Just months before the Harper government announced it would spend an estimated $16-billion on new fighter jets, a report for the Defence Department recommended using "flocking" pilot-less drones to enforce Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic.
A January, 2010, study for Defence Research and Development Canada – the Defence Department's research arm – recommends stationing aircraft stocked with drones at permanent locations in the North so they can be dispatched urgently for rescue or surveillance.
The study doesn't say drones should outright replace jets, but it feeds into a raging debate in Ottawa about whether Canada really needs to buy 65 new aircraft at a time when the federal government's books are awash in red ink. Critics have said Ottawa should try to extend the lifespan of existing CF-18 planes and rely on drones for more tasks.
The Harper government has defended its plans to buy the new Lockheed Martin jets on the grounds they're required to protect Canadian sovereignty and defend this country's interests.
Jay Paxton, spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay, said drones could not replace fighter aircraft in shoring up Canada's borders. "[They]are completely distinct but often complementary capabilities," he said. Jets are also needed for combat abroad, he noted.
The study for the Defence Department proposes algorithms to manage the drones as they move in concert with each other – or flock – across a large area.
"The importance of local intervention capability for the assertion of Canadian sovereignty in the Northwest Passage is recognized. However, Canada presently lacks the ability to deploy at any northern position, on demand, assets that could search a wide area for rescue or surveillance purposes," the report by a Royal Military College staffer said.
"[What]we propose is feasible and would provide a very valuable asset for asserting and maintaining Canadian sovereignty in the North."
The Defence Department, under pressure from critics to justify its decision to award the contract to Lockheed Martin without competition, released on Thursday what it said are the high-level requirements that a new fighter jet must fulfill. It sent the specifications to the Commons Defence committee, revealing for the first time the capabilities required in terms of range, sensors and weapons.
But a former senior Canadian bureaucrat in charge of procurement said the specifications released by the department are so vague they could in theory be met by a variety of aircraft makers. "At first blush you would think there's nothing in here that would limit it to one company," Alan Williams said.
One major aerospace company is preparing to say publicly that there is nothing in the specifications its aircraft can't offer if it's called to appear before Commons hearings probing the purchase. "We can meet this, no problem," a source with the company said.
On Thursday, the Official Opposition Liberals ramped up a threat to cancel the purchase and launch a competitive bidding process if they win office in the next election.
At a news conference, Liberal MPs said the government must more clearly explain the planned purchase, including laying out more detailed mission and performance requirements as well as a clear financial rationale for sole-sourcing the jets.
The Conservatives argue they are simply pursuing a strategy first set out by the former Liberal government, which in 2002 signed on to the U.S.-led Joint Strike Fighter program – a process that eventually picked the Lockheed F-35 Lightning.
"The questions the Liberals have put forward have already been answered by military and Canadian aerospace industry experts," Industry Minister Tony Clement said in a statement. "What aerospace workers in Canada need is a government committed to securing their jobs, not putting those jobs at risk with partisan antics."