Ballistic Missile Defence: Questions for Canadians

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor June 2000 Volume 21 Issue 2

Canadians can never be immune to the political controversies that regularly engulf the United States, but our stake in the current American debate over whether to deploy a National Missile Defence (NMD) system goes well beyond our usual bemusement over our southern neighbour’s media obsession of the moment. The NMD controversy does not pack quite the dramatic punch of OJ or Elian, but this time there are real implications for Canada.

The primary mission of the proposed NMD system would be to intercept a limited long-range ballistic missile attack on the territory of the United States. The threat of such an attack (of not more than 20 or 30 missiles) is said to emanate from two sources B from a few states particularly hostile to the United States and actively pursuing long-range ballistic missile capabilities (such as North Korea or Iraq), and from accidental or unauthorized launches from states with established missile capabilities (such as Russia or China).

Canadian interest, besides a concern for the likely impact of NMD on global security, is necessarily focussed by the possibility that the US will invite Canada to participate in operating the system via the Canada/US North American Aerospace Defence Agreement (NORAD) if deployment goes ahead, presumably offering Canada the same protection that will be available to the US.

And exactly what is that kind of protection in the real world? A major element of the controversy over NMD is precisely that question, with the independent scientific world’s scepticism only hardened by the failure of the latest (July 7) test. But, perhaps we should give some thought to what our attitude toward NMD ought to be if it did work.

What if it worked?

What if ballistic missile defence could actually be made to work as advertised? In other words, what would the critics say if, after spending US$60-billion or even US$100-billion, the United States could have in place a system of ballistic missile interceptors actually capable of shooting down any attack of up to about 30 missiles headed for North America? Remember, this is a “what if” question. The overwhelming evidence to date is that it wouldn’t work (not because it is technically impossible to knock out a missile with another missile, although that has yet to be demonstrated, but because countermeasures available to help attackers confuse and confound the defender would make the possibility of intercepting every incoming missile every time remote in the extreme). But if for the sake of argument we were to set that key bit of reality aside and assert that a limited BMD system would indeed work, would we then be bound to embrace it as a welcome contribution to the security of North America?

At a minimum, that would depend on a few more ifs:

  • if the ability to intercept an attack of a few dozen missiles would in fact genuinely and significantly reduce the overall threat of weapons of mass destruction to North America;
  • if a defence against a few dozen missiles potentially headed for North America did not encourage the further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and increase the dangers to the rest of the world; and
  • if other, less expensive and politically more effective and reliable options were not available to mitigate the dangers of weapons of mass destruction.

Would a technically effective NMD system reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction to North America?

The answer to this question is “no,” and it has three parts B Russia, China, and the rest of the world.


Like the United States, Russia continues to maintain a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons premised on the familiar claim that they are needed to deter Western, or any other, nuclear forces potentially hostile to Russia. Given its current economic conditions, Russia would prefer to maintain that nuclear deterrent at much lower than current levels of weaponry. Russia has already proposed significant further reductions to Russian and US arsenals. American NMD deployment, however, would push Russia in the opposite direction.

Cash-strapped Russia’s nuclear deterrent is now a shadow of its Cold War self. It is primarily land-based and thus, the Russians fear, vulnerable to pre-emptive attack by the US. They point out that the Americans continue to enhance the accuracy of their intercontinental and sea-based ballistic missiles and that, coupled with the addition of an American NMD system those fears are heightened. With an NMD system, they fear, the Americans would be more inclined to launch a first-strike on Russian nuclear forces in a crisis so as to reduce Russia’s retaliatory forces down to the few tens of missiles that the US missile defence system could intercept. And even if, as the Americans assure the Russians, the currently contemplated limited NMD system is not intended for that purpose, the Russians point out that, once the basic infrastructure is in place, an NMD system could be rapidly expanded to pose a much more credible threat to Russia’s deterrent nuclear forces. Indeed, in the US, NMD enthusiasts are already calling for just such an expanded system.

