Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence


in Bombs and rockets, Canada, Politics, Security

Apparently, under the Harper government, there is new talk about Canada joining the American missile defence system. I believe that doing so would be unwise for a number of reasons, with the only real advantage of participation being the possibility of improved relations with the US.

Technically infeasible

The first reason to doubt the plan is that there is no reason to believe it will work. Past efforts at both theatre missile defence, the attempt to protect specific assets in a narrow geographical area, and umbrella missile defence have been failures. During the first Gulf War, the much lauded Patriot missile batteries never actually shot down a Scud – though they did shoot down two British planes by mistake. The Scud is essentially a modified V2: not exactly a modern missile.

Shooting down an ICBM is even more difficult. Lasers are infeasible given the difficulty of tracking the missile with such precision and the potential of reflective coatings and accelerated missile rotation mitigating their destructive effects. This reality is reflected in the new focus on kinetic kill systems, where a missile is meant to be used to knock the first missile apart. Of course, this risks showering the area below with radioactive fallout. Better than having a city hit, perhaps, but certainly not a good option.

There are three major stages in the flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or its submarine launched equivalent (SLBM). There is a boost phase, where the missile is launched from its silo or missile tube. It is the infrared emission from the launch, as well as the appearance on radar screens, that would first alert the United States to the fact that the missile is in the air. Barring the extensive deployment of space-based weapons, it is impossible to destroy the missile at this stage. The current missile defence plans do not attempt to do so.

The midcourse stage of the missile flight is suborbital, and takes place at an altitude of 1200km. During this phase, the missile can employ a large number of possible countermeasures: electronic signal jamming; the use of decoy warheads, chaff, and flares; and the deployment of metallic balloons that interfere with radar. It would either be at this stage or during the re-entry phase – when the warhead is travelling about 4km per second or about Mach 12 – that the kinetic kill would need to take place.

Even rigged tests that have taken place so far, where the missile trajectory is known in advance, no countermeasures are used, and a beacon is actually fitted in the warhead, have not resulted in success.

Strategic error I

The supposed contemporary enemies of the United States are not ICBM type entities. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are highly sophisticated pieces of hardware. Expensive and technically demanding to produce, they also require an extensive launch infrastructure. While they seem to be increasingly within the reach of states like North Korea and Pakistan, they are definitely not available to any terrorist group.

Moreover, if the United States went to the extreme expense of building an effective missile defence system, it would remain possible to deliver a small number of nuclear weapons by other means. They could be smuggled onto fishing boats or into storage containers. Maintaining a strategic focus on stopping potential missiles with a hypothetical system only tangentially addresses the problem of nuclear proliferation.

Strategic error II

The two hostile states that do have large numbers of ICBMs are Russia and China. Russia has so many, along with SLBMs, that it needn’t be concerned about the kind of missile defence system that is being proposed. That said, it could be used as an excuse to upgrade and modernize existing nuclear forces – especially if the United States resumes the development of its own nuclear weapons, as has been proposed by this administration.

The bigger concern is China. While the exact numbers are secret, it’s probable that China has about 20 missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the United States. The CIA apparently thinks that North Korea could have around five nuclear weapons. It’s hard to imagine a system that would be likely to stop five missiles, but that wouldn’t concern another state with only a small multiple of that number. Deploying missile defence might encourage China to build more missiles, begin putting missiles on submarines, begin fitting multiple independently-guided warheads upon missiles, or developing and deploying more effective countermeasures. It may, in any case, send entirely the wrong message to a state that is emerging as a larger military and industrial power.

Reasons for deployment

From the American position, there are two major reasons to deploy missile defence.

Firstly, it makes it look as though you are doing something to combat a threat almost universally regarded as very serious. This needn’t be an entirely cynical calculation. Given the incredible faith in technological progress within both the American public and the government and military, there is a belief that with enough brains and dollars, the thing can be made to work. It’s a mindset that goes along well with the notions of transformation that keep coming out of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.

Secondly, developing and building such a system will put billions of dollars into the hands of military contractors. Boeing, Lockheed-Matin, Raytheon, and the rest of them all stand to gain enormously. That has political relevance for the representatives of states where they employ a large section of the population – think of Colorado. It also has importance in a political system largely driven by multi-million dollar campaign contributions. Also, increasingly extensive direct connections exist between the military and military contractors. As such, disentangling their agendas is becoming increasingly difficult.

