Time has come to join ballistic missile defence

Daniel Lang and Romeo Dallaire On February 24, 2005, Canada announced in the House of Commons that it would not participate in the United States' ballistic missile defence (BMD) program. Canada's decision not to participate in BMD reportedly surprised an

by Daniel Lang and Romeo Dallaire

On February 24, 2005, Canada announced in the House of Commons that it would not participate in the United States’ ballistic missile defence (BMD) program. Canada’s decision not to participate in BMD reportedly surprised and puzzled the United States. Up until that point, Canada had indicated an interest in participation and was already a de facto participant through its agreement that warning information collected under the auspices of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) could be used in BMD.

The Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence believes the time has come to reassess Canada’s policy on BMD. The committee came to this conclusion after hearing testimony from a range of Canadian and American military and civilian witnesses with technical and policy expertise. It also received detailed briefings on current operations and threats during a fact-finding trip to NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs.

The BMD system in question was, and still is, intended to offer protection against a limited ballistic missile attack by a rogue state, such as North Korea or Iran. It does not militarize space. Nor does it in any way undermine nuclear deterrence by threatening the strategic nuclear arsenals of either Russia or China.

Two former defence ministers who served during the time, the Honourable Messrs. David Pratt and Bill Graham, told the committee that they believe the 2005 decision to have been misguided and, ultimately, harmful to NORAD.

In respect of the threat environment, the committee heard troubling testimony about the ongoing efforts of North Korea and Iran to acquire capabilities to deliver long-range, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles so as to threaten neighbouring countries, NATO allies and North America. These efforts – carried out in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions – have brought us to the point where the theoretical threat has become a practical reality.

Speaking to American experts with in-depth knowledge of the current state of the U.S. BMD system, the committee learned that there remain some significant technical hurdles to overcome. Discriminating an incoming warhead from a decoy or debris created by an unsuccessful intercept attempt by the BMD system’s ground-based interceptors is one such challenge.

Despite these challenges, NATO – Canada included – has embraced BMD as part of its New Strategic Concept. Allies such as Australia, South Korea and Japan have also seen fit to participate in what will become a global network of regional BMD systems. In rejecting full participation, Canada represents an outlier in this large collection of nations. Indeed, more than one policy expert highlighted the contradictory nature of Canada’s explicit support for NATO allies to be protected by BMD, but not Canada itself.

Some opponents of increased Canadian involvement in BMD argue that Canada is already protected by the U.S. system simply because of its territorial proximity to the United States.

This is wishful thinking. As the committee learned from the deputy commander of NORAD, Lieutenant General Alain Parent, Canada cannot simply assume that all of its territory will be protected by default under the existing U.S. BMD system. The system is currently optimized to protect U.S. territory and the U.S. military command responsible for operating it, United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), is legally bound to respect this prioritization.

Indeed, because Canada is not a full participant in BMD, the instant that critical decisions need to be made about what to do about an incoming missile, NORAD’s binational command structure must hand over the reins to USNORTHCOM, which is co-located with NORAD and commanded by the same U.S. general officer. At this critical moment, when decisions are being made about when, where and whether to shoot down an incoming missile, Canada’s most senior military representative at NORAD becomes a “silent observer.” One can only imagine the strain this arrangement places on an otherwise seamless aerospace defence partnership. This is hardly a situation that favours Canada’s national security and sovereignty.

Even some of the system’s harshest critics acknowledged that it would be in Canada’s interests to participate in the U.S. BMD effort. They argued that Canada’s contribution could take on many different forms, including research and development directed towards solving some of the BMD system’s ongoing challenges or enhancing NORAD’s ability to defend against emerging threats.

The opportunities for participation are many but can only be made after the Government of Canada has assessed the risks posed to its territory and how it wishes to partner with the United States.

The committee is unanimous in recommending that the Government of Canada enter into an agreement with the United States to participate as a partner in ballistic missile defence.

Yukon Senator Daniel Lang is chair of the Senate standing committee on national security and defence. Senator Romeo Dallaire is deputy chair of the committee.