements, said are consistent with ISR surveillance. He recorded at least 15 circles but said the plane at times inexplicably disappeared from public tracking systems.
“These patterns look very much like other tracks seen over foreign conflict zones while ISR missions were believed to be under way,” Mr. Watkins said.
Daniel Le Bouthillier, head of media relations at the Department of National Defence, would only say that the February flight in Ottawa was a military training operation and was not collecting intelligence on the protests.
“The flight in question was part of a Canadian Armed Forces training exercise that was planned prior to, and was unrelated to, the domestic event that was taking place at the time,” he said. “This training had nothing to do with the surveillance or the monitoring of activities.”
The new planes will give Canada the same tools as its peers.
Retired lieutenant-general Steve Bowes, who headed Canadian Joint Operations Command, said Canada is catching up to other Five Eyes allies that have had these sophisticated spy planes for some time.
The King Air ISR aircraft would have been useful in Canadian operations in the war in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State in northern Iraq, he said.
“It can track individuals if you know what you are looking for. If you are looking at a specific building or site, it allows to paint a picture of what is in a compound before you go knocking on the door.”
Retired lieutenant-colonel Steve Day, who commanded Canada’s elite Joint Task Force 2 commandos, said the spy plane can not only be used in international military operations but also to handle domestic terrorist threats.
Joint Task Force 2 is a secretive unit in the Canadian military and handles special-ops missions including critical strikes against the Taliban. The highly trained commandos, similar to Britain’s SAS and the U.S. Navy Seals, could be called in if there is a terrorist attack, plane hijacking or hostage incident in Canada.
The plane could be used “if you had a hijacked plane and if you wanted to know what was going on on that plane … or if there was a possibility of anthrax or other chemicals or biological agents in a house, and you wanted to know how many people were in the house and what they were doing,” Mr. Day said. “The importance of that aircraft is it allows you to have an unblinking set of eyes and ears for whatever it is you are flying around.”
Mr. Day added the aircraft has a “very sophisticated platform” of sensors as well as a missile warning system that allows “you to fly where you wouldn’t normally fly.”
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