Potentially, some of the above could apply to Canada. If we were to join on, some contracts would doubtless flow to Canadian firms. I do not, however, think this would be a net benefit to Canada. Spending on defence industries – even if largely paid for by the United States – really doesn’t boost national welfare, at the same time as it would increase national insecurity.

The Canadian military does seem to broadly support missile defence. I can think of seven different reasons for which either the military specifically or the Canadian government generally might back the plan:

  1. The American armed forces are putting pressure on them to support Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) plans. In some sense, this is almost certainly true. It’s worth remembering the extent to which things like a lack of strategic airlift capability make the Canadian Forces (CF) heavily dependent upon our allies, and especially the United States, in order to be able to deploy. We are also highly reliant upon their military intelligence capabilities.
  2. They are concerned that a future terrorist attack could take place through Canada. If that happened, it was seriously sour relations between the two countries, or at least risk doing so. By participating in American initiatives like missile defence, Canada could stress how we have been doing everything possible to counter terrorist threats. Support for BMD could therefore be a kind of pre-emptive damage control.
  3. The shared military culture of the United States and Canada means that both sets of armed forces are working from similar premises and using logic familiar to each. One issue here is that of non-proliferation. The Bush administration clearly doesn’t have much faith in treaty based mechanisms like the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (a point made in the 5th report of the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence). Do members of the CF see BMD as unlikely to undermine non-proliferation efforts?
  4. The CF sees participation in BMD as a way of maintaining or enlarging the Canadian role in North American security cooperation decision making. Given how much the Americans want to do this, we could get a lot of capital out of it for little cost. It’s worth a lot to the US just to have things look non-unilateral (think of the Iraq coalition).
  5. Strategic considerations are getting trumped by trade. Backing the Americans on missile defence is a way to keep trucks and containers flowing across the border with less trouble and suspicion. Also, Canadian defence firms with BMD related contracts in mind could have lobbied the CF to support the project.
  6. The Americans are going to set up a BMD system anyways. By participating, we at least get the illusion of sovereignty. At best, we might be able to restrain them from doing things that we really don’t want to see happen.
  7. The length of time this has been worked on has generated such a force of bureaucratic momentum that BMD was supported by default. Since the Second World War and, especially since the Cold War, military strategists have increasingly seen North America as a bloc to be defended all together. From that perspective, BMD might look obvious.

Admittedly, some of these are good reasons – at least potentially. Overall, however, I think the concept of dealing with the danger of proliferation by hiding behind a technical shield is profoundly misguided. It leaves the rest of NATO out in the cold, it encourages the development of further nuclear technology by states already so armed, and it contributes to a military-industrial complex that is already hugely expensive and influential.

On balance, I think Canada would be far better off for continuing to decline. While it might be a diplomatic faux pas, it may also be worth publicly pointing out why.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

