Vive Le Canada

Canada's air force ponders pilotless replacements
Date: Wednesday, September 07 2005
Topic: Canadian News


September 5, 2005

Canada's air force ponders pilotless replacements

By MURRAY BREWSTER

HALIFAX (CP) - It is usually the stuff of science fiction and Hollywood, but Canadian defence researchers are debating the replacement of the trusty CF-18 jetfighter with a fleet of sophisticated, pilotless drones.

The concept was first proposed in an internal 2003 Defence Department research paper, but has now become the subject of discussion within the air force.

The CF-18, which is currently undergoing a $1.3 billion life-extending modernization, is scheduled to keep flying until 2017.



The idea of simply substituting one manned aircraft for another is something that should no longer be considered a fait accompli given the increasing complexity and relatively low cost of unmanned vehicles, said Thierry Gongora, a defence researcher.

In his study, one of the options Gongora suggested is replacing the CF-18 with an a fleet of pilotless drones.

"It's in the realm of possibility," he said in an interview from Ottawa. "There are people thinking that much outside the box."

In an age of tight budgets, a defence policy review and U.S. resolve to extend its security perimeter to the whole of North America, the idea of switching to drones isn't that far-fetched, said Gen. Paul Manson, retired chief of defence staff and a member of the conference of defence associations.

Not having to risk lives attacking heavily defended targets makes them very attractive, said Manson.

Pilotless surveillance drones, such as the U.S. Predator, have seen military duty in Afghanistan with American and Canadian forces.

The growing popularity of the system, which combines real-time video and a host of other electronic surveillance, has led to the development of more sophisticated drones that can carry missiles and attack ground targets.

Unlike the completely automated attack fighter that goes haywire in this summer's Hollywood movie Stealth, the real-life drones are controlled from the ground by technicians.

In the spring, the U.S. successfully tested the latest version of a robotic combat aircraft, which is being designed to evade ground fire and carry out multiple assignments.

Whether technically savvy robots can replace flesh and blood pilots in all aspects of air combat is still a matter of debate, Gongora said.

For example, the technology does not permit drones to carry out air-to-air interceptions, such as tracking down enemy aircraft or escorting airliners that may have been hijacked.

He said it remains to be seen whether computer technology will leap ahead enough in the next decade to make interceptions possible.

A senior air force officer in charge of the squadron supporting the current CF-18 fleet is deeply skeptical.

"I'm not convinced the technology will be there," said Lt.-Col Carl Doyon in an interview from Bagotville, Que.

To this point, he said, there's been no effort to develop an air-to-air combat drone.

It's likely Canada will follow the U.S. and other European countries and develop a mix fleet of manned and unmanned aircraft, said Doyon, an engineer and 24-year veteran of the air force.

In 2002, Ottawa joined several other countries and invested $150 million in the development of the Joint Strike Fighter, a piloted craft that's being touted as the next generation of warplanes.

Manson said, given the huge expense of replacing the CF-18 and Ottawa's penny-pinching ways with the Canadian military over the last decade, the government could very well seize on the idea of a drone fleet.

"If you put this in front of the politicians and they think they can get away with a $1-billion system instead of a $3-billion system, then they'll be sorely tempted to go for it," said Manson, who oversaw the acquisition of the CF-18.

In the 1960s, the federal government purchased the C-5 jetfighter over the objections of the air force and when the aircraft didn't live up to expectations it was converted to a trainer, he said.

As the air force was casting around in the late 1970s to replace the CF-104 Starfighter, it looked at a variety of odd proposals, including a suggestion by a Winnipeg entrepreneur to build 7,000 prop-driven aircraft similar to the Second World War P-51 Mustang, said Manson.

Doyon said he doesn't believe cost will be the overshadowing factor.

"We need to base our selection on capabilities," he said.

If the unmanned aircraft are cheaper, but don't carry out the necessary roles "you're not any better off."


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