Export suspension exposes flaws in Canada’s arms controls

November 30, 2020

On October 24, Radio Canada International reported that Canadian-based Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) had suspended the export of aircraft engines to “countries with unclear usage.” This action followed reports that these engines were being used in Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that Turkey had sent to support Azeri forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

BRP’s decision came only weeks after Global Affairs Canada (GAC) suspended exports of Canadian-made WESCAM surveillance and targeting sensors to Turkey. These sensors have reportedly also been used on the Bayraktar TB2s that Turkey sent to Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as to Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

The major difference between the items under discussion is that WESCAM sensors are produced in Canada, while BRP engines are produced in Austria, and are therefore not regulated under Canadian arms controls. This case looks to be the first time that a Canadian arms manufacturer has proactively suspended the exports of a subsidiary when evidence indicated that the arms were being misused.

But one unambiguously Canadian engine manufacturer has continued business as usual: Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC).


Located in Longueuil, Quebec, P&WC is one of Canada’s largest and oldest (founded in 1928) manufacturers of aerospace engines.

Based on our survey of publicly available data, Project Ploughshares conservatively estimates that, between 2000 and 2019, more than $2-billion worth of P&WC engines were received by foreign military customers.

Many of these customers were states accused of serious abuses of human rights, including breaches of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Such violations would historically make such states ineligible to receive Canadian-made military goods. However, two major loopholes in Canada’s arms-control regime have permitted the uninterrupted transfer of aircraft engines to such customers.

Loophole #1

P&WC engines are an example of dual-use goods, which means that they serve both commercial and military purposes. However, for a number of years, despite evidence of military use, the government of Canada has assumed that most P&WC engines sent abroad performed only civil functions and therefore classified them as commercial goods.

As a result, these aircraft engines are not subjected to Canada’s substantial risk test, the instrument used by officials to determine the likelihood that weapons systems could be used to violate IHL, facilitate gender-based violence, or be the subject of illicit diversion (among other abuses). This classification also means that the engines are not included in Canada’s public record of military exports, which is notable for its lack of transparency.

Loophole #2

In particular instances—if they receive minor modifications for military use, for example—P&WC engines are classified as military goods. At this point, under Canadian and international law, they do require an export permit, which initiates the substantial risk test. But even in this case, the Canadian government considers the end-user to be the manufacturer of the aircraft, not the eventual military recipient, effectively misdirecting the test’s focus.

For example, P&WC engines are used in Saudi PC-21 aircraft. But at the point of export, GAC considers the end-user of the engines to be the manufacturer of the PC-21, Pilatus Aircraft Ltd. in Switzerland. Thus, GAC judges only the basically nonexistent risk that Pilatus will breach IHL or commit other violations. It does not consider the terrible human-rights record of the Saudi Air Force, a record which GAC has rightly condemned. In this way, Canadian arms controls are further subverted.


P&WC’s PT6 engine is popular with foreign military clients, particularly for use in light turboprop aircraft. These small planes are now often used to train fighter-jet flight crews more cheaply. The United States Air Force, for example, uses turboprops to train fledgling pilots and test their aptitude for counterinsurgency operations.

P&WC engines are found in the Pilatus PC21 advanced trainer aircraft (used by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates), the AgustaWestland AW139 helicopter (used by Egypt, Pakistan, and Thailand), and the Embraer 314 Super Tucano light-attack aircraft (used by Afghanistan, Brazil, and the Philippines). And the list goes on.

Turkey and other serial human-rights abusers continue to receive light-attack aircraft powered by PT6 engines with little or no regulatory scrutiny from Canada. It can be said, without exaggeration, that the proliferation of these Canadian engines has life-and-death consequences for people living in conflict zones.

Increasingly, militaries use light-attack aircraft in domestic operations that blur the line between conventional conflict and domestic policing. Such actions can erode the protection of civilians that is required under international law. For instance, Nigeria’s acquisition of Super Tucano aircraft powered by PT6 engines was harshly criticized by human-rights monitors due to Nigeria’s very poor record of accounting for civilians when undertaking operations against Boko Haram. In one incident in 2017, 115 civilians were killed during the bombing of a refugee camp in Rann, Borno State.


Destinations of P&WC engines for military use (2000-2019)

Turkey, which is currently denied Canadian weapons and BRP’s Rotax engines, is still powering its turboprop aircraft, the TAI Hürkuş, with a P&WC engine. For several years, the Hürkuş has been used to train Turkish pilots. The most recent variant, the Hürkuş-C, is combat-enabled, with air-to-surface missile systems designed for use in counterinsurgency operations. It is likely that these aircraft will be deployed against Kurdish groups in Turkey and surrounding states in coming years.

The United Arab Emirates, which in recent years has become one of Canada’s top-10 destinations for military exports, is an eager customer of the IOMAX Archangel, an American-built aircraft that is powered by the PT6. Since 2016, the UAE has reportedly deployed Archangels to Libya in support of the Libyan National Army. As a member of the Saudi-led coalition, the UAE has also deployed them in Yemen, where collective airstrikes reportedly injure and kill 10 civilians a day, on average.

In 2018, GAC ordered a review into a contract for the export of 16 Canadian-made Bell 412 helicopters to the Philippines, which resulted in Philippine president Duterte’s cancelling the purchase. The review stemmed from serious allegations of human-rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial killings, during a campaign against domestic extremists.

Despite the earlier review, the Philippines recently received PT6-powered Embraer 314 Super Tucano aircraft to use in “light attack, counter-insurgency, [and] close air support.” Human Rights Watch has recently called on governments to ban the export of military aircraft to the Philippines, citing a “disregard of civilian life” during counterinsurgency operations.

Top 20 recipients of P&WC engines used in military applications (2000-2019)


BRP has taken responsibility for their exports, but other manufacturers will not forfeit sales unless the freedom to do so is removed by national governments.

Canadian-made aircraft engines are only one example of goods that should be subject to the same safeguards applied to ‘conventional’ weapons, to decrease the likelihood that they will be used to violate human rights abroad. One immediate measure that can be taken under current Canadian arms controls is to reclassify appropriate aircraft engines as dual-use goods under Canada’s Export Control List Group One, instead of assuming they will be used in civilian applications. This change would subject these engines to GAC’s substantial risk test, which is required when exporting parts and components under the Arms Trade Treaty.

GAC should also consider the final military user as the end-user of aircraft engines, whether or not an aircraft manufacturer operates as an intermediary. This is perhaps more critical than ever, as states with poor human-rights records purchase light-attack aircraft in greater numbers.

Such changes would help to close two major loopholes in Canada’s arms-control regime and bring Canada closer to satisfying its domestic and international obligations.

Photo: The UAE’s A-29 Super Tucano light-attack aircraft (pictured) is powered by Canadian-made engines, despite the Kingdom’s poor human rights record.

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