Pivoting to Missile Deterrence

DANNY LAM  –  Oct 6, 2017

6 Oct 2017

Nearly 13 years ago, Canada decided against joining the U.S. in Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). Since then, every major consideration that went into that decision has changed. Today, Canadian participation in BMD could pivot towards deterring regimes like North Korea. Ballistic Missile Deterrence, if you will.

The First Nuclear Age dynamic, where nuclear powers are deterred from using such weapons because of “Mutually Assured Destruction,” has worked since 1945 (and kept us safe under the American nuclear umbrella).

The Second Nuclear Age, an environment defined by “an unstable, dangerous, ‘multipolar nuclear order’” is upon us. Threats have metastasized in recent years, and technical advances have turned an “iffy” proposition into a sophisticated, layered defence system of acceptable odds.  

Insurgent powers like North Korea, Iran, and many others are either already nuclear armed (or can become so quickly), and are rapidly perfecting the ability to deploy thermonuclear weapons on ICBMs that can reach anywhere in Canada. General Joseph Dunford, Jr, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before Congress in September that it can be assumed that North Korea (DPRK) can target anywhere in North America today. Clearly, as North Korea’s thermonuclear and missile arsenal expands, the threat grows.  

In recent months, Kim Jong-un has explicitly threatened some of Canada’s closest allies – USA, UK, and Australia. Iran, Pakistan, and other powers are not far behind in developing ICBMs. It is not clear that U.S. extended (nuclear) deterrence will work as well in preventing an attack on Canada during the Second Nuclear Age as it did in the First.

U.S. Northern Command is responsible for the air, land, and sea approaches to the continental U.S., Alaska, Canada, and Mexico (and other regions such as Puerto Rico). It provides command and control of homeland defence, and is currently the sole decision-maker responsible for the BMD mission. The BMD system’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is designed to intercept incoming threats in the midcourse phase of flight, and is currently the primary U.S. missile defense system devoted to defending the U.S. homeland from long-range ballistic missile attacks.

The commander of USNORTHCOM also commands NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command is a bi-national command responsible for aerospace warning, aerospace control, and maritime warning for Canada, Alaska and the continental United States).

Canada is in direct line between North Korea and targets in continental US. If DPRK does decide to shoot at the US, what assurances are there that a missile wouldn’t fail in flight and inadvertently (or on purpose) land in Canada? Alternatively, if Kim Jong-un wants to demonstrate a capability without threatening the US directly, a shot or airburst to Canada would be a great demonstration.

As it stands now, by not joining the BMD mission, Canadians are not involved in decision-making related to our own defence from Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) – not even those directly targeted at Canada. And so, there is an urgent need to both deter North Korea from launching ICBMs as well as to discourage others intent on acquiring nuclear ICBM capabilities. 

Canadian officials, testifying before the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence (September 14, 2017), gave little weight to the threat from DPRK to Canada. Stephen Burt, the Assistant Chief of Defence Intelligence at DND, downplayed the technical progress by North Korea, and speculated without any evidence that the “regime in North Korea is primarily motivated by its desire to survive and sustain its rule.” Mark Gwozdeckey, Assistant Deputy Minister for International Security at Global Affairs Canada, proclaimed that "There's been no direct threat to Canada". Gwozodeckey believes DPRK perceives Canada as “a peaceful and indeed a friendly country.”

Canadian officials either ignored or dismissed the explicit threats by DPRK to the U.S., Australia, UK, (all countries bound by mutual defence pacts to Canada) and indeed, all nations of the UN. Needless to say, longer-term threats like Iran are not on the Canadian government’s horizon.

Not surprisingly then, Canadian parliamentarians and government officials have no sense of urgency about the DPRK thermonuclear ICBM threat to Canada. The long timelines necessary to field a credible Canadian missile deterrence, fear over potential cost, and worry about whether or not missile defense “works” have stymied the discussion over the years. However, at long last, where NORAD modernization is concerned, the Liberal’s new Defence Policy clarifies that Canada will be looking at all threats to North America, across all domains (land, sea, air, space, cyber).

