The Missile Defence Debate

by Ray Dick

The threat is both terrifying and possible—and some say even probable—that a nuclear, biological or chemical attack on North America by terrorists or rogue nations could come from the skies, from tramp ships offshore or even from covert incursions by land across loosely protected borders. With this threat in mind, and as a reaction to the thousands of lives lost to terrorism in attacks from the air in New York and Washington some two years ago, the United States has begun its National Missile Defence (NMD) system and its Northern Command (NORTHCOM) programs. The question is whether Canada—a country that shares the North American continent with the world’s last remaining superpower—will contribute, and how much, particularly to the NMD. Canada is also a country whose undermanned and underfunded military is stretched to the limit in fighting terrorists in Afghanistan and in other worldwide commitments.

The options are clear. Either Canada will participate in the American missile defence program at what at first appears to be very minimal cost or it will hitch a free ride on the coattails of the Americans. The benefits of participating, with spinoffs to industry, shared technology and information and a seat at the table in North American defence must be weighed against the potential costs of not taking part, a lingering fear that such inaction would mean loss of sovereignty down the road.

Defence Minister David Pratt said in January he hopes to bring to cabinet a final recommendation on whether to join the U.S. NMD. He said this could be done by October, several months after an expected spring election.

“If Canada does not act to protect itself, others, especially the U.S., will do it for us, with all the adverse consequences this implies,” states a recent report titled A Nation At Risk from the Conference of Defence Associations, a Canadian defence lobby group.

“It is absolutely necessary that Canada participate,” says retired lieutenant-general Lou Cuppens, chairman of The Royal Canadian Legion’s National Defence Committee.

“No government in the world can afford not to defend themselves,” adds Charles Doran of the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies in Washington, D.C.

What those defence analysts are commenting on are the talks now in progress in Washington between Canadian and U.S. officials on whether Canada will join in the American NMD program now under way which calls for an initial deployment of sophisticated land-based radar systems and high-speed interceptor missiles. The initial stages will see 20 interceptors based at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg air base in California this year. Under the NMD, those missiles would be used to intercept missiles launched from rogue nations or from ships in the mid-ocean. A second stage in the NMD would put another 20 interceptors to sea aboard American warships, presumably adding more defence against missiles launched closer to shore.

As envisaged by U.S. planners, the interceptors destroy their targets by making physical contact with them at high rates of speed, much like using a bullet to hit another bullet, and they would not be armed with either nuclear or conventional explosive warheads. The plan is for a layered approach to missile defence using land (interceptor rockets or mobile launchers such as the U.S. Patriot system), sea (Aegis class missile ships) and air (airborne lasers). The air- and sea-based platforms could be positioned close to the launch site of a hostile missile to shoot it down in its initial stage. The land-based platforms, such as those in Alaska and California, would intercept the missiles in the mid-course phase (coasting in space or high in the atmosphere) or on its final approach to its target.

Although testing of missile defence has had mixed results, the U.S. planners say integration of new technologies should improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the system. Initial costs of the missile defence program have been estimated at $22 billion, but the price could escalate considerably depending on how the system develops. The missiles would be aimed at defending the continent from a limited attack by a rogue nation, such as North Korea.

Pratt says the threat posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles cannot be ignored, and that critics such as NDP Leader Jack Layton who say the missile defence program is “profoundly dangerous” and would lead to weapons in space are “scaremongering” in an attempt to frighten Canadians. Pratt said Layton is ignorant of the modest nature of the U.S. system which does not involve weapons in space. If it did, Canada would not be part of the project.

Ballistic missile proliferation is no false threat, says Pratt. “As a nation we have to take decisions that will protect our citizens….” He added that those decisions must be cautious, careful and prudent and where our country’s interests lie. Bilateral talks between the two countries over the last several months have covered several aspects of NMD, including what costs there would be for Canada in money, would the Americans want some Canadian territory and whether the system would ensure the same protection for Canadians as it would for Americans. Pratt has brought the discussions up a notch by drafting a letter to U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asking for more detailed information about the system such as which Canadian cities will be covered by the umbrella and the possible trajectory of any missiles through Canadian territory. From what is known now, no missiles would be based in Canada nor would the U.S. system cost the government any money, although the intercepting missiles could travel through Canadian airspace.

Pratt says he would hope the missile defence program would come under the North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad), the Canada-U.S. body that has defended North American skies since it was established in 1958.

Some opponents claim NMD is just a renewed Star Wars system that was proposed by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. That system didn’t get off the ground, let alone into space, with its particle beams and other exotic weapons. Others oppose the program because it might initiate a new arms race and lead to weapons in space, and some claim the technology behind the missile shield is unreliable and sets unrealistic expectations.

Former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, now head of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, also has some reservations about Norad being involved in the NMD. “If Norad gets tied into or embedded into the missile defence program, it may distort the role Norad could effectively play in providing a protection against the real risks.” He told a recent symposium of opponents of missile defence in Ottawa that the real risk is not missile defence but in all kinds of intrusions that can come into the continent on ships, planes and in other forms.

The future of Norad, however, hinges on whether Canada joins the American NMD program, according to Dwight Mason, a former policy adviser to the Clinton administration as chairman of the U.S. section of the Permanent Joint Board on Defence set up in 1940 between the two countries. In a policy paper released by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Mason writes that Canada will kill its exclusive military partnership with the U.S. if it does not support the missile defence program.

Norad would cease to exist in its present state, he writes, and “for the first time in 60 years Canada would have excluded itself from an important aspect of North American defence. Such a decision (to opt out) would change the mission of Norad. Space and missile warning functions would move elsewhere. Canadian access to U.S. military space programs and related information would diminish or vanish.”

