Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2003 Volume 24 Issue 2

A version of this report was presented to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade in June 2003.

BMD and the responsibility to protect

The appeal of ballistic missile defence (BMD) is obvious. What responsible government would not want to shield its people from attack by nuclear-armed missiles if such protection was available? The responsibility to protect is a paramount function of government, but as the Canadian-sponsored Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty also made clear, when governments fail to provide that protection, or actively put their people in grave peril, then the international community has the responsibility to come to their aid. That, in fact, is the primary question that attends BMD: does it actually deliver protection, or does it add to the peril?

The nuclear peril is unmistakably grave. While the numbers have declined, the nuclear threat that hangs over us is for all practical purposes undiminished in its capacity to destroy, and it is the collective responsibility of the international community to seek protection from that threat. In this case it is unmistakably true that states cannot individually provide that protection. Even the most ardent advocates of ballistic missile defence acknowledge that BMD technology alone cannot protect – it must be accompanied by effective non-proliferation and disarmament to keep the threat in check. In fact, Canadian policy – a policy broadly in accord with the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Canadians and widely shared among the states of the world – holds that the only sure protection against the nuclear peril is the verifiable abolition and prohibition of nuclear weapons.

Yet nuclear weapons remain, and there are two ways in which the peril is growing.

On the one hand, we do face the real danger that nuclear weapons will spread to more states – even to non-state entities. The presence of nuclear weapons in two regions of deep conflict, the Middle East and South Asia, has added potency to the nuclear threat – the danger that they will be used in conflict, the danger that their presence fuels demand for them in other states, and the danger that they will be combined with missiles that will make it possible to threaten populations beyond their own regions. The spread of nuclear weapons to North Asia, if it occurs or is confirmed, only adds further to the peril.

But we need to keep this danger in perspective. Weapons have proliferated beyond the acknowledged five nuclear weapon states to only three states: Israel, India, and Pakistan. None has ballistic missiles capable of posing a threat beyond their region. Only one additional threshold state, North Korea, is close to a nuclear weapon capacity. Proliferation presents an important challenge, but to date there have been many more non-proliferation successes than failures.

Reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the major powers, as well as the development of a new strategic dynamic between them, have promised a safer world. While the dangers of accidental launches and of the leakage of nuclear materials have increased, the likelihood of deliberate nuclear exchanges among them is greatly reduced. Unfortunately, however, a new and destabilizing danger is now emerging in the form of the declared pursuit of new generations of useable nuclear weapons and of new nuclear use doctrines.

Thus, inasmuch as the nuclear peril can be said to be growing, the protection imperative is also growing. And while it makes sense to talk to our neighbour about its plans to mitigate the nuclear threat, it dos not make sense to confine those discussions to a single, experimental protection program. If Canada is to engage with the US on the nuclear missile threat, it should be on the broad question of how best to reduce nuclear dangers. It would be profoundly inappropriate to discuss BMD outside of the context of the full range of peace and security concerns and issues that is affected by these US plans.

The following therefore identifies some questions and issues that should be central to Canada-US discussions on BMD.

1. Space Security


The concern that US ballistic missile defences will inevitably involve the testing of weapons in space is real and widely shared. A great deal of expert opinion is sceptical about the feasibility of actually deploying a credible weapon system in space, but the US commitment to claiming the prerogative to weaponize space, and thus break the global norm of preserving space for peaceful purposes, is clear, and Washington has been explicit about its intention in that regard.

In April 2003 the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) reported that its pursuit of boost-phase interceptors would initially focus on land- and sea-based interceptors, but that “eventually” interceptors would be deployed on “satellites in low earth orbit.” The MDA is scheduled to begin developing a space-based kinetic energy interceptor in Fiscal Year 2004. Furthermore, its 2004/5 budget projects the deployment of a weapons test bed in space by 2008 “with initial, on-orbit testing to commence with three to five satellites” in 2008/9.

This is a familiar red-line issue for Canada, and, indeed, Foreign Minister Graham told the House of Commons that there is nothing to worry about – that space weaponization is a Jules Verne fantasy that has nothing to do with current US plans. Well, there is a straightforward, internationally supported way in which the US could allay Canadian concerns, as well as those of the international community more broadly. The US simply needs to agree to the talks at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) leading to a space weapons ban, before proceeding further with BMD deployment.

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) is the primary UN disarmament negotiating body, but talks on a space weapons ban have been stalled in recent years due to an ongoing agenda dispute that the United States could end by simply agreeing to good faith negotiations on the item, “preventing an arms race in outer space.” While the CD is not the only, or necessarily the most effective, venue for such negotiations, any agreement by Canada to support BMD without a corresponding American commitment to negotiate a space weapons ban would represent an abandonment of Canada’s historic commitment to space as a weapons-free zone.

Space security is more than assuring the non-weaponization of space – there is also an imperative to preserve space as an arena in which wars will not be fought. Unfortunately, whether or not space weapons are actually deployed, the deployment of a BMD system could be a decisive move toward converting space into the kind of combat zone envisioned by some Pentagon planners – of combat into space, from space, and within space. BMD interceptors, whatever their likely rate of success in intercepting ballistic missiles, are effectively also anti-satellite weapons.

While the interceptors that will be deployed in 2004 and the foreseeable future will have limited capacity as missile interceptors (the proponents themselves say that), they will have obvious capacity against other satellites, which make a much more predictable target. So what is to be deployed in 2004 might really be more accurately described as the world’s first deployed ASAT (anti-satellite) system.

ASATs are not explicitly prohibited, but a variety of legal constraints on states exist to prohibit interference with other states’ satellites used for disarmament verification or for “activities in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space.” Canada should, in the context of its BMD discussions, make it clear that, here too, Canada needs assurances that BMD interceptors will under no circumstances target satellites. A minimum step toward making that a credible assurance would be the start of work on a multilateral agreement to ban all ASAT testing.