B February 26, 2006 at 2:21 pm

In addition to projecting the deployment of large numbers of strategic nuclear weapons far into the future, the Bush administration is planning an extensive and expensive series of programs to sustain and modernize the existing nuclear force and to begin studies for new launch vehicles, as well as new warheads for all of the launch platforms. Some members of the administration have called for new nuclear weapons that could be used as bunker busters against underground shelters (such as the shelters Saddam Hussein used in Baghdad). New production facilities for fissile materials would need to be built to support the expanded force. The plans provide for integrating a national ballistic missile defense into the new triad of offensive weapons to enhance the nation’s ability to use its “power projection forces” by improving our ability to counterattack an enemy. The Bush administration also announced that it has no intention to ask congress to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and, though no decision to test has been made, the administration has ordered the national laboratories to begin research on new nuclear weapons designs and to prepare the underground test sites in Nevada for nuclear tests if necessary in the future. Clearly, the Bush administration assumes that nuclear weapons will be part of U.S. military forces for at least the next several decades. Good faith participation in international negotiation on nuclear disarmament—including participation in the CTBT—is a legal and political obligation of all parties to the NPT that entered into force in 1970 and was extended indefinitely in 1995. The Bush administration’s nuclear program, alongside its refusal to ratify the CTBT, will be viewed, with reason, by many nations as equivalent to a U.S. break from the treaty. It says to the nonnuclear weapons nations, “We, with the strongest conventional military force in the world, require nuclear weapons in perpetuity, but you, facing potentially well-armed opponents, are never to be allowed even one nuclear weapon.” If the United States continues its current nuclear stance, over time, substantial proliferation of nuclear weapons will almost surely follow. Some, or all, of such nations as Egypt, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Taiwan will very likely initiate nuclear weapons programs, increasing both the risk of use of the weapons and the diversion of weapons and fissile materials into the hands of rogue states or terrorists. Diplomats and intelligence agencies believe Osama bin Laden has made several attempts to acquire nuclear weapons or fissile materials. It has been widely reported that Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, former director of Pakistan’s nuclear reactor complex, met with bin Laden several times. Were al Qaeda to acquire fissile materials, especially enriched uranium, its ability to produce nuclear weapons would be great. The knowledge of how to construct a simple gun-type nuclear device, like the one we dropped on Hiroshima, is now widespread. Experts have little doubt that terrorists could construct such a primitive device if they acquired the requisite enriched uranium material. Indeed, just last summer, at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry said, “I have never been more fearful of a nuclear detonation than now…. There is a greater than 50 percent probability of a nuclear strike on U.S. targets within a decade.”

Anonymous February 26, 2006 at 5:26 pm

That comment really sounds like it’s ripped off from somewhere…

'Bombs and rockets' IR student February 26, 2006 at 5:40 pm

It’s taken from the Foreign Affairs website.

One thing you didn’t mention: having a missile shield that can deal with a half dozen incoming ICBMs is just the thing you need if you want to invade North Korea. Oh, and you don’t care too much about Seoul or Tokyo.

Milan February 26, 2006 at 6:18 pm

Canada is open to negotiating with the United States on missile defence if the U.S. government asks for Canadian participation, says Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor.

“Our policy on ballistic missile defence is that if the Amercians approach us and ask us to enter into negotiations we will,” said O’Connor on CTV’s Question Period Sunday.

“If at the end of those negotiations we believe it is in our national interest, we would bring it before Parliament for a vote.”

From CTV

. January 22, 2008 at 3:25 pm

The militarisation of space
Disharmony in the spheres

From The Economist print edition

Creating all this rubbish seems a bit irresponsible for a country seeking to be a great space-faring nation. It is true that both America and Russia carried out scores of similar anti-satellite (ASAT) tests during the cold war. Then they stopped, not least because the celestial shrapnel was endangering their hugely expensive satellites. They also accepted that spy satellites provided a degree of mutual reassurance in nuclear arms control. The last piece of American ASAT debris fell back to Earth in 2006, say Pentagon officials. China’s shrapnel, created in a higher orbit, could be around for a century to come…

The core fear is that any conflict in space would cause the most injury to America since America has the most to lose. Damaged planes crash to the ground and destroyed ships sink to the bottom of the sea. But the weightlessness of space means that debris keeps spinning around the Earth for years, if not centuries. Each destruction of a satellite creates, in effect, thousands of missiles zipping round randomly; each subsequent impact provides yet more high-speed debris. At some point, given enough litter, there would be a chain reaction of impacts that would render parts of low-Earth orbit—the location of about half the active satellites—unusable.

. September 2, 2009 at 2:47 pm

The Wrong Debate Over Missile Defense

The key issue is no longer stability between opposing nuclear arsenals but the growing vulnerability of satellite communications and sensor systems to missile attack. It’s about space, stupid. The United States fully depends on space for intelligence and communications capabilities as well as for wider civilian communications. Those assets are very vulnerable.

. September 2, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Japan: In a Unique Position for Ballistic Missile Defense

September 2, 2006 | 0121 GMT

The JSDF hopes to spend nearly $120 million to purchase and field the U.S. Patriot PAC-3 system, which provides a terminal phase defense, although the maximum altitude for a Patriot PAC-3 intercept is less than 10 miles. In terms of BMD, the Patriot PAC-3 provides a solid final line of defense, but it is only one component of a larger, layered defense with several interceptors of different capabilities. Alone, the PAC-3 cannot provide a reliable and redundant layered defense.