So Russia considers that it has several options, none of them conducive to continued reductions in nuclear arsenals or to enhanced strategic stability. It could immediately move to expand its strategic arsenal to the point where it was confident that enough missiles would survive a first strike to be able to overwhelm whatever NMD system the Americans might choose to deploy. The costs of that option would for now be prohibitive, but Russia has already made it clear that American NMD deployment would mean a stop to current weapons reduction programs and agreements. Efforts to begin serious talks on a new set of strategic arms reduction measures (Start III) are already stalled due to NMD.

Another option would be to increase reliance on cruise missiles, but the most likely Russian response would be to continue indefinitely to maintain its strategic nuclear forces on “hair-trigger” alert B the idea being to be able to launch its retaliatory forces at the first signal of a pre-emptive US attack and before the Russian missiles could be destroyed in their silos, thus ensuring the survival of a much larger Russian retaliatory strike. Indeed, US negotiators have encouraged such a continued “launch on warning” posture on the part of Russia as part of its acceptance of NMD. But, of course, it is just such a high alert posture that poses the single greatest risk of nuclear annihilation currently facing the world: the danger of an accidental or mistaken nuclear retaliation sparked by the false alarm of a nuclear attack.


The relatively small size of China’s long-range nuclear forces (about 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles) means that it sees NMD deployment as a much more immediate threat to its deterrent capability. China would conclude that even the most limited deployment proposed by the Clinton Administration would essentially negate China’s deterrent. Indeed, Beijing believes that China, not states like North Korea or Iraq, is the real target of US NMD plans. China supports the view of some US critics of NMD that the US pursuit of a defence against long-range missiles is directed toward present and future regional nuclear powers that might come into open conflict with the US. The US, they say, is fixated on the possibility that it will one day find itself in a conventional war with a regional nuclear state such as China, and that only with a credible missile defence system in operation would the US be able to engage that adversary with a vigour beyond what deterrence would normally allow. With a credible missile defence capability in hand, the US could call an adversary’s bluff. China’s chief arms control negotiator, Sha Zukang, picked up the same theme when he told the New York Times on May 11 that US ballistic missile defence would neutralize China’s deterrent and would leave it dangerously vulnerable to bullying or attack: “The United States will feel it can attack anyone at any time, and that isn’t tolerable.”

China has to date been reluctant to modernize and expand its strategic nuclear arsenals, but NMD could be the encouragement they need. China already has a nuclear modernization and enlargement program underway, but NMD will be a major factor in determining its scope (including possible moves to higher levels of alert). China has also signalled that it might explore anti-satellite weapons as a response B targeting NMD’s infrastructure and signalling a move to engage the Americans in competition over the weaponization of space.

The rest of the world

The United States insists that neither Russia nor China is the focus of their pursuit of a defence against ballistic missiles. The official America concern is the possibility that certain small powers that are especially hostile to the United States will acquire long-range ballistic missiles. North Korea, Iraq, and Iran are said to be in that category B all have made a point of pursuing the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and the capability of delivering them with long-range ballistic missiles.

None of these states (designated as “rogues” by some American policy-makers) currently possesses either nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles capable of reaching North America. If they were to remain hostile indefinitely to the US (and both North Korea and Iran are showing early signs, no doubt disturbing to certain NMD enthusiasts, towards moderation and reconciliation), and if they were indeed intent on launching attacks on the United States, they would be much more likely to use means that were technically more accessible, less costly, and less likely to advertise the source of attack (as a ballistic missile would) B in other words, it is almost certain that their preferred mode of attack would be clandestine intrusions with hand transportable explosives.

So, given the likely Russian, Chinese, and other responses, the virtually inevitable security consequences of NMD deployment would be: 1) more nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles aimed at North America, 2) more of them on high alert, 3) an increase in the cruise missile threat, and 4) increased unconventional threats from smaller powers particularly hostile to the US.