The stakes are high, he writes, for a defence relationship that shares an estimated 330 bilateral agreements and arrangements that include refuelling, officers exchanges, communications, intelligence, base agreements, logistics, information technology, air defence, rules of engagements, maritime operations, joint testing facilities and procedures, cooperative research and development, space activities and search and rescue. There are also various production sharing arrangements, which have allowed Canadian companies to compete for American defence contracts and given Canadian firms access to advanced U.S. technologies.

The central point in this long-standing defence arrangement, says Mason, is that North America is a single military theatre and that each country has a duty to defend it together—an attack on one would almost certainly affect the other. “This structure is now beginning to be threatened by the decline in the resources and capabilities of the Canadian Forces.”

The situation changed and became more complicated after the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the U.S. set up Northern Command and the Department of Homeland Security to rationalize a large number of separate programs and responsibilities to deal with the new threat, and to direct, plan and conduct defence that included land, sea and air forces and civil military support operations within the U.S. It was clear, says Mason, that there had to be a close relationship between Norad and NORTHCOM in view of Norad’s continental aerospace responsibilities and the interdependent relationship between the two countries. However, “the two countries decided not to expand Norad to include land and sea elements believing that, for the moment at least, the new planning group would be sufficient.”

Looking at the way ahead, Mason says the prospects of the two countries maintaining their traditional partnership in the defence of North America are not promising, mainly because the resource problems of the Canadian Forces and their reduced capability will push the U.S. to act to defend itself and North America with less regard to Canada. “The U.S. missile defence program is one example of this kind of future.

“The U.S. missile defence program is not dependent upon Canada for interceptor or radar sites. The system has been planned without Canadian participation and without specific regard to Canadian defence. But it clearly will be capable of defending nearly all of Canada if it should ultimately be successful….The further the system progresses without Canada, the less scope there will be for Canadian participation and influence, whether in system design (to take Canadian defence concerns into account) or in access to the research and development opportunities associated with the program.”

When interviewed last fall, Mason saw little prospect of serious improvement in the situation of the Canadian Forces while the government of Jean Chrétien was in power, but he was encouraged by the comments of former defence minister John McCallum in announcing initially that talks would proceed with the U.S. on participation in the program. More recently, Prime Minister Paul Martin has put his position on the table in various media interviews. He has expressed support for Canada’s participation in the program, the need for a foreign and defence policy review with increased defence spending, and a proactive role for Canada internationally to prevent isolation “from any moves the U.S. might take to protect the continent.”

Martin’s views are dear to the hearts of the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA) , which is calling for a full defence policy review to put a stop to any idea of Canada freeloading off the U.S. in North American defence and foreign policy issues. “The U.S. can easily afford to provide equipment, materiel and personnel in Afghanistan (and in continental defence, including non-military entities such as joint border patrols and port security) to cover Canadian shortfalls…. As well as eroding sovereignty, defence freeloading has an impact on national influence internationally. Because of its weak defence efforts, Canada no longer has a seat at many tables. It is now often in the third rank as a note-taker.”

And the Legion’s Cuppens, who as Canada’s commander at the Norad headquarters in Cheyenne Mountain from 1994-1998 was an original booster of a missile defence program for the continent, says Canada’s participation in the system is a must. “I admire caution,” he says of the present talks with Washington, “but we’re talking about defence. If Canada doesn’t decide soon, Norad will be marginalized.”

Cuppens says a rogue state such as North Korea is developing or already has nuclear-capable missiles that can hit Alaska and other parts of the U.S. and that there is no defence program yet in place to stop them. The Americans would not sit back and wait. “The notion that Canada’s quest for nuclear disarmament is at risk because of the fielding of a ‘defensive only’ system eludes logic,” he says. “Surely the future introduction of defensive systems are preferred to the ‘Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)’ philosophy of the past,” a system in which mass retaliation by intercontinental ballistic missiles assured peace during the Cold War.

“Rather than Canadians focusing on the economic benefits, partnerships, technological advantage or defence arrangements related to the emerging NMD system, I would suggest that Canadians ponder the defence that will be gained and the national security that will be won,” he adds.

American defence analysts, such as Doran of Johns Hopkins, also think Canada should be part of NMD. “The American preference is that Canada be involved,” says Doran. “But there is no pressure or arm twisting. We’re all in the same boat. The consequences (of an intercontinental missile attack on North America) are so extraordinary that for a nation not to protect itself would be criminal.”

And Christopher Sands of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says although the anti-missile system is not 100 per cent perfect, Canada could and should be a part of NMD for the sake of its armed forces, its industry and its citizens. He added there would be resource contracts, shared know-how and other benefits, a win-win situation all around, and Canada would have a seat at the table in North American defence. And Canadians should note that some of these long-range missiles from rogue states are not all that accurate.

Sands also predicted during a recent conference in Alberta that Paul Martin will improve the tone of Canada’s relationship with the U.S., and that the new Canadian leader will get an early invitation to President Bush’s Crawford ranch.

Some Canadian defence analysts, such as Martin Shadwick of York University in Toronto, say we should be talking with the Americans about participating in NMD, but that Canada should proceed with caution. “Saying no to the Americans might not serve our political interests at this time.”

The U.S. missile defence plan has already gained support from other allied nations. Japan and Israel have their own joint missile defence programs with the U.S., the United Kingdom has an agreement with the U.S. to upgrade radar sites and Denmark has been asked by the U.S. to allow the Thule radar site in Greenland to be upgraded. Australia has also been supportive of ballistic-missile defence.