Canada’s introduction to a deadly game of drones: An all too brief look at the Canadian career of the SAGEM Sperwer tactical unpiloted aerial vehicle, part 2
Welcome back, my reading friend. Given that, this time around, you did not catch me in the middle of something, the two of us can now proceed on the yellow brick road of memory lane toward a better understanding of the Canadian aspect of the saga of the SAGEM Sperwer tactical unpiloted aerial vehicle.
That Canadian aspect burst into the scene in 2003. Well, it actually sneaked into the scene in 2001, soon after the infamous attacks which took place in the United States on 11 September of that year. Convinced that the organisation which had planned those attacks had been able to operate in Afghanistan under the protection of the Afġānistān Islāmī Amārāt, in other words the Taliban, which governed that very poor country, the American government launched an all-out assault on Afghanistan in cooperation with some allied countries.
One could argue that this invasion was illegal under international law, but there is no point in rehashing that story.
A small number of the Canadian Forces’ elite special operations force Joint Task Force 2 (JTF 2) arrived in secret in Afghanistan in December 2001, unless of course they had arrived in October as some people think. The difference between the two dates was that, in October, Prime Minister Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien, an individual mentioned several times in our, err, great blog / bulletin / thingee since November 2019, was apparently not aware that elements of JTF 2 might soon go into action. I know, I know, the mind boggles.
Yours truly wonders if that situation had some similarities with what had apparently taken place during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the moment in the Cold War when our big blue marble came closest to full-scale nuclear war, in other words, to the end of the world.
You see, back then, Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs, Howard Charles Green, had apparently gone behind the back of a procrastinating John George Diefenbaker, a prime ministerial gentleman mentioned many times in our non-bellicose blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2020, and informed the Canadian armed forces of the need to increase their level of readiness to match that of their American counterparts.
Need I mention that Green was mentioned in January and July 2022 issues of that same you know what? I thought so, but back to our story.
By December 2001, the government of the Afġānistān Islāmī Amārāt had crumbled under the combined assault of the United States, its allies and their Afghan allies. An interim / transitional government was then formed in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Even so, that government did not really control significant parts of the country. As a result, the fighting continued.
Canadian Forces troops officially began to arrive in Afghanistan in February 2002. They would fight under American control. At the time, that limited military effort had broad support in the House of Commons of Canada.
The federal government’s decision to send troops to Afghanistan was arguably the main reason behind the acquisition of a number of unpiloted aerial vehicles (UAV) / drones. This being said (typed?), the Department of National Defence was also fulfilling a 2002 commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to have a UAV capability of some sort by 2004.
And so it was that, in February 2003, the Canadian Forces began to work on an urgent operational requirement regarding a UAV which was to be used in support of the more numerous ground forces which were to be deployed in Afghanistan in August. Having that UAV on hand would, it was hoped, reduce the risk of injury and death to soldiers and / or helicopter crews conducting patrols in unsafe areas.
The Chief of the Defence Staff, Lieutenant General Raymond Roland Joseph “Ray” Hénault, gave his blessing to the acquisition and deployment of a UAV in May.
And so it was, again, that 4 Sperwers and 2 ground stations were ordered in August 2003, as was stated at the beginning of the 1st part of this article. The usual test and evaluation procedures might have been pushed aside in order to fill the aforementioned urgent operational requirement.
Now, would you believe that SAGEM delivered the first Sperwer in… September 2003? Now, that was one heck of a quick turnaround, do you not think?
Interestingly, the Sperwer was not one of the trio of UAVs used during trials held at Canadian Forces Base Suffield, Alberta, back in April 2002. While two of those UAVs were American, the third one was in fact a local product, namely a Bombardier CL-327 Guardian, a vertical takeoff and landing UAV derived from the earlier Canadair CL-227 Sentinel. And yes, examples of both of those highly original UAVs can be found in the astonishing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario.
It was / is also worth noting that the UAV leased by the Canadian Forces to keep an eye on the goings on at the 2002 summit of the Group of 8, or G8, held in late June in the resort community of Kananaskis Village, Alberta, was not a Sperwer either. Nor was the UAV evaluated in July of that year over Vancouver Island, in British Columbia.