The big question on everyone’s mind is: does this include BMD? NORAD tracks every missile launch from North Korea and provides information to both Canadian and US governments already, but Canada cannot take part in the BMD decisions that US NORTHCOM alone is responsible for.

Prime Minister Trudeau may take the opportunity to discuss BMD when he meets with President Trump after Columbus Day / Canadian Thanksgiving.

The Trump Administration and Congress have reached a consensus on the urgency and scope of the DPRK threat to the United States, and by extension, allies including the UK, Japan, S. Korea, and Australia. Unambiguously, DPRK is regarded as an imminent existential threat to world order by most major U.S. allies, except Canada.

Canada can join this consensus with PM Trudeau educating his officials and building towards a similar political consensus in Canada in time to meet the threat. Or alternatively, by default, elect to abandon all extant Canadian alliances and rely solely on the US and UN for Canadian security.

Achieving a Canadian consensus on the DPRK threat to Canada is necessary, but not sufficient. There must be viable pathways that enable our nation to promptly and affordably field a credible defense. What are our options?

Getting Canada into the BMD room is proverbial the key to the kingdom and all political effort and education should be focused on that.

With all BMD under the command of U.S.-centric USNORTHCOM, the most expedient option for Canada to join BMD is to amend the NORAD mandate to include BMD. This opens the door to the sharing of technical data and information with Canada. The next step is to conduct a study of options for a Canadian missile deterrent architecture and how best to integrate it into the allied system. In exchange, the U.S. can place the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system under NORAD rather than USNORTHCOM, which currently commands it. That shift will allow Canadians to “stay in the room” and to “have a voice” when discussions of missile defence takes place.

The Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance estimates it will cost around $100 million to integrate BMD into NORAD with Canada fully in the loop with command and control on the system.

North Korea is neither a stable addition to the existing nuclear powers, nor does it accept the prevailing nuclear power consensus that such weapons are primarily for defensive purposes (i.e. to guarantee regime survival). On the contrary, DPRK explicitly announced to the UN general assembly in September that it intends to use its nuclear arsenal offensively for, among other things, extortion. Once this existential threat to Canada is recognized by the Canadian pubic, a defence plan can be developed.   

Canada needs to be prepared to come to the missile defense (or deterrence) table with an attractive and fair deal.  

Canada is in the process of acquiring 15 Canadian Surface Combatants (CSC). At present, missile deterrence is not part of those specifications. Reworking the requirements to ensure the highest possible level of ballistic missile deterrent capability possible (given the limitations of the bidders’ hull and power plant) can still be done inexpensively before the designs are finalized. Retrofits are both costly and time consuming.

New CSC specs incorporating state-of-the art sensors like Air and Missile Defense Radar with AEGIS, ensuring that there will be sufficient strike length Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) and that they support the current and next generation of anti-ballistic missiles, like the Standard SM3 Block 2A and successors, is essential before the bids are finalized and evaluated next month. If done now, the incremental cost per BMD-capable vessel will be modest, perhaps as little as US$100 million extra per ship. 

Amending the Fighter Replacement specifications to include a requirement for integration into a missile deterrent sensor shooter web is another inexpensive method to increase Canadian capabilities for little incremental cost.

Canada migt consider offering any or all of the following in exchange for GMD coverage:

  • Funding to further build out the system;
  • Host a GMD site in eastern Canada;
  • Host a BMD radar, and contribute toward its construction; and/or
  • Manning for joint crews, beyond the NORAD HQ.

The Prime Minister is responsible for to ensuring that Canadians are not the easiest target for a thermonuclear attack. BMD will not field a “leak proof” defence, but can certainly deter an attacker.

We can’t afford not to do it.

– Danny Lam