Thursday, March 28, 2013

Canada’s air force eyes drones for maritime and Arctic patrols

Air force general says despite delays, drone program is moving ahead with the goal of buying long-range drones to watch coastlines and Arctic regions. Canada’s air force remains committed to getting a squadron of drones to keep watch over vast tracts of the country’s coastlines and Arctic regions, be deployed on humanitarian missions, and even carry weapons in war zones, the head of the air force.
Lt.-Gen. Yvan Blondin says delays in purchasing unmanned aerial vehicles have had a silver lining as evolving technology has meant drones are becoming more capable.
“If you commit yourself too early with a very expensive program, there are new ones coming in that are not far behind that will give you different capabilities and could be much cheaper,” Blondin told the Star.
A military program to buy drones has been slow to take flight though Blondin said the Royal Canadian Air Force is now looking actively looking at the options.
“I’m not sad it’s taking its time. There are some great capabilities coming up,” he said in an interview Monday.
Speaking before the Senate defence committee Monday afternoon, Blondin said the air force needs a versatile platform able to fly long distances on maritime patrol — flying up 1,600 kilometres off the coast — and enforce northern sovereignty.
“I need to use the drones . . . to go on long patrol and be our eyes in the sky in the Arctic,” Blondin said.
He says the drones should also be available to be deployed abroad and says the technology could have proven invaluable during the response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010.
“I could have used some drones when we were in Haiti to be able to give us a picture of what roads are open, what is happening out there,” he said.
And he says he wants the drones to be able to carry weapons and equipment, such as aid kits that could be dropped to people on the ground during a search-and-rescue mission.
The air force used drones in Afghanistan and came away impressed by the “incredible” information they can provide,” Blondin said.
During his committee appearance, the air force head touched on the question of a replacement for the aging CF-18s. He assured Senators that the existing fighters can “easily” fly until 2025 — though some systems may need updating — as the federal government weighs what aircraft will replace them.
The military had originally picked the Lockheed Martin F-35 but concerns over production delays and cost overruns prompted the Conservative government last fall to restart the selection process.
There have been questions whether the single-engine F-35 is a good choice for Canada because of the potential risk of engine failure during patrols over the country’s remote regions.
But Blondin, a former CF-18 pilot, said he would have no concerns flying a single-engine jet, adding he’s more interested in what kind of equipment the potential new jet offers.
“It wouldn’t be a factor in my decision,” he said. “The engines are so much advanced . . . I’d be very comfortable with one engine.”

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