Incidentally, the UAV which put putted over Kananaskis Village was the direct predecessor of a well-known American UAV, the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator. The one which did the same thing over Vancouver Island was a derivative of an equally well known Israeli UAV, the IAI Mahatz / Heron. Oddly enough, both of those UAVs were / are powered by a piston engine made by the Austrian firm Bombardier-Rotax Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung.
Even though the Department of National Defence had no first hand experience with the Sperwer, it claimed that the acquisition of that UAV was part of its overall plan. In that context, one could argue that it was acquired to provide an interim capability before the signing of a major UAV acquisition contract, but back to our story.
The contract went to Oerlikon Contraves Incorporated of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Québec, a subsidiary of the Swiss anti-aircraft weapons maker Oerlikon Contraves Aktiengesellschaft, itself a subsidiary of the German weapons maker Rheinmetall DeTec Aktiengesellschaft. The Québec firm acted as a subcontractor of sort for SAGEM.
And yes, the Rheinmetall DeTec mentioned here is the same as the one mentioned in the first part of this article in connection with a German UAV known as the Rheinmetall DeTec Kleinflugzeug für Zielortung.
The SAGEM CU-161 Sperwer, as the UAV acquired by the Canadian Forces was designated, was to provide a variety of services: target acquisition, intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and surveillance.
And yes, again, SAGEM and the Canadian Forces knew that no Sperwer had thus far operated in a country as high and hot as Afghanistan. Whether or not the Canadian Forces had fully taken into account the altitude at which the newly acquired UAVs would operate, for example, was / is unclear but perhaps not entirely surprising. An individual who so commented, as early as October 2003, was none other than Kenneth George “Ken” Munson, the well-known English deputy editor of a world famous British annual publication, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, and editor of another respected British annual publication, Jane’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Targets.
Munson also thought that the Canadian Forces might have been better off acquiring a newer version of the Sperwer, a version whose larger wing and greater fuel capacity might have obliviated some of the potential issues associated with the use of the initial version of the French UAV which, let us not forget, had never been used outside of Europe.
All in all, the fact that the Canadian Forces might, I repeat might, have refrained from grilling friendly armed forces which had experience in operating UAVs was somewhat perplexing, added Munson, given that they themselves had no experience whatsoever in such operations. The need for speed in delivery had seemingly overcome any concern expressed along the way.
This being said (typed?), no later than November 2003, people at the Canadian Forces’ Air Command, in other words the air force, had pointed out to people at the Canadian Forces’ Land Force Command, in other words the army, that there might well be problems with the Sperwer, given the hostile environment of Afghanistan – an environment unlike any other encountered so far by that UAV. People from the Danish, French, Greek, Netherlands and Swedish armed forces had also informed them that the French UAV had some fairly serious reliability issues.
Incidentally, it has also been suggested that Land Force Command scooped Air Command, which saw itself as responsible for any and all flying machines operated by the Canadian military, in getting primary responsibility for the Sperwer. Some noses at Air Command, it seemed, were bent out of shape.
It would be fair to say (type?) that the service introduction of the Sperwer by the Canadian Forces detachment present in Afghanistan, near Kabul, a detachment primarily made up of Land Force Command people accompanied by some Air Command people, did not meet with overwhelming success.
The first Sperwer arrived in Afghanistan in October 2003. The first flight took place in early November. In turn, the Land Force Command detachment was deemed to be operational later that month.
Flying operations came to a halt in mid-December, however. They resumed only in mid-January. Why was that, you ask, my reading friend? A good question.
You see, Land Force Command technicians had discovered cracks in the wings of at least two of the Sperwers, and in at least one of the launch ramps. Worse still, two of the UAVs had also been blown off from their planned recovery points and had sustained heavy damage upon landing. In addition, two other Sperwers were destroyed in crashes, in November 2003 and January 2004. Thus, for a certain period in early 2004, the Canadian Forces’ entire fleet of UAVs was out of action for some reason or other.
And yes, there were apparently quite a few minor incidents in 2003-04, up to 36 perhaps, on top of the aforementioned major accidents.
The fact that Land Force Command did not have the capability to conduct major repairs on Afghan soil meant that damaged Sperwers had to be shipped to SAGEM’s facility, in France, which did not help things.