The next step is for the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force to equip its already-built Kongou-class guided missile destroyers, essentially a U.S. Arleigh Burke, with the U.S. RIM-156 Standard SM-3 interceptor and the appropriate software for the already standard SPY-1D radar and Aegis system. The sixth and final ship of the Kongou class, the Ashigara, was launched Aug. 30 and will spend the next year being made BMD-capable and conducting sea trials. The Ticonderoga-class USS Shiloh, a BMD-capable and Aegis-equipped guided missile cruiser armed with the SM-3, arrived Aug. 29 in Yokosuka, where it will be stationed, inaugurating what looks to be a more or less permanent BMD-capable presence for the foreseeable future.

The SM-3 really is the near-term solution for Japan. It has been successful in six out of seven intercept tests and offers a great deal of flexibility. It can engage short-, medium-, intermediate- and intercontinental ballistic missiles both during the ascent and descent phases of midcourse flight. At shorter range, the SM-3 can reduce the burn of the third stage to a quick pulse to intercept lower-flying short-range ballistic missiles. The kinetic warhead itself contains no explosive but instead makes physical contact with the target, using its phenomenal (and highly classified) speed for destructive energy.

. September 17, 2009 at 9:33 am

U.S.: Backing Down on BMD

September 17, 2009

Rumors are flying late Sept. 16 that the United States could be shelving its plans to build a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland and Czech Republic. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly will hold a news conference on the issue sometime Sept. 17 or Sept. 18, and U.S. security officials are apparently in Poland briefing Warsaw on the development.

The BMD program has long been one of the most contested issues between the United States and Russia, which sees the program as a further Western encroachment on its sphere of influence. Moscow also sees the program as Washington militarily protecting Warsaw and Prague from Russian consolidation of its influence further into Europe.

In recent months, Moscow has countered continued U.S. support for Poland and the Czech Republic with its own support for Iran. The situation between the United States and Iran has intensified, with Russia also holding some of the only alternatives for Iran to continue rebuffing U.S. pressure. Washington has been nearing a breakpoint in which it must either take substantial steps to counter Iran or give Russia concessions to have Moscow back off its support for Tehran.

. September 12, 2010 at 8:33 pm

“The bomb that science found hidden in the world and made manifest would destroy the nation-state paradoxically by rendering it defenseless. Against such small and cheap and holocaustal weapons no defense could ever be certain. The thickest shields, from fighter aircraft to Star Wars, could be penetrated merely by multiplying weapons, decoys and delivery systems. The only security from the bomb would be political: negotiation toward an open world, which would increase security by decreasing national sovereignty and damping out the violence that attended it.”

Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. p.783 (paperback)

. June 23, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Lang & Dallaire: Canada has a second chance to make the right choice on missile defence

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 large, advanced nuclear arsenals of either Russia or China.

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.

. May 6, 2016 at 6:25 pm
. September 3, 2016 at 3:24 am

From 2002 through early last year, the Pentagon conducted 11 flight tests of the nation’s homeland missile defense system.

In the carefully scripted exercises, interceptors of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD, were launched from underground silos to pursue mock enemy warheads high above the Pacific.

The interceptors failed to destroy their targets in six of the 11 tests — a record that has prompted independent experts to conclude the system cannot be relied on to foil a nuclear strike by North Korea or Iran.

Yet over that same timespan, Boeing Co., the Pentagon’s prime contractor for GMD, collected nearly $2 billion in performance bonuses for a job well-done, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

The Pentagon paid Boeing more than $21 billion total for managing the system during that period.

A Times investigation also found that the criteria for the yearly bonuses were changed at some point to de-emphasize the importance of test results that demonstrate the system’s ability to intercept and destroy incoming warheads.

. September 3, 2016 at 3:25 am

“The GMD system, which became operational in 2004, is intended to thwart a “limited” nuclear strike by a non-superpower. It has cost taxpayers more than $40 billion to date.

In the event of an attack, interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County and Ft. Greely, Alaska, would burst from their silos and begin a fiery ascent toward the upper atmosphere.

The interceptors are multi-stage rockets, each with a 5-foot-long “kill vehicle” at its tip. The kill vehicle is designed to separate from its rocket in space, fly independently at 4 miles per second and crash into an enemy warhead.”

