Unmasking Canada’s role in the drone wars

Ontario-based L3Harris Wescam exporting drone technology used in wars overseas
Photo: AK Rockefeller / Flickr CC
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Private U.S. companies are part of drone strike “kill chains” in East Africa, revealed an investigation published last month by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a global collaborative network of investigative journalists. Their report described how civilian contractors are operating armed drones, and in some cases intelligence collected by private firms form the basis of American drone strikes in Somalia. The investigation highlighted L3Harris Technologies, a top contractor to the U.S. Army and Air Force with a “revolving door” of associates moving between the U.S. military and the company — and a Canadian connection.

While the Americans claim their drone strikes in Somalia only target members of the al-Shabab militia, a number of journalists and international organizations have reported on how the U.S. military has sought to obscure the number of civilian casualties. In some cases, the U.S. did not even seek to assess whether any civilians were killed by their drone attacks, prompting Rep. Ilhan Omar and other members of Congress to call on the military to explain the gap in casualty figures.

The firm’s Canadian-made technology is already widely used by the United States’ drone fleet operating around the globe.

In January two L3Harris contractors were killed at a joint Kenyan-U.S. airbase near the Somali border while deployed on a U.S. military mission thought to be related to the strikes in Somalia. Despite this setback, involvement in military contracting and drone operations has proven to be very lucrative for the firm and its three controlling shareholders — major hedge fund and pension fund companies BlackRock, Vanguard Group, and T. Rowe Price.

Less known, however, is that such contracts with foreign militaries have also been highly profitable for its wholly owned Canadian subsidiary, L3Harris Wescam.

The Canadian connection

Ontario-based L3Harris Wescam is Canada’s largest manufacturing company for advanced airborne imaging and sensors. Its key product line consists of mobile surveillance cameras and high-tech sensors used in multiple armed platforms, including the most advanced drones used by militaries around the world. This Canadian technology is just as crucial to the operations of a drone as its engine or weapons systems, allowing for long-range reconnaissance and the targeting of the drone’s laser-guided missiles.

This technology is also important for the survivability of drones. The better the camera and sensor’s capabilities, the higher the drone can fly to avoid being jammed or shot down while executing its mission — which allows operators to deploy drones in a greater range of situations.

Company press releases boast of having sold more than 5,000 MX-Series surveillance and targeting systems worldwide, and both the company and the Canadian government credit the use of sophisticated Wescam drone technology in domestic RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency operations, as well past Canadian military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The repeated highlighting of these specific uses serves to mask the true extent of this Canadian technology’s use in other conflicts.

In Wescam’s case, the company collaborates with the Saudi dictatorship’s military sector on projects related to electro-optical and infrared systems for drones

While the General Dynamics Land Systems contract to sell $15 billion worth of Ontario-made armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia has been covered in the Canadian press and has drawn criticism from some on Parliament Hill, the role that Canadian firms play in the design and manufacturing of drone technology for the Saudi dictatorship has gone largely unreported.

In Wescam’s case, the company collaborates with the Saudi dictatorship’s military sector on projects related to electro-optical and infrared systems for drones — including training, manufacturing, and research as part of what the company’s senior executive called an effort to “significantly broaden our support for [the] Saudi government and military forces.”

Like many defence contractors, the company continues to profit after the initial sale by servicing their products for foreign military clients, leading to ongoing involvement in conflicts abroad. Dedicated service centres work with Wescam to support clients such as Saudi Arabia with their MX-Series products, including one in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, operated with a company owned by the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund.

Canadian links to war on Yemen

In Yemen, millions of people have been displaced since the Saudi-led air offensive began in 2015, and humanitarian situation reports now indicate that more than 80 per cent of the population is in need. There are over 40 active front lines in the conflict, and more than 3.2 million people face the most acute food insecurity.

This is all on top of the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is devastating a country that has seen its health and sanitation infrastructure destroyed by years of war and is also dealing with a major cholera outbreak. Civilian casualties in the Saudi-led coalition’s air war in Yemen passed 18,500 in July, a month that saw 215 documented air attacks according to the non-profit Yemen Data Project.

Researchers studying Canadian links to the disastrous war in Yemen have also speculated that drones operated by the Saudis and shot down over Yemen may have contained L3Harris Wescam MX-Series technology. Helicopter drones used in Yemen have been found to contain this Canadian-made aerial surveillance equipment. This is an addition to previous reporting by the National Observer that Wescam provided the Saudi dictatorship with Canadian aerial surveillance technology for use in Blackhawk helicopters that have since been shot down in Yemen.

Much of the Canadian criticism of the war in Yemen has centred around the Saudi role in the conflict, as well as the United States’ role in assisting the Saudis’ devastation of the country. Meanwhile, the involvement of Canada’s partner, the United Arab Emirates, has received less attention.

The UAE is a longstanding customer of Wecam’s Canadian technology. Its military is known to use the company’s MX-10 technology in its Camcopter S-100 rotary wing drone fleet, and there have also been reports of S-100s belonging to the UAE being shot down while operating in Yemen. The company also has a UAE service centre, located in Abu Dhabi and operated with a subsidiary of the Emirates Defence Industries Company, that supports its MX-10 and MX-15 imaging and targeting systems for the Emiratis. Wescam’s vice president of government sales noted that their technology provides “high definition imagers, high target-location accuracy and designation capability [to] make it a very secure and trusted choice for the UAE,” adding proudly that the system also features a tool that “detects multiple moving targets in an image stream.”

Drones killing Kurds

While Canada readily allows drone technology to be sold to the Saudi and UAE dictatorships despite their actions in Yemen, the government previously placed a ban on similar sales to their major rival Turkey, after that country’s incursion into Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria. However, after a series of discussions with the Turkish defence and foreign ministers, as well as a direct call between Prime Minister Trudeau and President Erdogan, Canada decided earlier this year to issue an exemption, allowing for the resumption of deliveries of this Canadian-made drone technology to Turkey.