Those unforeseen developments led to the acquisition of 2 additional Sperwers from SAGEM which immediately sent them to Afghanistan. They also forced a UAV unit of the Heer, in other words the German army, to remain in Afghanistan longer than expected in order to fill the gap.
To be fair, one should note that there had been time for only limited training, only a few brief weeks apparently, in France and at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, Ontario.
And yes, you are quite correct, my reading friend, the Sperwer was the very first UAV used in combat by the Canadian Forces.
By the way, the very first UAV operated by the Canadian armed forces was the Ryan KDA Firebee of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Thirty or so of those American target drones were ordered in 1957 to test the weapons system of the Avro CF-105 Arrow, a Canadian-designed supersonic bomber interceptor under development at the time. The Firebees were to be launched from a pair of specially modified Second World War vintage Avro Lancaster heavy bombers in order to be blown out of the sky by the American-designed Douglas AAM-N-3 Sparrow II air-to-air missiles of the Arrow. Deliveries began in early 1958. The much lamented cancellation of the Arrow, in February 1959, put the kibosh on the project. As a result, the Firebees were struck off strength in the early 1960s, but I digress.
A further digression if I may. The stupendous collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum includes a Lancaster, a Firebee as well as a Sparrow II, not to mention an engineering model of the teeny-weeny radar of the Sparrow II. It even includes the nose of one of Lancasters used to launch the Firebees of the RCAF.
Yes, yes, a radar. The Sparrow II was the world’s first active radar-guided missile. Well, it would have been the first if the United States Navy had not abandoned that weapon when it was still under development, around March or April 1957, to the dismay of the Department of National Defence. The latter thus found itself more or less forced to foot the rest of the bill, but I digress.
In spite of all that was taking place in Afghanistan, the Canadian Forces indicated they had no intention of ending their support for the Sperwer program. Whenever they flew, those UAVs proved useful to the troops on the ground. Deployment of the Sperwer was therefore deemed a success. Indeed, discussions were under way regarding the doubling of the fleet to an even dozen.
Two additional accidents, in March and June 2004, did not help things, however, nor did some issue with at least one of the launch ramps used to launch the French UAVs. Indeed, the March accident marked the second time the recovery parachute had failed to perform correctly. That Sperwer landed heavily, in a farmer’s field. The June accident was less serious but somewhat embarrassing. That Sperwer landed in a residential neighbourhood.
From the looks of it, the problem with the Sperwer was not so much with the flying but the landing. This being said (typed?), some accidents did seem… odd. On one occasion, for example, a crew apparently disconnected the autopilot prior to landing, failed to respond to ground proximity alarms and crashed a Sperwer into a ridge bisecting Kabul.
Even though control of the Sperwer, both hierarchically and bureaucratically, was transferred to Air Command a few months after the arrival of the Sperwer detachment in Afghanistan, Land Force Command personnel apparently remained responsible for driving wherever landings took place. This could be a dangerous proposition since, besides having to deal with the risk of snipers and buried explosive charges, recovery crews were faced on some occasions with the prospect of having to remove a UAV from the middle of an area thought to be a mine field.
Given those very real dangers, it has been suggested that the bureaucratic skirmishes / battles waged by Air Command and Land Force Command on the sharing of responsibilities regarding the Sperwer and its use could be somewhat unpleasant at times.
There was more than a little truth to suggestions that the basic design of the Sperwer was not well suited to the Afghan environment. Its stubby cropped delta wing was of great help in making it compact but might have been less than ideal in so-called hot and high conditions. The engine may have been affected as well by the local conditions. In addition, the distinctive lawnmower noise that it made was all too easy to hear at low level.
Would you believe that some areas out of which the Sperwer operated were up to 2 200 or so metres (7 200 or so feet) above sea level, and that summer temperatures often reached 40 or so degrees Celsius (105 or so degrees Fahrenheit)? There was also plenty of dust and wind, not to mention violent dust storms. Things were hardly better in winter as the average night temperatures often dipped below the freezing point. Mountainous areas of Afghanistan were colder still. Western Europe (Sweden, Netherlands, France and Denmark) this was not.
By the middle of 2004, after close to 105 flights (c. 20 training flights and c. 85 operational flights perhaps?) completed in the Kabul area, someone in a position of authority decided he had had enough. The four surviving Sperwers were taken out of service in July and returned to Canada.
