Canadian War Department drones on with summer splurge

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With student activists away for summer vacation, it was the perfect occasion in late July for Carleton University to celebrate a new $40-million war-training contract. In partnership with war manufacturer CAE, Carleton's Visualization and Simulation Centre will enable Canadian Forces to better practice, in the coarse but memorable phrase of former Canadian warlord Rick Hillier, the fine art of killing people.

In a moment that would have done Orwell proud, Carleton President Roseann O'Reilly Runte gushed: "This is about saving lives. This is about saving money." On hand for the announcement was Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who boasted this war-training partnership will advance "Canada's security interests and...Canadian values around the world."

If such values are so great, one wonders why they need to come out of the barrel of a gun. But that's a non-issue in a national security state: when everything comes down to the rhetoric of "saving our way of life" from some unknown threat and protecting "our soldiers" from the threats we often arm to begin with, everything becomes justified, from transfers to torture to starving the poor of billions to pay for the War Department's high-tech toys.

Such announcements regularly occur on Canadian university campuses, but hopefully it will spur at Carleton the kind of protest that shut down similar attempts to exploit bright young minds for nefarious purposes (such victories occurred at OISE and the University of Toronto).

The Carleton University contract was one of numerous boondoggles announced during summer break by a Canadian War Department that's busily seeking out new enemies and new rationales to shield the lion's share of a $23-billion budget that is unquestioned by all major political parties. The military is so awash in funds, that last March their expenditures jumped 14 per cent and no one could explain why.

In May, Canada's Parliamentary budget watchdog remarked that the Harper government had deliberately misled the public on the costs of the F-35 stealth bombers (a deception built upon bureaucrats within the War Department also ignoring their own internal warnings that the bomber project was plagued by serious troubles).

Shortly after, we also learned that War Minister Peter MacKay had also low-balled government figures by almost seven times when he discussed how much it cost to drop bombs on the people of Libya (over $350 million at last count). Needless to say, the Libyan "mission," as it was delicately called, was an important benchmark for MacKay and the generals, who got to play with new equipment and push for new weapons programs as a result.

Meanwhile, the drawdown in Afghanistan -- where Canadians fired off almost 5 million bullets in one 20-month period -- is making some Canadian soldiers itchy. In one Ottawa Citizen interview, a Kingston sergeant explained that garrison life on the home base "really discourages a lot of guys. The question becomes, 'When do we go next?' Adrenalin is a drug and they need the heart-pumping excitement and that level of unknown to keep them happy now." Thus, war is an experience we must incessantly provide to those trained to be warriors, finding new enemies and places to bomb so we can keep our soldiers happy.

Some of the boys apparently got what they wanted when millions were wasted last month as a Canadian contingent of 1,400 soldiers were shipped off to Hawaii to take part in the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific war exercises, an attempt to remind China of who's boss on the world stage (and perhaps to reassure Canadian mining firms that help is not far away when Asian locals agitate over poor working conditions, toxic spills, or the murder of their union leaders).

The irony here is that at the same time we are preparing for war -- if necessary -- with China -- the busy Mr. Baird signed a deal to export increasing amounts of Canadian uranium to the nuclear weapons-holding government of Beijing, a slap in the face to nuclear non-proliferation.

And while the Pacific was being pounded with ordnance, we also learned the Canadian Forces are working to establish bases in the Caribbean, East Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia. This allows Canada's military to "project combat power/security assistance and Canadian influence rapidly and flexibly anywhere in the world," according to a memo signed by Canada's top soldier, Walter Natynczyk.

Part of that power projection will be done not so much with human beings who -- despite thorough indoctrination in home-grown training camps to eliminate their sense of empathy with those they are commanded to kill or transfer to torture -- remain vulnerable to the twinges of humanity that lead to afflictions like post-traumatic stress, depression, and suicide. Rather, the path forward is the remote control warfare that has become de rigueur over the past decade.

