Revisiting Ballistic Missile Defence
© 2013 FrontLine Defence (Vol 10, No 3)

Recent media coverage of threats being issued by North Korea has precipitated a smattering of renewed discussion on ballistic missile defence (BMD). This lightning-rod issue was essentially buried by the Martin Liberal government in February 2005 when a decision was taken not to participate in BMD with the United States. This choice was driven largely by political considerations of the time, which overrode any logical argument to incorporate this important capability into our NORAD partnership. Now, eight years later, the threat presented by the capabilities of so-called rogue nations like North Korea and Iran has evolved (along with their rhetoric) to the point where the fundamental rationale for the US-developed missile defence system remains more valid than ever. It is time to reconsider BMD cooperation with the Americans.

Naysayers will be quick to dredge up all the sensational or incomplete arguments that surfaced in 2004 and set so many Canadians against BMD. Opponents maintained that there was no threat, that BMD would precipitate nuclear proliferation, that a system would lead to the deployment of weapons in space, that it would be too expensive, that it would destabilize the strategic power balance, and so on. The fact that these points prevailed was… remarkable.

In truth, the system being developed and tested did not involve nuclear weapons, interceptors deployed into space, or any identified expense beyond the involvement of NORAD personnel and possibly the use of a Canadian site to base a radar. Moreover, there is a strong case to be made that the deployment of a BMD system would actually contribute to stability, without any real perturbation of the nuclear strategic balance.

Perhaps the only justified criticism was that the system was still in the early stages of deployment and not without some operational difficulties. True to form, however, the Americans have addressed those issues and increased the reliability and probability of intercept of an incoming missile. A functioning system now exists.

For many involved in the BMD file, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the 2005 decision was the impact it had on the Canadian contribution to NORAD. We Canadians gain a great deal from this partnership in providing for the collective defence of Canada and the US. – it represents a terrific ‘bang for the buck’. Over some 55 years, we have cooperated in the detection, warning and defence of the airborne threat from bombers and cruise missiles; and we have participated together in the missile detection and warning mission to ensure that an effective deterrent is in place, backed up by the U.S. capability to respond, if ever needed. But when technology evolved to the point where defence against ballistic missiles was reliable enough to be deployed, we declined to be involved in this most logical extension of the NORAD role.

For those who might argue that we aren’t threatened by ballistic missiles, we need to remind ourselves that the consequences for Canada of an attack on the U.S. could be profound. One only has to reflect on the aftermath of the events of 9/11. The outcome of an actual attack on U.S. territory should be of direct and dire concern to us all.

If one draws the direct route for any missile launched from either the Middle East or from Asia to any continental U.S. target, from Los Angeles to New York City, the path crosses Canadian airspace. With intercept missiles now staged in Alaska and California, an early intercept may well take place over the Pacific Ocean, but seconds are precious and any delay could mean interception over Canadian territory. In any case, it will create an extensive debris field and this should be of concern to us and our sovereign interest.

And what if there are several missiles inbound? Would Vancouver get priority for defence over a strategic U.S. target? Our explicit abdication of any involvement in the deployment of the system leaves us with no meaningful influence in its employment.

As we continue to debate BMD of our own continent, it is interesting that Canada continues to support the project to develop and implement a NATO ballistic missile defence system. When it comes to collective defence with our NATO partners, we have accepted the majority view that BMD is important to protect alliance territory. Additionally, it should be noted that missile defence systems are often provided by our allies to protect coalition operations – including Canadian personnel.

In light of these actions, is it logical to deny the need to protect our own sovereign territory against the evolving threat? Will the Government act on its first responsibility – protecting the safety and security of its own citizens? Will it be able to properly inform Canadians in a way that a reasoned decision can be taken to propose to join the U.S. in providing a defence against ballistic missiles?

The strident claims of North Korea, and the very recent deployment of U.S. resources to take defensive action if a missile is launched, have once again reminded us of the potential dangers from a ‘rogue’ ballistic missile attack. Through considerable investment, the U.S. has fielded a modest, but capable system to address this threat. It is time for Canadians to reassess, and get involved in North American defence – our participation in NORAD is the obvious vehicle to re-open discussion. A re-evaluation and update of our defence policy, as described in the Canada First Defence Strategy five years ago, is appropriate and could address BMD. Much has changed in those five years, and in the eight years since the negative BMD decision was taken. Let’s take advantage of our close relationship with the U.S. to explore ­meaningful defence options to our mutual advantage.
LGen (ret) George Macdonald is a consultant in Ottawa. He was the Deputy Commander of NORAD from 1998 to 2001, during a time of intense BMD development in the US, which included the involvement of Canadian personnel assigned to the binational partnership.

© FrontLine Defence 2013



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