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Eye On Defence: July/August 2013

North Korean belligerence in the first few months of this year has put the question back into public discussion of whether or not Canada should inform the United States that this country is now ready to negotiate a ballistic missile defence agreement. 

Ballistic Missile Defence, usually referred to as BMD, has been on the Canada-U.S. defence agenda at least twice before. The first time was during the height of the Cold War and the presidency of Ronald Reagan when the U.S. announced that it was embarking on a comprehensive package of measures aimed at building a missile umbrella over North America. The plan, usually referred to derisively as “Star Wars,” would have produced an interlocking system of active defence measures including rail guns in space and aircraft-borne lasers to shoot down Soviet warheads. Billions were spent on the program, most of which was a colossal technical waste. President Ronald Reagan asked Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a close friend and ally, to join the program in 1985 but Mulroney turned the U.S. down. Canada believed that Star Wars would be very expensive, ineffective and a provocation to the U.S.S.R.

Two decades later a much reduced missile defence program was embarked upon by the U.S. This version was not intended to protect the U.S. from a rain of Soviet missiles, but to defend against much smaller attacks launched by potential nuclear enemies such as Iran and North Korea. Once again Canada was asked to join, though no specific role was laid out for Canada. Once again Canada refused, again citing a possible renewal of a nuclear arms race, even though the Cold War had ended a decade and a half earlier.

The U.S. pressed on with the program and has continued to develop various means of defence against both theatre (up to approximately 1,500 miles) and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Special radars have been developed and installed along with interceptors in Alaska and on the U.S. west coast, and on U.S. Navy warships. The U.S. also continues to get European countries, especially Poland and the Czech Republic, to join the program.

Up to this writing (early May), Canada has not officially been asked again, but with the successful launch of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile in December and a third North Korean atomic test in February, the subject is very much in play with politicians, journalists and a variety of experts offering their views both for and against Canadian participation in the U.S. BMD program.

Most of the arguments, both for and against, bear a strong resemblance to the arguments of eight and 28 years ago. On the technical side there have been major advances in the ability to “hit a bullet with a bullet” as radars, computers and GPS systems become ever more accurate and effective. And there really can’t be much doubt any longer that North Korea, at least, aims to develop the capability of launching nuclear attacks against the U.S. mainland. They will probably succeed at some point if they persist.

U.S. vulnerability poses serious defence challenges to Canada.  If North Korea aims at Seattle, Vancouver could be eliminated if a missile doesn’t run true.  And even if it does, a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and North Korea will most certainly threaten Canada and Canadians.

So Canada should take a second look at joining the U.S. BMD system, but at the same time, Canada should privately remind the United States that it has not been acting as a true and faithful ally lately in some vital Canadian national interests, most notably in delaying cross-border pipeline construction into the U.S. The two issues are admittedly different in both substance and seriousness. But this could be an opportune time to remind the U.S. that friends treat each other as friends and help each other best serve their individual national interests whether in matters of substance such as trade, or still theoretical dangers, such as North Korean missiles.

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