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Issues Analysis: JUSTAS Program

The JUSTAS Program

By Rob Cook

Though continually shelved for a variety of reasons over the last decade, the Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS) program, intended to encompass the acquisition and deployment of a Canadian drone fleet, has managed to stay on the books. While not currently a top priority for the Canadian Forces (CF), it is evident that the value of the program is recognized on some level. In a shrewd move, the program was bifurcated, separating the initial purchase of drones meant for general domestic and foreign use, and their eventual deployment in the Canadian Arctic and Maritime regions. To date, there have been no firm decisions as to which Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) the CF would prefer, although there are several possible options which would adequately fulfill the requirements of the JUSTAS program.

The initial phase of the program includes the task of identifying a suitable UAV candidate which is to be armed, able to operate in the extreme climates found across Canada, and capable of carrying out intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The second phase of the program reflects the national defence priorities of the current government, with a strong emphasis on a Canada First Defence Strategy. In the context of the JUSTAS program, this means that the UAV chosen by the CF must well-​suited to patrolling the Arctic and coastal regions of Canada, as well as meeting the previously outlined criteria. A recent blog by Joshua Matthewman convincingly argues that a modified version of the Northrup Grumman Global Hawk, known as the Polar Hawk, is an ideal candidate for the patrol and ISR missions envisioned in the second phase of the JUSTAS Program. However, the JUSTAS program, taken as a whole, still includes provisions for the purchase of armed drones, and there is no reason to assume that both armed and unarmed drones cannot operate together in a mutually supporting fashion.

Currently, the most widely used armed UAVs, such as the MQ-​1 Predator and MQ-​9 Reaper, are all Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) drones. Although their medium, (rather than high) altitude capabilities make them poorly suited to operating in Arctic conditions, the CF envisioned the armed branch of the JUSTAS program as being deployed in foreign theatres of war or conflict zones, rather than being used in a domestic setting. In this context, the MALE capabilities of the Predator, Reaper, and even the Heron II have proven to be more than adequate for general ISR missions and precision armed strikes alike.

Beyond the added capacity for precision strikes, a mixed fleet of drones, comprised of both Polar Hawks and an armed MALE UAV, would also allow the CF to be selective about deploying the more expensive and sophisticated Polar Hawks for foreign operations. As suggested by Matthewman, a fleet of three Polar Hawks could easily provide coverage of the Canadian Arctic. However, attempting to stretch this fleet by deploying it internationally would result in decreased coverage of sovereign territory, as well as exposing the Polar Hawks to potential damage or destruction. The Reaper, at a fraction of the unit cost of a Global Hawk, is one of several ideal candidates for fulfilling the requirements of the JUSTAS program which the Global/​Polar Hawk do not satisfy, and which would allow Canadian Polar Hawks to more efficiently carry out the second phase of the JUSTAS program.

A second option for the JUSTAS program is another homogenous drone fleet, but rather than utilizing the Polar Hawk, the CF could invest in the multi-​role Predator C, Avenger. Unlike the current generation of armed UAVs, the Avenger boasts High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) capabilities, and rather than being prop-​driven, the Avenger is powered by a turbine engine, making it substantially faster than its predecessors. The Avenger also boasts some stealth features, and although its flight time is somewhat less than that of a Global Hawk, the two UAVs have similar ceilings. Furthermore, the cost per unit of the Avenger, though more expensive than the Reaper, is still a fraction of that of the Global Hawk (and presumably the Polar Hawk variant).

Regardless of the eventual composition of Canada’s drone fleet, the JUSTAS program would do well to consider a variety of options. Both the Polar Hawk and Avenger have HALE capabilities, but on their own, would likely prove to be inadequate, as would the aforementioned MALE UAVs. It is unlikely that the CF will find a single UAV capable of fulfilling all of stated goals and requirements of the JUSTAS program, but this should serve to encourage the CF to consider a mixed fleet of suitable HALE and MALE UAVs. The flexibility afforded by a mixed fleet would allow each type of drone to be used most efficiently, while fulfilling the broad range of requirements included in the JUSTAS program.

Rob Cook received his BA Honours, Specialist in History, from the University of Toronto, and received his Master’s degree, also in History, from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University in 2012.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the CDA Institute.

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Guest Wednesday, 27 March 2013
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