Renewed debate on Ballistic Missile Defence
Dec 02, 2018

Over the past half-decade, a growing chorus of former government officials and retired generals have argued that Canada should reverse its long-held position of non-participation and formally join the United States’ continental Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) program. This discussion has most recently been reiterated in Canada’s defence policy, entitled “Strong, Secure, Engaged”.

The impetus underpinning such advocacy is North Korea’s relentless nuclear advancements producing a rudimentary capability of targeting the North American continent via its nuclear-armed Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) arsenal. The intensity and urgency of these arguments reached their zenith in 2017 amidst several provocative North Korean nuclear and missile tests and vitriolic threat exchanges with the United States.

Despite the current reduction in tensions between Pyongyang and Washington, many defence experts remain convinced North Korea remains an existential threat to Canada due to our alliance with and geographic proximity to the United States.

The implications of a nuclear-armed North Korea to Canadian national security and how to respond are far from straightforward, and such important matters require the utmost attention – but  BMD deliberations have apparently been based on threat assessments of North Korea to the exclusion of other considerations. North Korea does not pose an immediate and grave threat, but this does not imply Canada should not participate in defending against the possibility. Aversion to joining continental BMD does not rule out exploring participation in other capacities to maintain awareness of American thinking, strategies and policy on BMD, or supporting CAF expeditionary operations in increasingly contested regions where ballistic missiles are an emerging challenge.

In 2004 the U.S. deployed the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system to protect the continental U.S. against missile attacks – not from advanced Russian or Chinese nuclear strike forces, but from a small, relatively rudimentary force of a rogue state like North Korea. GMD is centred on an arsenal of Ground-Based Interceptor missiles which are designed to destroy incoming ICBMs via kinetic explosions which are guided by a complex array of radars and command and control structures. The Bush Administration publicly lobbied for Ottawa’s formal participation in GMD.

Supporters argue that non-participation leaves Canada vulnerable to: 1) rogue states whose rationality could not be assumed thus questioning whether a classical deterrent relationship (like between the US, Russia and China) could be established; 2) undermining continental defence relations, specifically the future of the North American Aerospace Command (NORAD); and 3) jeopardizing sovereignty by being solely reliant on the U.S. for our existential survival without having a ‘seat at the table’.

Those opposing assert joining would: 1) be prohibitively expensive as GMD has a poor test record and level of required investment is unclear; 2) destabilize strategic relations with Russia and China as well as open the possibility for the weaponization of space; and 3) support the US, whose ultimate foreign and defence intentions may be suspect.

In the end, the unpopularity of the Bush Administration in Canada appears to have been the decisive factor in the 2005 non-participation decision.

Many of these doomsday scenarios voiced by supporters and opponents since the early 2000s have not come to fruition including: destabilizing nuclear rivalry with Russia and China, nuclear blackmail by rogue regimes, militarizing space, or the collapse of NORAD. It must be remembered that the polarization over its purpose within American grand strategy is a large part of the renewed BMD debate, more so than ascertaining the credibility of foreign threats to Canada.

Nuclear-Armed North Korea: A Game Changer?
North Korea dominates the BMD debate, with the complexities of determining their intentions and purposes for nuclear-ICBM capability remaining an ongoing investigation. Broad agreement exists that possession of nuclear weapons is ultimately a regime survival tool, but there is some speculation it may also enable more revisionist aims, such as uniting the Peninsula under its control, with the threat of a nuclear exchange blunting the prospects of retaliation towards North Korean aggression against South Korea, Japan, and American forces within the region.  
Several scenarios have been proposed as to how Canada could become threatened by North Korea, whether intentional or not, including being accidentally struck by an errant missile aimed at the U.S. or deliberated targeted as a ‘demonstration’ strike to exhibit resolve without attacking the U.S. directly.

Testimony of then-Deputy Commander of NORAD at a Parliamentary committee last year, stating it is not American policy to defend Canada in the event of a ballistic missile attack, contributed to narratives that Canada was vulnerable to the emerging North Korean threat.

These comments are not the same as stating the U.S. would not defend Canada from ballistic missile attacks under any circumstance. Ambiguity of the target or accuracy of an incoming North Korean missile, as well as the fact a deliberate attack against Canada, a NATO member,
cautions against blanket suggestions that Washington would knowingly stand by in the face of an attack against its continental neighbour and military ally.

Indeed, the current interceptor strategy is to engage incoming missiles overseas before reaching North America. However, if the U.S. was to be faced with numerous missiles against multiple cities with an insufficient number of interceptors to cover them all, it is reasonable to expect American targets would be protected over Canadian ones. This scenario could exist in the face of Russian or Chinese attacks which GMD is not designed to handle. So, it is not about being vulnerable to nuclear missile forces in general, but those of North Korea specifically.

Assessments that possessing nuclear weapons would enable North Korean revisionist behaviour have not come to fruition as the number and intensity of attacks against South Korea has steadily decreased since they became a nuclear power. North Korea is ruled by an odious and murderous totalitarian regime, but the constraining influence of nuclear deterrence on them should not be underestimated – just as it has had on other states that the West was originally concerned were too irrational and malicious to have nuclear weapons, including Stalin’s Soviet Union and Maoist China. Deterrence is premised on inflicting unacceptable damage on one another – a condition which already exists between North Korea and the US, even though the latter possesses far more destructive power.