Without such a ban, the prospect of fighting into space, quite apart from its strategic implications, would have serious consequences for the space environment. Even testing mid-course interceptions of ballistic missiles within the low-earth orbit range would generate space debris that would continue to orbit for significant periods, endangering vital low-earth orbiting communications and other satellites, and the destruction of satellites in higher orbit would result in permanently orbiting debris – and space traffic monitors already have to track thousands of pieces of space junk.

There is urgent need for improvements in the management of space – including codes of conduct related to the generation of space debris, a system for the equitable apportioning of orbital slots, management of communications channels, and so on. To even contemplate the deployment of a weapons system with potentially profound implications for these elements of space security would be to invite the replication of the most destructive elements of terrestrial military behaviour in the fragile space environment that ought to be – must be – preserved as a global commons.
2. US nuclear strategy

Since Canada has now agreed to talks on BMD, it should ensure that the discussions seek explicit clarification and disavowal of those elements of the US national security strategy and nuclear doctrine that appear to assert the prerogative to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states. The United States’ claim that it must maintain nuclear-use options against non-nuclear weapon states like Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Syria is a dangerous and provocative assertion of a right that it denies all others – a right that has no basis in law and that flies in the face of explicit treaty commitments.

The point is relevant in the context of ballistic missile defence discussions inasmuch as it belies the claim that BMD is a defensive system. Shields may be protective, but linked to swords, they are part of an offensive and provocative system. And the US ballistic missile shield that Canada is now considering making its own is being aggressively linked to an ever-sharpening nuclear sword. The United States continues to explore new generations of nuclear weapons, notably battlefield weapons designed for use against targets in non-nuclear states. The result is to make the acquisition of a nuclear deterrent all the more attractive to countries in a state of enduring conflict with the United States.
Again, the solution is simple and already the subject of international agreements. Canada should thus remind the United States that a simple way for it to dispel much of this proliferation pressure would be for it to disavow the pursuit of new weapons by ratifying the nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT) and by an unambiguous recommitment to the “negative security assurances” mandated by the Security Council in 1995 by which nuclear weapon states declare they will neither use nor threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states.
3. Non-proliferation

The non-proliferation agenda of the international community is undermined in other ways by BMD. Ironically, for BMD to be successful, non-proliferation must be successful, but at the same time the pursuit of BMD undermines non-proliferation, creating the conditions under which BMD will not be successful – it is the classic lose-lose scenario.
US BMD enthusiasts themselves insist that their system will only be effective against a very limited threat. In other words, BMD depends on successful disarmament diplomacy. The more ballistic missiles there are, and the more diverse their geographic location, the more difficult it is for BMD to defend against them. And given that BMD’s capacity will necessarily be limited to intercepting a very small number of attacking missiles – remembering that no system can guarantee 100 per cent success – it follows that arms control and disarmament are key to the success of BMD.

The other side of that coin shows how easy it will be for states to frustrate the effectiveness of BMD. If the ballistic missile threat is not severely limited, any BMD system will be easily overwhelmed. Thus, for those states with an interest in posing a threat to the United States, the answer is obvious – if they have the capacity to acquire a basic ballistic missile attack capability, they will not find it a major challenge simply to expand the number of attack missiles available. And with BMD, they have an obvious incentive to do that. The BMD proponents will argue that the obvious response to such an escalating threat is more effective BMD technologies and a credible deterrent – all of which is another name for the arms race they tell us will not be a consequence of BMD deployment.
The United States and Canada should have a shared interest in effective non-proliferation diplomacy. If such diplomacy is so successful that it limits the missile threat to levels that are amenable to BMD interception, Canada might logically suggest to the US that rather than spending hundreds of billions of dollars in response to a minimal threat – a response that can never be 100 per cent successful – those resources might be better spent on additional disarmament and non-proliferation efforts, and on the myriad of other threats to human security that claim large numbers of victims on a daily basis.

4. Defence of North America

The bilateral talks should also be broad enough to explore the elements of Canada-US defence cooperation that are genuinely mandated by shared geography and values. Canada has since World War II acknowledged and fulfilled the obligation to give the US credible assurances that threats to US security do not emanate from Canadian territory – either due to Canadian action or to Canadian neglect. Whether that has been through early warning of Cold War bombers or effective monitoring of the shared borders, it is a responsibility that Canada has rightly taken seriously. Notably, it is a responsibility that would not be advanced by Canadian political support for BMD. Whatever ballistic missile threat the US perceives, it obviously does not emanate from Canadian territory, nor does the US need access to Canadian territory to monitor the nature and level of such a threat, or to respond to it.

Cooperation in continental security is obviously essential. It does not follow that such cooperation needs to be through joint command arrangements (maritime cooperation is not through joint command arrangements). In the case of air defence, Canada and the US have chosen a joint command arrangement through NORAD. NORAD also tracks missile launches, but that is part of a national US role linked to its nuclear deterrent. Air defence, however, is a genuinely bilateral operation. In the post-Cold War era that cooperative operation is only minimally concerned with traditional territorial defence matters – instead the focus is on things like drug interdiction and other illegal entries into North America, which is much more central to current security concerns and hence to the work that NORAD actually does.

In its discussions of mutual security concerns, occasioned by US BMD interests, Canada should be open to returning NORAD to its original function as a mechanism for air defence cooperation, through which each party assures the other that no undetected air threats to the other are emanating from its territory.

BMD may be premised on protecting us from nuclear peril, but its likelier impact will be to make us all more vulnerable. BMD promises to convert space into a war zone, to support emerging nuclear use strategies, and to generate incentives toward both vertical and horizontal proliferation.

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