Operational needs in Afghanistan resulted in the lease of the IAI CU-170 Heron, an unarmed Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) platform, under the NOCTUA program, which provided significantly more capability than its predecessor, with sorties of more than 24 hours in a full operational configuration and a ceiling of 35,000 ft. The use of the CU-170 was widely regarded as a success during Op Athena. Canadian Army commanders credit the CU-170 with vastly improving Canada’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, assisting Army operations against the Taliban and saving Canadian and allied lives. Following the successful operation of the Heron by the RCAF in Kandahar, Australia recognized its capability and ordered the same platform for their forces (Nankeen Program).
The June 2017 defence policy document “Strong, Secure, Engaged,” confirms the intention of the Government of Canada to “invest in medium altitude remotely piloted systems” to support the RCAF in domestic and international operations. When acquired, the new system will significantly increase Canada’s airborne ISR capabilities providing timely and operationally relevant information. It will complement existing systems and increase maritime and Arctic domain awareness. In support of land and special operations forces, it will also provide precision force application. In November 2017, the JUSTAS program was renamed the Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) Project and the recently created Defence Capabilities Blueprint provides a preliminary cost estimate of $1 billion to $4.99 billion with the start of the Definition Phase to begin in 2018-2019.