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John Ivison: Ukraine desperately needs Canadian drones, but we’re not offering

Feb 22, 2023 | Ukraine, Canada, Featured

Story by John Ivison.

The footage has a surreal, almost cinematic, quality. The viewer sees the grenade being released by the drone and watches it fall, almost in slow motion, into a foxhole filled with six unsuspecting Russian soldiers. We know about the deadly consequences before they do.

On the anniversary of Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine, it is a grisly reminder that this tragedy has very human consequences on both sides.

For all the talk about First World War-style human wave assaults, soldiers on the ground say the new reality of modern warfare is the ubiquity of unmanned aerial systems.

“This is a drone war,” said James Challice, a Canadian Forces veteran who is fighting with a Ukrainian Army brigade in the Donetsk oblast. “Every drone is armed and they are used every minute of the day. Most deaths are from drones — either directly or from corrective fire from mortars. We will not move without drone surveillance.”

Unmanned aerial vehicles have been used in previous conflicts but this is the first time that drones have been as deeply integrated into the combined operations on both sides.

“If we didn’t have them, we’d have lost already,” said Challice.

Given their importance, it is strange that Canada has not prioritized supplying drones to Ukraine. As part of its contribution, this country has sent 76 high resolution drone cameras manufactured by L3 HarrisWescam in Hamilton, Ont.

But talks about the supply of combat drones last year came to nothing.

Challice said the priority for him and his comrades are drones that can be weaponized, such as the Teledyne Flir Skyranger, which is manufactured in Waterloo, Ont.

It is understood that the Ukrainian government has specifically requested the Skyranger but the Canadian government has yet to oblige.

“I can’t believe Canada opted not to send the best drones on the market and instead spent $400 million on NASAMs (National Advanced Surface to Air Missile Systems),” Challice said. “Do you know how many drones they could have sent?”

The answer to that question is about 8,000.

Sabrina Kim, communications director for Defence Minister Anita Anand, said the minister attended the Ukraine Defence Contact Group in Brussels last week and that she is in close contact with her Ukrainian counterpart, Oleksii Reznikov, about the country’s most pressing security needs. “We will continue to identify a variety of military assistance options to help Ukraine fight and win,” she said.

Challice, the 42-year-old Coburg, Ont. native said he has become more scared of drones than he is of tank artillery. “I know that when I see a drone with no munitions on it, the artillery is coming, so there is no standing still anymore. It has changed the art of defensive lines.”

I started talking with Challice last spring, as he fought with a Ukrainian unit in the Kherson region. He led a team of 15 that was depleted to just one man by the time he returned to Canada last fall. He headed back to Ukraine in January and said this week that the intensity at the front is ramping up. “The Russians are mobilizing and we have seen double (the numbers) in these past few days. This is a lot bigger than usual,” he said.

More drones to help with situational awareness would be a big help, he said, allowing troops in the front-line to see what they are attacking.

The Skyranger is one of the best multi-rotor drones in the world, which is why Flir spent $200 million to buy the Canadian startup Aeryon Labs in 2019.

The Skyranger is ostensibly unarmed but its manufacturer concedes it can “accept a variety of payloads,” including munitions. As Challice has noted, the Ukrainians forces may not have been trained in weapons systems prior to the conflict, but they have proven to be very inventive at improvisation.

Canada is not a world defence power — a source at the IDEX defence exhibition currently taking place in Abu Dhabi says Sudan has a larger presence there. But a Canadian startup makes a world-class product that is top of the wish list for those who are fighting this ugly, drone-directed war. As Putin’s spring offensive gathers pace, Ottawa should send another tranche of aid that includes hundreds of Skyrangers.

Unmanned aerial systems used to be known as “the poor man’s air-force.” In the wars of the 21st century, they have become the weapon of choice.

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