David Pugliese, writing last week in the Ottawa Citizen, reported that “Canadian special forces will receive three new surveillance aircraft from the U.S. with the planes expected to arrive in 2022 … [and, he said] … The three Beechcraft King Air planes, to be based at CFB Trenton in Ontario, will be outfitted with sensors and equipment to intercept cell phone and other electronic transmissions. Canadian special forces and, potentially, other government departments will use them for missions overseas and in Canada … [and further] … The federal government is also setting up a competitive process to select a company to maintain the aircraft and related systems for a potential period of 20 years. A Request for Proposals is expected sometime this summer … [he notes that] … Canadian companies had wanted to provide the aircraft and on-board equipment, and several have formed alliances with U.S. firms who supply the Pentagon with the same or similar aircraft … [but] … the Canadian military decided it needed the planes more quickly than they believed Canadian companies could deliver, and that U.S. security regulations governing the on-board sensor equipment might cause delays. As a result, it determined the U.S. government was the only supplier capable of providing the planes.“
Mr Pugliese tells us that “RCAF pilots will fly the aircraft but members of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command will operate the specialized equipment in the planes … [and] … The planes will be outfitted with electro-optical sensors that would allow the aircraft to track the movement of individuals and vehicles on the ground. Canadian special forces had access to similar aircraft in Afghanistan to track and target insurgents.“
This is not new news, US approval of the deal was announced months ago, in October 2018, but David Pugliese’s report prompted a very small flurry of comment on social media, including this …
… and this …
… and this:
Now, we use the military budget for a lot of things that are not 100% military, defence of the realm type tasks: sear and rescue, fighting forest fires, helping out when floods and snowstorms occur. Helping law enforcement or the national counter-intelligence service to gather information is well within the “acceptable” range of military support, I think.
It is important to note that the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) does not conduct domestic intelligence gathering operations but they do provide technical assistance to Canadian law enforcement. CSE is known to be one of the world’s top SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) agencies but its mandate is foreign intelligence gathering. Other agencies, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) have mandates that allow them to operate in Canada. Further, the Radiocommunication Act makes it an offence to intercept encoded (encrypted) signals, which includes private cell-phone calls, without a warrant (see §9, but §14 gives the responsible minister (currently the minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada) authority to make certain exemptions for e.g. national security).
There is one group of specialists in the Canadian Armed Forces who are involved in the SIGINT business … most are members of the Communications Research Operator trade or are officers in the Communication Electronics Engineering or Signals groups or Intelligence officers or non-commissioned members. The main bases of the military SIGINT community are at CFS Leitrim, in Ottawa, and 21 Electronic Warfare Regiment based in Kingston, ON, but, of course, these specialists ~ both the SIGINT operators and intelligence analysts ~ can also be assigned to the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) and to other ships, units and formations.
My guess is that when the new aircraft are employed overseas the intercepted signals will be fed to Canadian or allied SIGINT analysts for handling. I assume ~ still guessing ~ that operations in Canada will be conducted in a lawful manner (usually with a judge’s approval to “wiretap” in the radio spectrum) and that analysis will be done by a law enforcement agency (perhaps the RCMP) or CSIS or, even, in case it is determined that a foreign government is conducting espionage or terrorist operations in Canada, by CSE. My other guess is that the Privy Council Office (PCO), specifically Greta Bossenmaier who is the National Security and Intelligence Advisor to the Prime Minister and who was the Chief of CSE, will have more to say about when, where and how these new tools are used than will the Minister of National Defence or the Chief of the Defence Staff. I suspect that the RCAF will fly the planes and they will be CASOFCOM “assets” they will be controlled by the PCO. I think it’s fair to say that while the Minister of National Defence answers, in parliament, for CSE and its budget and will answer for these aircraft, too, and I guess it is Ms Bossenmaier and her staff who will direct their use.
This is a good move for Canada. Canada must live and compete in an increasingly dangerous world in which we have, thanks in some large part to the strategic ineptitude of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, fewer and fewer friends. I have no doubt that starting as early as a year or so from now these aircraft will do good, albeit mostly unsung work in places like Europe and the Middle East and even farther afield and they may, also, be of great use to law enforcement and the security services in Canada, too. Someone will complain about the costs … but the specialized mission equipment, about which journalists, commentators and most politicians know nothing, is expensive to buy and to maintain. The aircraft, proper, which retail for something like $(CA)10 Million, are just a small part of the total, $(CA)250± Million, life-cycle, cost of the system.