Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence: An Interception Scenario

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2003 Volume 24 Issue 4

Why BMD? Why now?

1. Canada is considering a role in BMD despite a well-established skepticism:

Canadian policy has never identified ballistic missile defence (BMD) as a credible or even promising response to the threat of nuclear destruction via intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Even so, Canadian officials are currently engaged in extensive discussions with the United States on how ballistic missile defence (BMD) might protect Canadians and how Canada might link to the ground-based, mid-course interception, ballistic missile defence system now being prepared for deployment by Washington. 

2. Canada is being drawn into a BMD system that has no clear definition:

As conceived by the current US Administration, BMD is not really amenable to clear definition since it remains an evolving concept based on technologies of varying degrees of maturity, or immaturity. The term BMD is thus broadly used to encompass virtually any technology, from weapons systems already deployed for theatre missile interceptions to theories about technologies that are still confined to scientific imagining, that might be applicable to intercepting ballistic missiles – including weapons in space.

The current Canada-US discussions on ballistic missile defence focus on one particular element of the BMD system – namely, the ground-based, mid-course interception system that is to consist of 16 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and four in California, linked to an array of radars, sensors, and command and control facilities. This still experimental, only partially tested, element is now in development and is to be deployed around late 2004 and 2005, but there is still plenty of deliberate ambiguity, encouraged by the Director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, as to whether it will be “a test bed that might be used operationally,” or “an initial defensive capability that we will continue to test” (Boese 2003).

3. While Defence Minister McCallum says he wants BMD to protect Canadians, scientists keep telling us it won’t work:

As the following interception scenario demonstrates, the system’s actual capacity to intercept inbound missiles continues to be widely discounted. Yet Defence Minister John McCallum has insisted all along that the primary reason for exploring Canadian participation in BMD is “the protection of Canadian lives.” In announcing formal Canada/US talks on the issue, he told the House of Commons that “it is the responsibility of government to do its due diligence to ensure that the system is set up and that the system will operate in such a way as to afford Canadians equal protection from such a threat as the protection that is afforded to Americans” (2003).[i]

4. Protection from what threat?

The ground-based, mid-course interception system that Canada is discussing with the US is the only element of current BMD deployments that is focused on strategic interceptions, i.e., interceptions of inter-continental or long-range ballistic missiles directed toward targets in North America (the United States is also deploying sea-based and mobile ground-based interceptors, but these are designed for theatre interceptions – i.e., interception of short- and medium-range missiles – and are not part of the current Canada-US discussions).

But, even if the system worked perfectly, it would address only about one per cent of the 1,000-plus nuclear-armed missiles now capable of striking targets in North America. In the foreseeable future there will in fact be only one active threat against which the system could theoretically offer protection, and that is the threat of the accidental, unintended, or mistaken launch of an isolated Russian missile with a nuclear weapon on board – a real threat inasmuch as the reliability of Russia’s early warning and command and control systems are increasingly questioned (but a threat that has quite a simple solution – namely, de-alerting). The current and primary US focus is on the interception of an isolated attack from North Korea, but the North Korean threat will not be in play in 2004-5 or any time soon after that.

5. The interception scenario:

So the following scenario focuses on a wayward Russian missile, especially since the Foreign Affairs and Defence Department Backgrounder on BMD (2003) notes that Canada is interested in the system at least in part because it “is also meant to respond to unauthorized or accidentally launched missiles.”

Stages of the attack/interception (how it is supposed to work):[ii]

1.      Through a set of unlikely circumstances, ranging from catastrophic technological malfunction to a misguided decision to launch a missile in response to what turns out to be a false warning of an American attack, a Russian SS-18 missile lifts from its launch site at Kartaly, Russia (southeast of Moscow near the Kazakhstan border).

Comment: The SS-18 is capable of carrying either one or 10 warheads, each with a yield of about 500 kt. Under START II, which is not in force, Russia was to end deployments of missiles with 10 warheads. Some of each variant are currently still deployed (SIPRI 2002, pp. 540-541).

2.      The heat of the missile’s thruster exhaust catches the attention of the infrared sensors of at least one of five US Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites stationed high above the earth in geosynchronous orbit.

The DSP satellites use a mature infrared technology but have a limited tracking capacity. They are to be replaced by new generations of Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) in high- and low-earth orbits to provide improved early warning, as well as tracking through the mid-course and target discrimination. A new US General Accounting Office (GAO) report on SBIRS-high says that the “program continues to experience problems that have existed since its inception: cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance limitations…. [A]dditional cost and schedule slips beyond the revised acquisition program baseline appear inevitable” (GAO 2003c, p. 22). The first satellites will not be launched before 2006.[iii] The SBIRS-low program, a companion set of satellites in low-earth orbit, was restructured in 2002 as the Space Tracking and Surveillance System. Cost estimates have gone from $10-billion to $23-billion and it may not provide the target discrimination capacity promised. Operational testing will not begin before 2007 (Coyle 2003, p. 4). According to another GAO study, the 2007 launch is premature: The MDA “is uncertain as to whether some of the activities … to integrate and test legacy satellite systems can be completed in time for the 2007 launch” (GAO 2003a, p. 16).

