VICTORIA, British Columbia — After years of delays, the Canadian military is rebooting its attempt to buy a fleet of UAVs for domestic and international missions.
But it already appears that the US-built Predator could have the inside track on the project worth about CAN $1.5 billion (US $1.4 billion), according to industry sources.
Royal Canadian Air Force Brig. Gen. Phil Garbutt told industry representatives in Ottawa April 9 that the plan is to have the first aircraft available for operations in 2021. He described the project, called the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Targeting and Acquisition System (JUSTAS), as providing an all-weather, persistent capability that can support Canadian military operations.
Air Force Col. Ian Lightbody, director of air requirements, noted that a contract is expected to be awarded in 2019. All aircraft would be delivered by 2023, he added.
Canada does not have a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV. It uses its Aurora maritime patrol aircraft to fulfill the ISR mission against Islamic State extremists in Iraq.
"Circumstances being what they are, I think the Canadians would like the [UAV] capability as soon as possible," said Paulo Ferro, who is responsible for strategic development for Predator manufacturer, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, in San Diego.
Since 2006, Canada's military has been trying to purchase a fleet of UAVs, but it has faced an uphill battle due to lack of funding.
Air Force officers announced in 2006 that JUSTAS would see the purchase of MALE UAVs, but little has happened on that project.
The Air Force made a pitch to the Canadian government in 2007 for the sole-source purchase of Predator UAVs, built by General Atomics, but that was rejected.
Instead, in 2009 the Canadian military signed a lease arrangement with MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), Richmond, BC, which provided the Heron, made by Israel Aerospace Industries, for operations in Afghanistan. That lease ran from 2009 to 2011.
When the JUSTAS project was active, both MDA and General Atomics indicated they intended to bid.
Northrop Grumman also made an unsolicited offer in 2012 to provide Canada with a fleet of Global Hawks, specifically for Arctic operations, but the Canadian government did not act on that proposal. The Air Force determined that the cost of the Global Hawks was too expensive for the Arctic capability.
MDA has since shifted much of its UAV capabilities from Canada to Australia, where it is providing Heron aircraft to the Australian military. MDA spokeswoman Wendy Keyzer said the company will not comment on whether it plans to bid on JUSTAS.
In a recently released report, the Department of National Defence's auditors examined the various delays that plagued JUSTAS. The March 2014 report also noted that the Heron UAV that MDA supplied to the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan was less capable than the aircraft being envisioned for JUSTAS.
Keyzer said MDA is not going to comment on the Defence Department report.
Northrop Grumman spokesman Brian Humphreys declined comment when asked whether that firm would bid on JUSTAS.
But he said Global Hawk, and its maritime variant, Triton, could provide much capability to Canada. "In the case of Canada, these could perform missions at home or away in support of Canadian Forces," he said. "The missions would range from traditional military ISR to environmental monitoring, including of the Arctic region."
Industry sources say that although some in the Air Force have long wanted the Predator, there could be other new UAVs emerging in the next four years that might be entered in the JUSTAS competition.
Ferro said he is unaware of plans of the firm's various competitors. But he added: "I always expect competition from anyone who can build a MALE [UAV]."
He said General Atomics is looking at handling the JUSTAS requirements by offering Canada the jet-powered Avenger, for operations in the Arctic, as well as the Predator B.
JUSTAS includes the procurement of the air vehicles, spare parts, ground stations and a 20-year in-service support package to be provided by the winning bidder.
The Air Force wants the UAVs to carry a range of sensors, including a gyro-stabilized sensor turret that enables the operating crew to covertly detect, identify and track targets at least as small as humans with weapons, and obtain targeting data, day or night. Full motion video would be available in color electro-optical, infrared and low light.
In addition, the air vehicle will be expected to carry a synthetic aperture radar capable of producing high-resolution images and strip maps, as well as detecting ground-moving targets.
As a minimum, the air vehicle must be able to transit 1,000 kilometers, loiter for 12 hours without descending, and return to base.
The UAVs would also be capable of carrying weapons, although their main role would be surveillance, according to Air Force officers.
JUSTAS could see the acquisition of as many as 18 aircraft.
Lt.-Gen. Yvan Blondin, head of the Air Force, acknowledged to a Senate defense committee on March 25, 2013, that JUSTAS has faced numerous delays. But he argued that could work in Canada's favor since, as the years pass, the UAV technology improves.