How would a North American NMD affect the security of others?

Given the potential Russian and Chinese responses, one of the gravest consequences of NMD deployment would be to undermine all global nuclear arms control and disarmament efforts. The impact on bilateral US-Russian negotiations would be the most immediate. The ABM Treaty would be rendered ineffective, and Russia could end up withdrawing from existing bilateral arms control agreements, notably START I and START II. In fact, when the Russian Duma voted to ratify the START II treaty in April 2000, it did so with the explicit proviso that Russia would no longer be bound by the treaty if the United States violated or withdrew from the ABM treaty. Serious negotiations on Start III would certainly be put off indefinitely.

Critics of NMD charge that it reflects an American proclivity toward rejecting a rules-based international security environment in favour of a unilateral pursuit of military superiority/dominance. That theme was raised by several delegations and UN observers at the recent NPT Review Conference. Canada’s Ministerial presentation to the Conference drew attention to a worrying “drift toward unilateral options” and included the proposed unilateral NMD in that drift, identifying it as “a source of anxiety.” In other words, one dangerous consequence of NMD deployment would to undermine efforts to build an international security order based on rules and laws rather than military competition.

The removal of legal constraints on an essentially resumed Russian/American nuclear confrontation, along with any Chinese move to expand its nuclear forces, could lead to a cascade of counter-reactions by other nuclear and near-nuclear powers, undermining the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and encouraging the wider spread of nuclear capabilities. A Chinese nuclear build-up could spark a nuclear build-up in India. An Indian build-up, in turn, would produce a corresponding reaction in Pakistan. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty could be expected to remain unratified by key states and therefore would not enter into force. Hopes for negotiations on a treaty to end the production of fissile materials would most certainly be dashed. And all of these developments together would put the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty into jeopardy. At the insistence of non-nuclear weapon states, the nuclear powers pledged at the recent NPT Review Conference an “unequivocal undertaking” to pursue “the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals,” but when these same powers make it clear that NMD will in all probability mean nuclear rearmament, the credibility of the NPT regime itself is seriously threatened.

NMD is not just a private security matter for the United States. Deployment would affect the rest of the world, fostering a climate of continuing and re-intensified interest in weapons of mass destruction.

But none of the above suggests that threats from ballistic missiles are not real. If NMD does not promise to deal effectively with those threats, what will?

Are there compelling alternatives?

Because the ballistic missile threat is global and cannot finally be separated from other threats (like cruise missiles, and threats of unconventional attack), an initiative in one area is likely to affect developments and behaviour in the other spheres. And since no individual state, however powerful, has the capacity to make itself immune from all these threats, only a multilateral response holds any realistic promise for enhancing both national and international security. Two multilateral approaches in particular require attention B that is, a multilateral approach to reducing ballistic missile threats, and a collective response to states posing unconventional threats.

The US/Russia summit in June agreed on the establishment of a Joint Data Exchange Center (JDEC) in Moscow for the exchange of information on the launches of ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles. More extensive multilateral ballistic missile early warning arrangements have also been proposed by Russia and suggested by Canada. The idea, as generally put forward at the NPT Review Conference, enjoys broad support, but it needs further development to define the technical, administrative, and political elements of an effective global multilateral ballistic missile early warning and monitoring system. Such a system would be designed to carry out at least four essential functions:

  • to monitor, assess, and share information on ballistic missile development programs;
  • to provide for surveillance of the pre-launch status of missiles in nuclear-weapon states so as to assist, in effect, in verifying de-alerting measures;$ to receive and share pre-launch notification of missile launches (e.g., for testing purposes, to launch satellites, and so on); and
  • to detect and track ballistic missile launches and flights and share the information in real time (so as to reduce the dangers of false alarms).

