Surveillance aircraft during the ‘Freedom Convoy’ operated by Special Forces

National Defense acknowledged the plane was being used by Canadian special forces as part of a training mission on Feb. 10, but said the flight had nothing to do with the protests.

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Canadian special forces were operating the mystery plane that flew over Ottawa during the so-called “freedom ferry” protests in late January and February, this newspaper confirmed.

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The U.S.-registered King Air plane took off over Ottawa on Jan. 28, Jan. 29, Feb. 3, Feb. 10 and Feb. 11, according to data collected by Steffan Watkins, an Ottawa researcher who tracks the movements of ships and planes.

For example, on Feb. 10, the plane was making circular circuits over Ottawa before disappearing from publicly available aircraft tracking systems, Watkins said.

The thefts coincided with large-scale demonstrations in downtown Ottawa as part of the “Freedom Convoy”.

Protesters in Ottawa have called on the government to scrap rules designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But other protesters also called for the overthrow of the Canadian government.

National Defense spokesman Dan Le Bouthillier acknowledged the plane was being used by Canadian special forces as part of a training mission on February 10. But he said the theft had nothing to do with the protests.

No information was available from National Defense on who operated the plane on the other dates, but military sources said those flights also involved Canadian special forces.

Canadian Special Forces are preparing to receive their own King Air aircraft fitted with surveillance equipment and have conducted training in preparation for the delivery of these aircraft.

These devices, the first of which is due to be delivered this summer, will enable the Canadian military to collect data for missions abroad and at home. Modified small passenger planes are equipped with surveillance equipment allowing the interception of cell phone calls, radio transmissions and other communications. Electro-optical sensors would also allow crews aboard the plane to track the movement of individuals and vehicles on the ground, the Canadian military noted. Canadian special forces had access to similar aircraft in Afghanistan to track and target insurgents.

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Le Bouthillier said special forces training was already planned before the Ottawa protests and that canceling the flight would have been a waste of money.

Watkins said the plane could have flown anywhere in the Ottawa area if the situation required regular training. But, instead, the plane was involved in specific flight patterns, he noted.

“I believe their precise circular paths over Ottawa suggest some form of electronic surveillance, not simply digital electro-optical images or video,” Watkins added in a separate report on the flights.

The Globe and Mail newspaper, citing data from Watkins, first reported the Feb. 10 theft in an article last month. At the time, National Defense acknowledged that the plane was conducting military training, but did not disclose that it was operated by Canadian special forces.

The new surveillance aircraft will be based at CFB Trenton, Ontario.

Canada paid the US government $188 million for the plane. The overall project is estimated to cost taxpayers $247 million.

The US military operates similar surveillance aircraft.

A maintenance contract for the new aircraft has been awarded to a team consisting of General Dynamics Mission Systems-Canada of Ottawa and Voyageur Aviation Corporation of North Bay, Ontario.

Canadian special forces conducted further training to prepare for the arrival of new surveillance aircraft. In October, members of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command traveled to the United States to work with that country’s special forces to develop tactics and procedures for use with aircraft.

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In 2019, members of the American special forces were in Ottawa and Petawawa undergoing similar training. In mid-November of that year, members of the 427th Special Operations Aviation Squadron and the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, both based in Petawawa, conducted an exercise supported by one of the aircraft Americans. The American plane operated from Ottawa airport and flights took place between Petawawa and Mansfield-et-Pontefract, Quebec, according to Canadian special forces.

Surveillance equipment on board the new Canadian military aircraft is still subject to strict US restrictions. Canadian military personnel and aerospace employees will not be permitted to work on parts of the equipment as they contain sensitive US-made systems that can only be handled by US citizens. Instead, the equipment will have to be sent to the United States for maintenance or US government personnel will have to travel to Canada to work on the planes, according to Canadian officials.

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