Ottawa considers high-altitude drones for Arctic surveillance

OTTAWA — The Canadian Press

An undated U.S. Air Force handout photo of a RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft. (Reuters)

The federal government is considering a proposal to buy at least three high-altitude, unmanned aerial vehicles in what could be an attempt to salvage its Arctic sovereignty ambitions.

The pitch was made by U.S. defence contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. and involves modifying its existing Global Hawk drone, which can operate at 20,000 metres, to meet the rigours of flying in the Far North.

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Many of the Conservative government’s plans to establish a presence in the rapidly thawing region, including the construction of military icebreakers and the establishment of a deepwater port, are behind schedule.

The U.S. Air Force is considering selling some of its Global Hawks, which are still under construction, as part of military budget cuts.

“It’s a capability that matches a need here in Canada,” Dane Marolt, Northrop Grumman’s director of international business development. “The Arctic is an issue for Canada. It’s also an issue for the United States. Unless you know what’s going on there, you can’t take any action.”

He says any potential purchase would have to go through the Pentagon, but adds the proposal given to the Canadian government includes aircraft, ground stations, spares and in-service support.

Mr. Marolt declined to attach a price tag, but a source with knowledge of the file said the package could run between $150-million and $170-million for each drone, depending upon what kind of surveillance package the Royal Canadian Air Force wants.

The discussions are far enough along that the Air Force has made it clear that it would like to see servicing of the aircraft done by the military, as opposed to civilian contractors. Bases have even been suggested, including Goose Bay, N.L., Montreal — or Comox, B.C.

Government insiders say Northrop Grumman has been determined in its pitch, but no decision has been made.

The remote-controlled aircraft is capable of staying airborne for up to 35 hours, traversing the entire country and providing near real-time video to a ground station. The Global Hawks differ from the more notorious MQ-1 Predators in that they are not armed and are used only for surveillance.

The Air Force wants more drones, but the program to acquire them has — like other military procurements — been sidelined.

Military planners have been on the verge of defining how unmanned aircraft fit into the country’s defence strategy for the past couple of years, but scarce funds and rapidly changing technology has made it a frustrating endeavour.

How a purchase of three, or possibly up to five Global Hawks, would square with that long-standing program is unclear.

There is skepticism within National Defence, mostly because of the Global Hawk’s enormous price tag. Even the country’s top military commander, Gen. Walt Natynczyk, has publicly expressed doubts.

But politics may trump policy. For all of their speeches and annual military photo-ops in the North, the Conservatives have delivered on few of their initial promises and are unlikely to be able to do so in the near-term.

The argument inside government has been that beefing up Arctic surveillance with drones would give the Conservatives something concrete to point to.