If the Canadian Armed Forces were to design the ideal long endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, it might resemble a flying Swiss Army knife: practical in every aspect and lethal when absolutely necessary.

Though the Forces have recognized the need for this all-in-one capability for some time, learning invaluable lessons on its utility in Afghanistan and more recent natural disasters, both at home and abroad, finding the right piece of equipment has been slow going.

The value of unmanned aerial vehicles featured prominently in the Martin government’s International Policy Statement of 2005 and became the focus of the Directorate of Air Requirements, which stood up a sub-group, DAR 8, that year to assess the capabilities of medium- and high-altitude long endurance unmanned aerial reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft. DAR 8’s work built upon the efforts of the Canadian Forces Experimentation Centre, which during the previous four years had successfully demonstrated the potential integration of unmanned systems into the CF.

Eight years later, the Joint Unmanned Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS) project remains in options analysis. But that lengthy assessment process might prove to be a blessing. In an interview last year, LGen Yvan Blondin, commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, suggested that the rapid pace of technological advancement in the field was starting to deliver the sort of capability Canada had been seeking: a blend between the high altitude but expensive airframes and the mid altitude aircraft that lacked the requisite endurance. “The fact that we didn’t move quickly into UAVs is probably a good thing,” he said. “The technology is moving toward where we may have something in between [a HALE and a MALE].”

Major John Whalen, the RCAF’s project director for JUSTAS, is also seeing the lines begin to blur. And because of Canada’s unique requirements across the Arctic and out over the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans, he is interested less in specific aircraft and more in their capability.

“We’re not looking at a MALE versus a HALE, we’re looking at a capability,” he explained in a recent interview, noting that UAVs have rapidly advanced from 12 hours of endurance to one that recently recorded a first flight with a forecast endurance of over 100 hours. “Canada is trying to do a lot of things with this UAV. We need a UAV that can cover vast areas at a reasonable speed, slow down to drop a SAR kit, and to be able to get below clouds. Where the United States would have a couple of different families of UAVs, we’re probably going to have one or two. So we’re looking for a general-purpose system that can accomplish everything in one project.”

As a result, his team is turning the onus back on industry to show how it would meet the requirement. “We are not stating minimum speed or hours on station, we will tell them a series of scenarios that we expect for the capability and ask them to show us how they would accomplish them.”

One of the reasons for the delay in the JUSTAS program was the re-tasking of project staff to oversee the deployment of the Heron UAV in Afghanistan. But that two-year effort gave the staff plenty to think about.

“Afghanistan taught us that persistent ISR over troops is absolutely critical,” Whalen said. “The ability to employ precision low yield weapons when required is also a critical aspect…because there is not always enough close air support available for those situations where you need low yield weapons to assist your ground forces.”

And although Canada opted to withdraw from NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance Program, interoperability with allies remains a key requirement. “We must be interoperable with all our NATO partners,” Whalen said. “Our information exchange requirements are very critical to be able to seamlessly fit into a coalition.”

JUSTAS will not only deliver the platform, it is also responsible for the ground systems to control the aircraft and to receive, manage and distribute ISR intelligence – from the air vehicle operators to the payload operators and intelligence analysts, all of whom will be re-tasked from manned aircraft. “We are not just taking information and dropping it at the door,” Whalen said. “[JUSTAS] is designed to deliver a semi-finished product to decision-makers in the CAF.”

Though satellite connectivity from the Arctic remains an issue, the RCAF will rely on an iridium control link to download information until a polar orbiting satellite system is in place.

There had been speculation that 2013 would be the year of the request for proposals. While an RFP is still a ways off, Whalen says the JUSTAS project team is nearing the end of analyzing its options and will be seeking “policy coverage” shortly.