US expands its foreign drone sales to Canada

The Navy reaches an agreement to send a five-aircraft Blackjack system up north.

As part of U.S. plans to share unmanned aerial systems and accompanying technology with allies, the Navy has reached agreement with Canada for the first international sale of RQ-21A Blackjacks. The Navy said it expects to deliver one of the systems to Canada sometime in 2017.

Each Insitu-made Blackjack system includes five of the aircraft along with two ground control stations and launch and recovery equipment. The twin-tailed Blackjack is 8.2 feet long with a 16-foot wingspan. It has an open, modular design that allows for a variety of payloads and, once launched from a catapult, can stay aloft for 10 to 12 hours, the Navy said in an announcement.

The announcement didn’t mention a dollar amount for the agreement, but in July 2015 the Navy and Marines a $78million contract with Insitu for six of the Blackjack systems. The Marines eventually plan to have 32 of the systems; the Navy 25.

“We are very pleased to have our Canadian allies and neighbors as our first Foreign Military Sales case and look forward to helping them grow their small tactical UAS capability and ensure maximum interoperability with our assets, if desired,” said Col. Eldon Metzger, program manager for the Navy and Marine Corps Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Office (PMA-263), which manages the Blackjack program.

It catapult-launch system allows the system to take off without a runway, so it can be used both in the field and aboard ships for tactical reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition at sea and on land.

The United States has long had a virtual monopoly on military drones, but announced in February 2015 that it would begin to allow sales of UAS, including some armed versions, to partner nations. At the time, the State Department cited national security as one reason for the decision, noting the advantage of allies having interoperable systems. Economics also played a role, as other nations such as China and Israel are looking to break into the military and commercial drone markets.

State said that, despite opening up sales to other countries, any sale would have to follow strict controls set by the Foreign Military Sales program and other factors, such as those under the international Missile Technology Control Regime (the long flight ranges of UAS like the Predator put them in the same class as missiles for these purposes).

In November, the State Department approved the possible sale of up to three high-altitude, long-range RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawks to Japan for ISR, and the possible sale of MQ-9 Reapers, which also have strike capability, to Italy. Italy is also home to NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance program, which is expected to have five Global Hawks that could provide ISR for 15 countries. South Korea also have been has been approved to possible sales and the U.K.