Canadian electro-optical and infrared sensor technology is integrated into most of Turkey’s fleet of both armed and unarmed drones.

In the ongoing war in Libya, Turkish Bayraktar TB2 model drones, equipped with L3Harris Wescam’s MX-15D system, have been deployed effectively in targeting rebel general Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army’s ground forces and air defence systems, leading to significant losses and helping to push back rebel fighters battling to overthrow the government in Tripoli.

TB2 drone as shown in corporate catalogue

These same advanced TB2 drones have also been used in Syria, where Turkey claims to have killed hundreds of Kurdish militia members, whom they consider terrorists, in drone strikes. Kurdish representatives claim hundreds of civilians have also been killed in these strikes. Canadian electro-optical and infrared sensor technology is integrated into most of Turkey’s fleet of both armed and unarmed drones. This fact does not appear to have been mentioned when Canadians congratulated themselves for their sponsorship of refugees fleeing that conflict or for their supposed support for the Kurdish and Syrian people.

Over in Cameroon, where President Paul Biya has ruled for over 35 years despite spending much of his time in an upscale Geneva hotel, the government has been violently repressing minority anglophone communities. Cameroonian Cessna 208 Caravan aircraft, equipped with Canadian Wescam optical systems similar to those used in drones, have reportedly performed intelligence and reconnaissance missions to help ground forces suppress the opposition and local militia groups in these communities. Diaspora groups and humanitarian officials in the region have been vocal about numerous atrocities they say have been conducted at the hands of the Biya government, though in most cases this has been met with silence from Canada.

L3Harris Wescam could not be reached for comment on this story and multiple messages left by Ricochet with their communications manager were not returned.

Bipartisan support for arms industry

The centre of L3Harris Wescam’s drone operation is in Burlington, Ontario. According to the company’s website, at this site they design and manufacture the MX-Series line of drone sensor and munitions targeting systems, as well as handle contracting and project management. This facility is located in the constituency of Canada’s minister for international development, Karina Gould. In fact, according to federal lobbying registry records reviewed by Ricochet, in her capacity as the MP for Burlington, Gould met with the president of L3Harris Wescam in November 2018 about “Defence, Government Procurement, Industry,” prior to her appointment as international development minister last year.

Despite her current focus on international development and human rights issues, there is no record of Gould commenting on how the drone technology exported from her riding may be contributing to the suffering caused by the very overseas wars that her department seeks to alleviate through aid announcements.

In April, Gould did issue a joint statement with the minister of foreign affairs declaring that Canada stands “in solidarity” with “the civilians and vulnerable populations in conflict, who require protection now more than ever.” A few months after this statement, the export of this Burlington-made technology was approved by Canada for continued use in drone strikes in Libya and Syria.

When reached by Ricochet, a spokesperson for Minister Gould declined to comment.

Luckily for the Canadian arms industry, as is the case with continued sales of light armoured vehicles, support for the export of Canadian drone technology has truly been a bipartisan affair. In fact, in 2015 under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, L3Harris Wescam benefited from $75 million in federal support to help further develop the drone technology they sell overseas. These funds were provided under the government’s Strategic Aerospace and Defence Initiative, which was created to support research and development in the aerospace, space, and defence sectors. In announcing this funding, then industry minister James Moore stated it was one of the largest investments the Canadian government had made since the fund’s inception eight years prior.

Former Industry Minister James Moore being shown a Wescam system in 2015.
Government of Canada

L3Harris Wescam has continued to lobby the government for support, including in a meeting with the industry ministry’s senior assistant deputy minister earlier this year. In July the government announced that the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a federal Crown corporation, has awarded the company a $380-million contract to supply MX-Series surveillance and targeting products to the U.S. Army. The firm’s Canadian-made technology is already widely used by the United States’ drone fleet operating around the globe.

According to a recent report from the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, countries that export drone technology should “adopt a dedicated process of operational end-use monitoring to analyse the outcome of drones’ strikes and civilians’ impact.” Yet, exemplified by the continued sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia — where Global Affairs Canada has failed to find the well-documented evidence of Canadian equipment being used by the Saudis and their proxies in Yemen (and in repression against the Shia minority in the kingdom) — many activists believe this is not being adequately conducted and are dismayed by the lack of attention given to the issue of Canada’s export of drone technology.

Simon Black of Labour Against the Arms Trade Canada, a coalition of activists seeking to end Canada's participation in the arms trade, told Ricochet that government investments in the technology sector should be focused on creating peaceful green jobs that can help confront the climate crisis rather than “playing junior partners in the US military industrial complex and producing drone technologies that perpetuate war and human suffering half way around the world.” Black highlighted the lack of alternative employment opportunities provided to many workers, adding that “more than ever, we need to convert arms manufacturers to peaceful green production that protects workers, their communities, and our planet.”

Traditionally, the economic benefits of military technology sales have been highlighted in Canada as the sole focus, without much discussion by the media and political class of the impact these products have on those living in areas where this Canadian technology is deployed. For example, in June 2019 L3Harris Wescam broke ground on a new 330,000 square foot facility in Hamilton, in a ceremony attended by dignitaries such as the mayor of Hamilton, Fred Eisenberger, and promoted online multiple times by the city’s economic development department. The new facility will further increase Wescam’s capacity to design and export its drone technology to all manner of armed forces overseas.

Though this ground-breaking ceremony was widely covered by all local news at the time, none mentioned the links between the much-touted economic and employment benefits and the armed conflicts where their drone product lines are deployed to devastating effect. This new facility is set to open in 2021.

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