Even the active pursuit of such a multilateral mechanism would have a salutary political effect on the international security and disarmament environments. Americans are especially concerned about the non-traditional or unconventional threats, which they say emanate from certain states particularly hostile to the US, but the most effective way of dealing with these is to promote mutual, rules-based approaches to security. Political engagement of any “outlaw” states with the intent of drawing them into compliance with international norms and encouraging internal democratization holds greater promise than efforts to isolate and dominate them.

The case of North Korea B which is considered by the US intelligence community to be the country most likely to develop missiles that could threaten North America during the next 15 years B is a good example of the potential effectiveness of this approach. A process of gradual engagement has already produced a halt in North Korea’s reprocessing of nuclear waste to obtain plutonium (without this halt North Korea would have acquired the fissile material for several dozen nuclear weapons by now) and, since September 1999, a freeze on ballistic missile tests is in effect, pending the outcome of negotiations with the US on the elimination of the North Korean missile program. Iran too is receding as a threat as its moderating trends take hold.

Does Canada have options?

Few Canadians argue the merits of NMD. Even those convinced that Canada should actively cooperate with any US NMD program tend to do so more out of fears about the negative impact of non-cooperation on Canada-US relations than out of any strong belief in the intrinsic merits of NMD.

So, does Canada have options? Can we effectively oppose NMD if the Americans are bent on going ahead with it? How can Canada work most effectively to restrain missile defence developments?

One thing is certain: any early hint of support, or even prominent ambivalence, on the part of Canada’s political leadership would create a powerful pro-missile-defence lobby within elements of the defence and foreign affairs bureaucracies, would undermine efforts to encourage the pursuit of alternative strategies, and would offer NMD a level of political legitimacy internationally that it does not now, and should not, enjoy.

Continued public wariness of NMD on the part of Canada allows it to work more freely with like-minded allies and other countries to press at the political level for strong limits on missile defence. It is at this political level, not the military level, where Canadian influence (in concert with other countries) is most likely to produce results. Canada has the option of continuing to champion rules-based arms control, to question the unilateralist pursuit of military superiority, to promote multilateral approaches to ballistic missile control and warning, and to advocate peacebuilding and regional security arrangements in response to small states now pursuing the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile delivery capabilities.

If, in the end, the United States proceeds unilaterally with a national missile defence program, a Canadian decision not to participate, and to focus instead on multilateral efforts to mitigate the negative consequences of NMD, would not mean a serious rupture in Canada-US relations. In the first instance, US deployment of NMD does not in any way require Canadian territory, and there are elements within the US security establishment who would be happy not to have Canada involved and thus not be obliged to engage in even nominal consultation. If NMD management took place outside the structures of NORAD, the air defence operations of the binational agreement would remain. A mutual interest in cooperative aircraft monitoring and control would continue (and arguably increase if a cruise missile threat escalated) in the wake of NMD deployment. The US would also have a strong interest in continued, and expanded, co-operation in other aspects of “homeland defence,” such as border control, counter-terrorist operations, and protection against cyberattack.

What if it doesn’t work?

Even if a ballistic missile defence system could be designed, built, and deployed to intercept reliably, without exception, a limited missile attack on the United States, the security of North America and the international community would be radically undermined. A successful NMD system, for all the reasons noted above, would be highly destructive and should not be deployed. Unfortunately, a system that doesn’t work but is still deployed could be just as destructive. If it is clearly not possible to build a system capable of a comprehensive and reliable defence against a limited ballistic missile attack, US NMD enthusiasts can nevertheless be expected to continue pressing for it on the grounds that some defence is better than none or that the system would eventually be perfected. But, the political impact of deploying a technically dubious system will be just as destructive as one that would have a reasonable chance of working as advertised.

Whether or not it works, NMD cannot promise to solve either American or international security problems. On the other hand, refusing to deploy NMD, whether or not it works, could become a strong signal that the United States has come to view security as a mutual, not unilateral, affair. Canada, as a trusted ally, ought to use its considerable political and diplomatic resources to that end.

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