. September 3, 2016 at 3:27 am

Shielded from Oversight: The Disastrous US Approach to Strategic Missile Defense (2016)

Missile defense is supposed to protect the US public. The evidence shows that it doesn’t.

. January 16, 2018 at 7:34 pm

Globe editorial: It’s time for the Liberals to get serious about missile defence

And so, all of a sudden, an old, vexed debate has new currency: whether or not Canada should join the U.S. missile-defense shield. The Trudeau government has repeatedly flirted with the possibility. Now’s the time for a decision.

On both sides of the 49th parallel, the shield is more opined on than understood. For one thing, it’s not really a shield. More like a bulletproof vest, in that you still really don’t want to get shot while wearing it.

The program Canada would be joining is called the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. It can track incoming missiles with radar and, in theory, shoot them down with a cluster of “interceptors” – rocket launchers, basically – mostly located in Alaska.

The system is far from foolproof. In testing since 1999, under conditions more or less choreographed for success, it has shot down 10 of 18 targets. That’s not a great ratio, and it’s a frighteningly small sample size.

So, on a good day, Canada would be getting a 60-per-cent chance of knocking a ballistic missile out of the air if it joined the U.S. shield. That’s an awful lot better than no chance at all – but only if you think we’re at risk.

. January 16, 2018 at 7:34 pm

“We may well hope the U.S. would protect us from an ICBM, but that’s not their policy, Canada’s Lt. Gen. Pierre St-Amand told a Commons committee in September.

If it came down to it, the U.S. might be feeling generous. But the officers on duty would have to make up their minds quickly. An ICBM arrives terrifyingly fast – likely between 25 and 35 minutes from Pyongyang to Vancouver, with radar only determining the target well into the missile’s journey. U.S. officers would have very little time to decide whether or not Toronto was worth saving.”

. December 13, 2019 at 4:24 pm

Ballistic missile defence?

Some experts conservatively estimate the revamp of the radar platforms will run both countries a combined bill of $11 billion — 40 per cent of which would be Canada’s responsibility.

Also, the renewal of NORAD raises questions about whether Canada could, or should, join the U.S. ballistic missile defence system — a politically divisive subject that has lain dormant since 2005, when then-prime minister Paul Martin declined to take part.

Sajjan’s mandate letter also commits him to “introduce a new framework governing how Canada gathers, manages and uses defence intelligence, as recommended by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians.”

That committee has been studying how military intelligence has operated for years without the same oversight checks and balances as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

. March 17, 2021 at 11:57 pm

The golden silence over NORAD renewal and the voices who want to shatter it

Pratt was at the centre of the political hurricane that was BMD just over 15 years ago when the Liberal government of the day, fearful of the weaponization of space under the George W. Bush administration, backed away from plans to participate in missile defence.

It has remained a touchy topic ever since.

The Conservatives, who favoured taking part in the program, skilfully avoided doing so during almost a decade in power.

The political sensitivity remained on display last week as Thomas tactfully tried to reframe the debate when asked about ballistic missile defence during the question and answer session.

“As we talk about integrated air-missile defence, here at [the] defence [department], BMD is a solution to one set of problems,” she said.

“The range of threats, the range of solutions is what needs to be discussed, not one solution to one set of problems. There are lots of other threats to Canada that are not ballistic missiles.”

What Thomas is referring to is the recent advancement in ground-hugging cruise missile technology which NORAD is grappling to counter with novel concepts such as plugging into the civilian air traffic control system, as well as satellite technology that looks down on threats.

. December 1, 2021 at 2:04 am

NORAD commander warns Canadian officials about the threat posed by hypersonic missiles

. December 1, 2021 at 2:05 am

In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canada would not change its position on missile defence “anytime soon.” Anand’s office also confirmed Tuesday that the position hasn’t changed.

Perry said the U.S. is leading the world on development of systems to detect, track and destroy hypersonic missiles. But the Canadian federal government, he said, hasn’t stated publicly if opting out of the U.S. ballistic missile defence effort also means the country continues to opt out of defence arrangements for other missile types, like hypersonic glide vehicles.

“Since saying no to that, there’s been a lack of at least public clarity about what exactly we will and won’t do when it comes to defending Canada,” said Perry.

. May 10, 2022 at 12:53 pm

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