Indeed, the eagerness of War Minister Peter MacKay and his cronies to grab their joysticks and bomb from the safety of 5,000 miles away in Playstation fashion is clearly palpable. The U.S. and Israel have long dominated in the global use of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles), but now most countries are getting in on the act because of cost savings (especially relative to multi-billion contracts like the F-35 stealth bomber) and the relatively lower political costs (no troop deployments, no body bags from "our side," no embedded media who might step outside the boundaries and inspect the "collateral damage" on the ground).

And so we have also learned that Canada's poor will have to sacrifice an additional $1 billion so that armed Predator drones and their Hellfire missiles will be part of Canada's growing arsenal.

The drones are also touted as vehicles by which Canada somehow "saves lives," but this equation always leaves out the lives at risk on the ground. Over 3,000 souls have been slaughtered from the skies in the not-so-secret and clearly illegal drone war waged by Obama and his minions in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the rapidly evolving technology is also being used to prevent refugees from finding asylum and to target political demonstrations. Drones represent the ultimate tool in a 24/7 surveillance and punishment society: the forces of control can always monitor us and, when convenient, vaporize us, without any sense of transparency or accountability.

They've been used extensively by Obama in his targeted assassination program, and are increasingly privatized to take them out of the already limited loop that would provide any measure of accountability. Indeed, private mercenary firms like Blackwater are deeply involved in arming and conducting drone strikes, thus privatizing larger portions of what's known as the "kill chain." Ironically, by the rules the Pentagon plays, such use of private mercenaries creates a whole new army of "unlawful combatants" who, if captured by the Taliban, would have no rights under the Geneva Convention. But such a scenario is unlikely, since the Taliban cannot invade the safe sanctuaries in New York and Nevada in which drone "pilots" sit in air conditioned comfort and fire the missiles.

The usual rationale for anything military these days is being touted in the drone PR: it is to protect "our Arctic" (and the precious resources that we stole from First Nations) from anyone who'd steal them from us. But even the War Department knows this is a red herring, as an internal assessment revealed in late June concluded Russia poses no threat to the region.

But corporations like Northrup Grumman are not letting logic or the facts get in the way of a good profit, and so in June pitched the Canadian government at the annual Ottawa weapons bazaar, CANSEC. War merchants have until September 28 to submit their tenders to provide the Canadian War Department with a fleet of Hellfire-armed Predators.

In addition to the direct damage caused by drone strikes, they play a huge role in projecting psychological torture on those who live beneath them.

Last year, Pakistan's Foundation for Fundamental Rights, in conjunction with U.K. human rights group Reprieve, brought together 350 people to discuss the traumas of life under the drones, which many reported seeing 10 to 15 times a day. The anxiety of never knowing when the hovering drones will strike is unimaginable: war by drone is a form of torture, an indefinite death sentence hanging over the heads of villagers that can be executed at any time of the day and night. And the victims never know what hit them, as Hellfire missiles travel faster than the speed of sound. In addition, after a drone strike, villagers often face death squads who believe someone in the village provided targeting data. Kidnappings and torture ensue, a convenient extension of the "kill chain" that begins back in a Nevada bunker.

The social justice group Homes not Bombs has long protested at the site of Canada's largest drone profiteer, L-3 Wescam, located right next door to a private elementary school in Burlington, Ontario. The group conducted their first attempted weapons inspection of the plant in late 2002 and numerous direct actions have followed, but such challenges have not, unfortunately, slowed the relentless search for newer targeting systems (though one employee informed the group of a resignation, spurred to leave when s/he discovered the true nature of their work).

L-3 Wescam announced last month at the U.K.'s annual Farnborough weapons show the launch of its MX™-10D electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) imaging and designating turret, with their equipment showing, in the lifeless language of murder, "exceptional performance in all modes of flight throughout the HELLFIRE operational envelope."

Canadians concerned about remote control murder, the rights of refugees, and freedom to associate would do well to resist Canada's new generation of drone warfare: with this technology, the wars have truly come home.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: U.S. Pacific Fleet/Flickr

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