What happened during the following months was / is not well known, at least not to the general public, but it seemed clear that the Sperwer continued to misbehave on Canadian soil. A series of test conducted in April and May 2005 by the Department of National Defence’s Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment (AETE) at Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake, Alberta, for example, could not be completed as planned. It seemed that electrical failures caused the unplanned opening of the recovery parachute on 3 separate occasions.
A couple of AETE technicians soon went to France to work with SAGEM’s people to figure out what in the dickens was going on. By the middle of June, the firm believed it had found the cause of the problem which, it claimed, had never affected the Sperwers based in Europe.
As this was taking place, the Canadian Forces signed a contract with a Canadian manufacturer of precision aerial delivery systems, Mist Mobility Integrated Systems Technology Incorporated (MMIST) of Ottawa, to cover the development cost of a precision landing system for the Sperwer based on the world-famous Global Positioning System, an added option very much favoured by SAGEM.
Designed to reduce the likelihood that a Sperwer would end up in the middle of an Afghan residential neighborhood or mine field, the new piece of equipment was based on a system already in use aboard the MMIST SnowGoose, an unpiloted powered parachute used to deliver cargo developed and produced by the Ontario firm, primarily for military use. The Department of National Defence provided much of the funding for the precision landing system, with MMIST and SAGEM providing the rest.
The resulting precision landing system might, I repeat might, have been offered later on to foreign countries which also operated Sperwers.
A digression if I may and I do apologise profusely for what will follow.
The SnowGoose was / is a most interesting unpiloted aerial vehicle and would make an equally interesting addition to the collection of a Canadian museum. Just sayin’. Mind you, the MMIST Sherpa, a precision aerial delivery system / guided parachute destined primarily for military use, was / is an equally interesting product. As such, it would also make an interesting addition to the collection of a Canadian museum. Just sayin’. Again.
In order to properly prepare the Sperwers’ crews before they went to Afghanistan, initial training took place at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier, Québec, in May 2005. SAGEM provided the instructors. And yes, the training was done primarily in French, which meant that francophone / bilingual trainees had to help their unilingual / anglophones colleagues. Flight training of the crews took place at Canadian Forces Base Suffield in September and October 2005.
By then, Land Force Command officers were privately acknowledging that the Sperwer was not meeting their requirements. Looking for some sort of longer-term solution, the Canadian Forces devised a plan to lease some type of UAV for use in Afghanistan for a period of a year or so. Under than plan, submitted to various manufacturers in the fall of 2005, the selected contractor would have provided both the UAVs and the personnel required to run them.
It would be fair to state that the industry’s response was not exactly enthusiastic. The sum allocated for the project did not seem sufficient. Questions of a legal nature were also asked concerning the potential liability of the contractor whose staff would be operating UAVs in a combat zone. As well, concerns were expressed regarding the lack of airfield space in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the city near which Land Force Command troops were scheduled to be based in 2006. The leasing project was quietly dropped.
By time Christmas of 2005 rolled along, the surviving Sperwers were still in Canada. Even so, many officers continued to insist in public that their acquisition had not been a mistake. It was the right UAV for the type of work the Canadian Forces thought they would be doing at the time.
Given what it knew about the type of work it would be doing in the future, however, Land Force Command had come to realize the Sperwer was not sufficient, or else would not be good enough, to operate in the sizeable area where Canadian troops would operate and fight, the province of Kandahar. Indeed, in the spring of 2006, it acquired at least 5 or so Israeli hand-launched very quiet electrically-powered mini-UAVs that soldiers could carry wherever they went. The first Elbit Skylarks arrived in Afghanistan in September.
Now that it had had a taste of what UAVs could do in a combat environment, Air Command wanted to obtain more advanced ones, more expensive ones too, UAVs that could fly longer and higher with heavier and better equipment. Indeed, it was busy crafting a large-scale plan to buy a Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System. Those new UAVs would go into service in 2010, or so it was hoped. Air Command planned to use them for overseas operations, of course, but also locally – for sovereignty operations for example such as keeping an eye on Canada’s extended coastlines, east, west and north.
But enough for today, my exhausted reading friend. We shall regroup next week to move into the breach once more.