Oct 04, 2017

Suggestions by the Conservative opposition in the House of Commons that the Liberals should consider talks with the United States about joining a continental Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system were not dismissed by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

Outside the House of Commons after the daily question period, Sajjan was asked whether he would reverse a government decision to “not change the policy on missile defence” as originally set out by a former Liberal government almost 13 years ago.

“We can’t just look at the threats of today,” he told reporters, citing the extensive public consultations that yielded the government’s latest 20-year defence policy, released in June. “NORAD and the defence policy is about looking into the future, and so we need to look at all perils or threats. So we’re going to make sure that we actually take the time to get this right.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – having previously said he would not revisit Prime Minister Paul Martin’s 2005 decision to refuse President George W. Bush’s invitation to join in on BMD – seemed to open the door last month. “We have not changed our position,” he told reporters. “But we continue to engage in thoughtful ways to ensure we’re doing everything we can and we must do to keep Canadians safe.”

The renewed U.S. initiative is in response to the increasingly bellicose North Korean government of Kim Jong-un, which this summer successfully tested two new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Its Hwasong-14 is believed to be capable of striking the continental U.S., and tensions have been exacerbated by Pyongyang’s claims that it could mount a nuclear payload on its newest platform.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has tested several interception technologies this year using ground-based systems at Vanderberg Air Force Base in California, as well as its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system against medium-range ballistic missiles, and systems on some U.S. Navy destroyers.

The Department of Defense is officially confident it can counter a limited North Korean ICBM but apparently wants to beef up its kinetic protection systems as well as, in the longer term, non-kinetic technologies such as high-power ground-based or airborne lasers.

U.S. allies in Northeast Asia also want to beef up their capabilities. Japan currently uses a tiered missile defense system involving Aegis destroyers and land-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) systems, but is understood to be considering a land-based Aegis. South Korea has deployed THAAD batteries and other anti-missile systems.

By Ken Pole

Pressed to clarify his initial response, Sajjan said that while the “current policy has not changed”, any move to upgrade NORAD would consider “all perils”, and they will "have the thorough discussions” related to those threats, as well as the type of investments needed.

He pointed out that NORAD “was designed at a time where we were looking at a certain threat and now the threat picture has changed, and we’re going to take that into account." And mentioned the importance of making sure that NORAD is "relevant" into the future.

He noted that command and control structures have to be assessed, as does the ageing North Warning System, including the overarching need for integration. “We need to modernize our satellites, we need to modernize some of our equipment, which we are doing," he said.

“The other aspect is you can’t cost it out on something that you don’t know. And one thing that we committed with our Defence Policy was that we wanted to cost things out. And something like this does require time. It requires discussions with the U.S., and we look forward to doing that.”

Sajjan said no specific timelines have been set. “Our officials are actually working on that aspect right now. Once we have a plan, we’ll be able to share that thoroughly with Canadians.”

He also said he has had “a number of discussions” with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and that “we will always do our part of what’s needed when it comes to North American defence with the current context that we have.”

– Ken Pole