Fears of losing coercive leverage over Pyongyang via mutual deterrence does constrain options for the West, but has not resulted in North Korea becoming more bellicose and risk acceptant either. The world should not be fooled into thinking the current diplomatic rapprochement with Pyongyang will result in relinquishing nuclear weapons, but it will most likely produce the kind of stable arrangement that has been developed with other adversarial/competing nuclear powers. While Ottawa plans for worst case scenarios, it is far from clear whether a nuclear-armed North Korea poses a grave and immediate national security threat which would necessitate GMD participation.

Uncertainties and Concerns
Beyond any threat assessments of North Korean intent, several other issues should inform any Canadian decision including:

Purpose of system – It is unclear if GMD is oriented towards threat-as-actor or threat-as-capability, wherein the former implies the system will expand and advance if a rogue state (North Korea/Iran) possesses and progresses their nuclear forces, while the latter implies GMD has a specific capability it is designed to defend against regardless of whether an adversary achieves offensive forces beyond this level.

American exploratory research into defenses against advanced weapons (such as glide vehicles) suggests countering North Korea may not be the only goal of GMD, as these types of weapons are being progressed by China and Russia, not North Korea. No matter how unrealistic attempts to escape nuclear deterrence relationships with Russia and China are by the U.S., Canada should oppose any such moves as strategic stability is ultimately based on the acceptance of existential mutual vulnerability between these three powers. There is, however, an emerging nexus in global military competition between missiles and missile defence (with China and Russia developing their own systems) that Canada should be monitoring and keeping apprised of.

Confidence in GMD – Public statements by senior American military officers of 100% confidence in GMD is another cause for concern. Given that most serious analyses generously place the system’s testing success at around 50%, such self-assurance could further embolden a stronger American approach to rogue regimes like North Korea such as exploring ‘bloody nose’ attacks.

Exaggerated appraisals of the system’s capability, however, most likely does not radically change American risk propensity for even a small chance of a nuclear missile striking the U.S. or an ally, and induces extreme caution in any action which may risk such a consequence. American overconfidence in GMD, even if largely a public façade, will continue to cast lingering doubt as to the system’s purpose and role.

Access, Cost and Pressure – With no real pressure from Washington for over a decade, is Canadian GMD partici­pation wanted anymore? There remain benefits of Canadian inclusion, such as enabling a congruent system of coverage across North America and possibly streamlining continental defence back into one joint command structure, but there may also be reasons why the U.S. would be hesitant.

There may be concern about allowing Canadian input in interceptor assignment in the event of a multiple missile, multi-target attack, as well as the fact the U.S. has built and operated its own command organization for almost two decades now.

The debate about what contribution is expected of Canada blurs the difference between costs to participate versus what a ‘seat at the table’ would cost.

The possibility of President Trump, who regularly lambastes allies for not ‘paying their dues’ for collective defence, turning his gaze towards continental defence and demanding a greater contribution from Canada would most likely reinforce the status-quo of non-participation given the unpopularity of and pessimism towards his Administration by the Canadian public.  

Participation Beyond GMD
If it is ever determined that North Korea poses an unacceptable risk to Canadian national security, the ultimate guarantee for Ottawa would not be to participate in GMD but to build its own nuclear weapons – as the ultimate basis of nuclear deterrence rests on the ability to inflict unacceptable damage on the other, not simply blunting their ability to inflict damage on you. Such an option is almost inconceivable due to the fierce backlash and isolation that would come from the international community and close allies. Participation in GMD would not be dangerous, as North Korea does not appear concerned by American BMD developments and nuclear relations between U.S. and China and Russia remain stable.

Given unsubstantiated arguments of the growing North Korean aggressive potential as it further becomes a nuclear power, unknowns regarding costs and contributions, and no overt U.S. pressure or erosion in security relations, not joining GMD is not jeopardizing national security. However, this does not mean Canada should not be interested in participating in BMD in general. First, BMD is a reality and an American priority that impacts Canada, thus Ottawa should be interested in maintaining dialogue on continental security. Second, conventionally-armed ballistic missiles and BMD systems are proliferating globally, especially in regions where Canada’s military regularly deploys – including East Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, which warrant consideration of joining certain BMD systems.

Two possible options include: North Warning System (NWS) Replacement – In investigating a replacement system for the NWS, an integral part of NORAD, ballistic missile detection should be included in its capability requirements. Such a move will retain NORAD involvement in aerospace warning (not defence) inhibiting ballistic missile surveillance systems being built exclusively for GMD, thus offering a portal for Canada to remain involved.

Naval BMD – AEGIS BMD is an American ship and shore-based sensors and weapons system involved in regional defence against short and medium range ballistic missiles. Canada could incorporate such a system (or a compatible equivalent) into its next generation of naval warships and strengthen interoperability with NATO allies and Japan that already have AEGIS BMD ships and stations. Possessing such a capability supports maintaining freedom of manœuvre to and within regions in which some states are attempting to deploy anti-access/area denial weaponry and tactics to hold American and allied assets (specifically naval) at risk with long range cruise and ballistic missiles. For its part the U.S. is looking to link AEGIS BMD with GMD, specifically providing surveillance data, which could be another portal of access for Canada into continental defence without officially joining.

There are pragmatic reasons to join BMD systems in support of expeditionary operations as well as maintaining an ear into the conversation, if not necessarily a seat at the table, into American and NATO BMD thinking and strategies.

Canada is the only country of the major and middle powers without its own or part of a multi-lateral BMD system. This does not unnecessarily imperil Canadian national security in terms of existential survival but rather excludes Ottawa from monitoring and adapting to changes in missile and missile defence systems which are becoming a dominant feature of global military developments.

– Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic based in Halifax.