NEW! Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Take the quiz and Win a Trivia Challenge prize pack!

Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Take the quiz and Win a Trivia Challenge prize pack!

Preparing for a nuclear attack

A ground-based missile interceptor is lowered into its missile silo at Fort Greely, Alaska.
Sgt. Jack W. Carlson III, U.S. Department of Defense

At the end of November, an article appeared on the CBC news website announcing that the Privy Council Office—the bureaucratic arm of the federal cabinet—drafted an agreement with the Department of National Defence to open up two old Cold War-era bunkers in the National Capital Region to be used in the event Ottawa becomes “unviable.” This means that in the event of a nuclear attack on Canada, and especially Ottawa, the politicians and their senior staff will have a place to hide.

Ottawa’s interest in seeking shelter from a possible missile attack—could North Korea be on their minds?—is interesting because it comes while Canada is sticking to its long-held policy of not joining the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) program of the United States.

A cynic might say that Ottawa is making sure it is “safe” from a nuclear attack while the rest of the country is left to fend for itself. Not a very reassuring thought.

But of what use is the ABM program anyway? Despite spending billions of dollars over the past decade or so to establish a system with interceptors based in Alaska and California and radars at sea, on Pacific islands and linked to satellites, the system is far from perfect. In a test on Jan. 31, a Raytheon-built anti-ballistic missile failed to down an air-launched intermediate-range ballistic missile target.

This was a second failed test of the type that would be mounted on, and launched from, a high-flying intercontinental bomber such as the U.S. B-52 or the Russian Backfire bomber, both Cold War-era aircraft.

These tests have not all been failures. The first, conducted in February 2017, was a success but a second, in June 2017, was going according to plan until, the U.S. Navy says, a crew member inadvertently pushed the missile’s self-destruct button.

Over the years, the success rate of these anti-ballistic missiles has been about 50 per cent. They are in constant development and the success rate (or the failure rate) should not be a surprise. The fact is that hitting a missile with a missile, especially above the atmosphere, is a very difficult proposition.

In the case of the U.S. ABM system, the Americans long ago decided to forgo a basic principle of anti-aircraft missile systems, which is to have a missile blow up in close proximity to its target and fill the atmosphere around it with thousands of fragments of shrapnel-like mini-missiles that destroy the target. The American system is a kinetic one—hit the missile
with another missile without an explosion.

In these days of ever-advancing technology, it is easy to believe that it is only a matter of time before the physics problem is solved by tracking, computers and steerable rocket engines. Maybe. Many experts have declared for years that the only sure way of intercepting an intercontinental ballistic missile is in the boost phase, when it has just been launched and is beginning to make its climb through the atmosphere. This, too, is hard to do, but the physical challenges of hitting a missile flying at 29,000 kilometres an hour at 130 kilometres altitude seems much harder.

This brings us back to Canada and its position on joining the U.S. ABM system. If existing technology will deliver protection 50 per cent of the time, isn’t that better than no protection 100 per cent of the time? The Americans are keeping us guessing as to whether or not their system would be used to attempt to destroy a missile aimed at Canada or which strays from its path toward Canada. Seattle and the Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., is but a few seconds flying time for a ballistic missile from Vancouver and the lower mainland of British Columbia.

Is it official Canadian policy to rely on the precision of North Korean missiles? Or in North Korea’s friendly relations with Canada?

The reality is that Canada cannot rely on North Korea not to attack us, or on North Korea’s friendship, or the precision of North Korean missiles. Nor can we rely on the U.S. to protect us when we have invested virtually nothing into its system. It may, but again it may not. We are the best of allies and our economies are tightly intertwined. But given the leadership in the White House these days, and perhaps for the next seven years, Canada is foolish not to join the U.S. ABM system.


Sign up today for a FREE download of Canada’s War Stories

Free e-book

An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.