Ballistic Missile Defence

Sep 15, 2013

Nearly 10 years ago, Canada formally rejected a U.S. offer to jointly develop the technology and procedures to defend North America from attacks by long-range missiles – a so-called Ballistic Missile Defence or BMD. In February 2005, then Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew called Canada’s decision not to participate “final” and “based on policy principles … not sheer emotion.” This was a classic example of the official announcement optimistically attempting to rewrite history as, contrary to Mr. Pettigrew’s assertion, Canada’s BMD decision had a rich emotional content.

Fast-forward to 2013 and we are about to discover whether emotion will finally yield to reason on the issue. According to recent reports, the U.S. has renewed its request. Perhaps Canada’s original response will prove to have been not only more emotional but less final than asserted at the time. Indeed, in the intervening decade, much has changed regarding the politics, the threats and the technology such that BMD is today a far more compelling choice for Canada.
In 2005, emotions in Canada were running high against President George W. Bush and his unpopular Iraq war. No Canadian government wanted to appear to be cosying up to the toxic Texan despite the fact that, objectively, Canada’s refusal to participate in BMD weakened rather than strengthened our sovereignty. Our non-participation didn’t derail BMD, but merely ensured that decisions about its use in our shared continent would be taken by America alone, with no involvement by Canada.
Today, President Bush is a distant memory while the damage done to Canada-U.S. relations by Ottawa’s refusal remains. Many Canadians admire the current occupant of the White House and taking a seat at the BMD table might go a long way towards mending political fences at a time when Ottawa is seeking political capital to use on other issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline. Now may be an opportune time for the Canadian government to reopen the file and join the ranks of virtually every other important U.S. ally, from Britain to Japan, and support the development of BMD.

An improved political climate is no use, however, if there were no credible threats to which Canada might have to respond. In fact, since Canada shut the door on BMD, both ballistic missile and nuclear weapon technology have proliferated.
The predominant threat is volatile North Korea. Last December it test-fired a long-range rocket that could eventually serve as an intercontinental ballistic missile. NORAD confirmed the missile “deployed an object [into] orbit.” That would suggest North Korea’s sociopathic regime could soon have the technological know-how to launch missile strikes capable of reaching the U.S. and Canada. Pyongyang has already conducted several nuclear explosions and claims important technical advances in making its nukes fit its missiles. Although some query North Korea’s scientific proficiency, the regime’s unrelenting drive suggests it will not easily abandon its goal of ballistic missile power. Iran is likewise well known for its disturbing race to acquire the enriched uranium necessary to build nuclear bombs. Less well known is the Islamic Republic’s ambitious missile program. In 2009 and 2011, for instance, it put satellites into orbit. In January it claimed it had launched a monkey into space. Responsible Western governments should treat these developments as the credible future threats they could become. The technology of defensive systems has changed too.

Ten years ago, missile defence barely worked. Today, by contrast, it is a proven reality, not a dream.
Live tests, where dummy missiles are destroyed in-flight during their ascent, midcourse, and re-entry phases, have been repeatedly conducted. Dalhousie University professor Frank Harvey calculates that U.S. BMD tests have scored a 76% success rate since they began.

There is more progress to come. This March, President Barack Obama announced a $1-billion plan to place another 14 ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska by 2017. In 2010, Canada’s NATO allies – all 27 of them – agreed to invest more than $250 million over the coming decade on missile defence for all of “NATO European territory and populations.”
Encouraged by the success of its Iron Dome defence against short-range rockets, Israel is expected to deploy its David’s Sling system against medium-range cruise missiles next year.
Bottom line? Missile defence works.
A lot has changed since Canadians last debated missile defence. Obama attracts the Canadians George Bush repelled. Quebec, where opposition weighed particularly heavily on the querulous regime of Prime Minister Paul Martin, has seen its anti-Bush sentiment yield to pro-Obama enthusiasm and in any case the province swings a lot less political weight than it once did.
The current Canadian government has placed renewed emphasis on defence capability and securing Canada’s national interests. Technological advances have led to the continued proliferation of missiles and WMD material, but have likewise made it increasingly feasible to shoot such rockets down. Hitting a bullet with a bullet is no longer a pious hope but a daily occurrence.
Thus a Canada aspiring to reach a decision based on policy principles rather than transient emotion might well conclude that the time has come to join with the U.S. in building an anti-ballistic missile shield. Cutting Canada’s vulnerability to the worst a dangerous world can throw at us is the right thing to do.
Brian Lee Crowley (twitter:@brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, (MLI) an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa:

MLI Senior Fellow Alex Wilner lectures at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.
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