Should Canada pursue ballistic missile defence?


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Is Canada about to embark upon a lively debate about whether to join the U.S. ballistic missile defence (BMD) program? Moreover, has the time come for Ottawa to reverse course and to participate directly in the controversial scheme?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/07/2022 (202 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Is Canada about to embark upon a lively debate about whether to join the U.S. ballistic missile defence (BMD) program? Moreover, has the time come for Ottawa to reverse course and to participate directly in the controversial scheme?

The Trudeau government recently announced it was going to earmark some $40 billion over 20 years to modernize the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) — a joint Canada-U.S. military arrangement to defend North American airspace and to track and intercept incoming intercontinental ballistic missile threats (and those of a hypersonic and advanced cruise missile variety).

A large portion of the expected funds will go toward replacing the outmoded North Warning System (NWS) and creating something dubbed the new “Northern Approaches” surveillance system. I’m no specialist, but media reports describe this system as encompassing space-based surveillance via satellite capability, advanced over-the-horizon radar and something called the Crossbow network of high-tech northern sensors.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, and Minister of National Defence Anita Anand, second right, take part in a NORAD briefing in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on June 7. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

But what the Canadian government has been coy about is whether this new system and NORAD modernization translates into de-facto participation in BMD. Minister of Defence Anita Anand repeated the standard line that Canada’s position has not shifted away from former prime minister Paul Martin’s 2005 declaration of non-participation and its reiteration in Ottawa’s 2017 defence policy review (entitled “Strong, Secure, Engaged”).

Yet the minister then went on to say “the reality is that we will continue to look at this policy going forward” and “ensure that Canada has a proper response to missile threats across the board.” What does that mean? The federal Conservative Party, however, has been clear that it strongly supports Canada directly participating in the U.S. ballistic missile defence system.

It is worth recalling that Canada’s decision back in 2005 to reject a U.S. offer to join BMD created serious tension in the overall bilateral relationship. Part of that was because of the inept manner in which that decision was imparted to the George W. Bush Administration.

Then-ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci made it crystal clear how “perplexed” he was that Washington’s offer was rebuffed by the Martin government. He just couldn’t understand why Canada would have any objections to a system intended to defend the country.

As he went on to write in his book Unquiet Diplomacy, “But I’m sure that the missile defence decision made by the Canadian government in 2005 is not one that historians will judge to have been in the best interests of Canadian security and sovereignty.”

The reasons for Canada’s preference for non-participation at that time were mostly political or electoral in nature (especially in Quebec). Public opinion polls had consistently shown Canadians were generally uncomfortable with Canada joining the BMD scheme.

Finding himself in a minority government situation, Martin was understandably nervous about the political fallout of aligning his government with the U.S. program.

It was equally true that Liberal MPs, party members and an especially boisterous faction of young Liberals were unconvinced of the merits of directly participating in BMD. Martin himself was also concerned Canada would have no input in designing a BMD system that would specifically protect Canada’s interests, and that Ottawa would be inevitably asked to pony up significant sums of money to support the program.

Still, the Americans have been remarkably persistent. The military brass in the U.S., for instance, keeps asking their Canadian counterparts when they are going to join the BMD scheme. And let’s be clear: Canadian military officials are mostly onside.

Of course, it does make for an awkward situation at NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs when Canadian military personnel have to abruptly leave the room when issues about missile defence come up for discussion. More disturbing have been the comments of senior American military commanders that there is no guarantee the U.S. BMD system will be used to take out ballistic missiles heading toward Canadian territory.

Joseph Jockel, a political science professor at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, recently reaffirmed this view. “The U.S. ballistic missile defence system is very limited. If you give up your shots to protect Vancouver, you have less capability to protect San Francisco. Show me an American general who would sacrifice San Francisco to protect Vancouver,” he said bluntly.

Let’s set to one side the “limited” capability of the U.S. BMD system. What I would like to know is whether Canada’s participation in BMD would actually change this targeting calculus. Does anyone seriously think Canada’s voice at NORAD (remember the Cuban Missile Crisis debacle in 1962) would carry weight or decisional influence on confronting continental missile threats?

Here are a few other questions to ponder: Does joining BMD run counter to Canada’s long-standing involvement in arms control and curtailing the proliferation of weapons? Would direct participation make Canada more of a target? Why does the U.S. want Canada to join? Lastly, what is the cost of not joining in terms of Canada-U.S. relations?

Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.


Updated on Monday, July 11, 2022 8:18 AM CDT: Adds photo

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