OTTAWA - The federal government is scrapping plans to purchase as many as four new manned spy planes for domestic and international surveillance missions.
The Department of National Defence notified military contractors on Tuesday that Ottawa is no longer considering purchasing the new planes, citing “security and technical feasibility” reasons.
Rather than purchase the new planes, the department said it anticipates buying “some elements” in a competitive bidding process, and others directly from the United States government.
DND did not return a request for further information as of Thursday afternoon.
The notice comes one year after the department started testing the waters for new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) planes, including four new “small unmanned aircraft systems” — drones.
Last August, National Defence issued a “request for information” to defence industry players on new spy planes, asking contractors to provide details on the cost and capabilities of four new planes and four drones.
New aircraft may have provided some relief for Canada’s aging CP-140 Auroras, a fleet of 18 planes purchased in 1980-81. The Aurora fleet has been involved in a number of missions both at home and abroad, providing surveillance and intelligence for Canadian Forces members on the ground.
The planes were used during the G20 Summit in Toronto in 2010 — part of the RCMP’s integrated security unit — as well as in security efforts at the Vancouver Olympics. Two Aurora craft were also deployed in Libya in 2011, where they “identified targets for allies and Canadian CF-18s,” according to the air force.
But the fleet is getting older. Ottawa has spent more than $2 billion to upgrade surveillance capabilities and extend the life of the Aurora fleet over the last three decades. National Defence has expressed a desire to keep the fleet in the air until 2030 — almost 50 years after they were first purchased.
“It’s the same old story,” said David Bercuson, director of the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.
“Just keep putting it off. Pay me now or pay me later.”
Bercuson said military sources have indicated to him that rather than replace the Auroras, the government intended to put “a lot more money into refurbishing (them) and keeping them around for a considerable amount of time.”
But Dave Perry, a security and defence analyst with the Conference of Defence Association Institutes, said it’s not clear the shelved idea to purchase new planes was directly related to the Aurora fleet.
“It might have been something more relatable to the mission in Afghanistan where they had more day-to-day, immediate reconnaissance needs, which is a little bit different than the Auroras,” Perry said.
“It would be something that would have contributed to the wider intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance picture, but exactly what role was envisioned, I’m not really all that clear on.”
Manned spy planes may seem like a relic of the Cold War with the proliferation of drone technology for both combat and surveillance missions over the last decade. But security experts say they provide unique capabilities that have yet to be duplicated by the unmanned craft.
In an article published in the Royal Canadian Air Force Journal in 2013, government defence scientist Thierry Gongora wrote that manned spy planes are likely to remain relevant even as drone technology advances.
Gongora, a researcher at Defence Research and Development Canada, argued one of the principle reasons for this continued relevance was that a human crew can collect and digest a number of different intelligence sources to better inform ground operations.
“The crew have a capability for on-board intelligence fusion and analysis as well as relaying the resulting information to local operators,” Gongora wrote. “They can rapidly transform various sources of intelligence into actionable information.”