3.      The DSP satellites begin transmitting data regarding the Russian missile into the Command, Control, Battle Management and Communications (C2BMC) architecture, the point of entry being one of a network of communications facilities that pick up the satellite’s signal. The data from the DSP satellites will identify the launch point and the general direction of the missile.

Multiple communications links and ground stations are required because the curvature of the earth prevents any single point from seeing all the satellites at once, and because of the desire for redundancy. 

While an effective BMD system will require space-based tracking of missiles, the GAO reports that such “capabilities have not yet been demonstrated in space,” and critically important communications and systems integration capabilities to permit data to flow from sensors so that it can be effectively used in missile defence operations also remain unproven. A few key challenges are: developing data processing at fast rates, reliable communications links, and materials that can withstand radiation and cold temperatures (GAO 2003a, pp. 6, 8-9).

4.      The BMD system goes to alert status as the communications stations relay the data to the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center in Colorado, the NORAD ballistic missile early warning and assessment facility, where the missile’s speed and likely trajectory begin to be calculated. The results are then transmitted to the relevant command centres (in this case NORTHCOM and STRATCOM), which will be in charge of managing the interception, and to ground-based radars that will also become engaged in more detailed tracking of the Russian missile.

NORAD is headquartered at Cheyenne Mountain and could also become involved, depending on how the Pentagon decides to manage the integration of the early warning and interceptor command and control functions. While NORAD has to date managed the ballistic missile early warning role, the current assumption, even among Canadian officials who would like the bi-national NORAD command to be involved, is that NORAD will not be assigned the BMD command and control functions.

5.  Within a maximum of six minutes the Russian SS-18 rocket engine shuts down and separates from
the payload, having completed its task of boosting the nose with its warheads into space and setting it on its course. Thus the boost phase of the attack is over.

BMD planners are trying to develop boost-phase interceptions, but none is currently possible for strategic range missiles.

6.      The SS-18’s payload, now unpowered and in the initial stages of its mid-course coast, opens to release its warhead(s) along with an unknown number of decoys. The whole cluster of warhead(s), decoys, and discarded nose cone pieces begins to coast through space toward the pre-programmed target. This mid-course phase of flight will last 15 to 20 minutes, and it is during this time that the BMD mid-course system must accomplish the intercept.

If this happens to be one of the SS-18s with 10 warheads, it would of course release all 10 (and perhaps additional decoys).

7.      Without the heat of the rocket engine, the current DSP satellites cannot track the warhead(s), which means that other surveillance and tracking facilities must take over. Minutes after the end of the boost burn, the upgraded ground-based radars at Fylingdales in the UK, and then Thule, Greenland (two of five ground radars linked to the Ballistic Missile Early Warning system currently operated through NORAD), will have identified the Russian missile, relying on feedback information from Cheyenne Mountain on the basic trajectory of the Russian attack.

If the incoming missile were from North Korea, the first radar to see it would be the Cobra Dane on the Shemya Island at the western end of Alaska’s Aleutian chain.

The upgrades of the Fylingdales and Thule[iv] radars involve primarily more powerful computers to enable them to calculate with greater speed and precision the path of a missile payload, and to create some capacity for distinguishing between warheads and decoys (UK Ministry of Defence 2003). The upgrades will not be sufficient to guide an interceptor directly to its target – for that final guidance the interceptor will rely on its on-board detection and guidance systems.

A new, sea-based (installed on a modified oil rig) X-band radar, which has been described by the Pentagon as essential to tracking the incoming warhead and for distinguishing it from decoys, is planned but will not be deployed as part of the 2004 system. Construction is now slated for completion in 2005, after which it must undergo seven months of testing and then be towed from the east coast around South America and up to Alaska (Coyle 2003). Hitchens  (2003) reports that in 2002 MDA officials told Congress that without the X-band radar the mid-course interception system would essentially have no capability.

8.      The cluster of warhead(s), decoys, and debris is now tracked by radar and a more accurate calculation of the attack trajectory and destination gradually becomes available. The data from the DSP satellite will already have made it clear that this event is not a test launch and that its payload is heading toward North America. Soon new data from the radars will indicate where in North America the impact is intended to be.

9.      At about this time, perhaps still less than 10 minutes into the flight of the Russian (accidental) attack, officials in Cheyenne Mountain have alerted the political masters in Washington of the situation, namely the possibility that there is/are (a) real nuclear warhead(s) on the way to a devastating detonation on North American soil. The launch of one or more of the 10 interceptor missiles based in Alaska and California (20 by 2006) will already be a priority consideration.

The sooner the interceptors can be launched, the better the chance of follow-on launches in the event that the first is not a successful intercept. Indeed, in this scenario, the second shot may well have to be fired before it has been possible to verify the results of the first shot because of the distance the interceptors from the extreme west of the continent have to travel to reach a target coming along a more northerly trajectory. The interceptors to be deployed in 2004 are more specifically intended to respond to a missile of North Korean origin.

10.  Because of the limited time for decision-making, because the interceptor must be fired as early in the attack as possible, and because an interceptor fired in response to a false alarm would have limited consequence, the launch of an interceptor will be close to automatic – in other words, there will be a human in the loop to make the decision, but it will have to be a person on station in the BMD system – there will not be time for an external political decision.[v]

The interceptor is thus sent aloft, heading for the flight path of the incoming cluster of warhead(s) and debris released by the Russian missile.

The launch of an interceptor obviously does not carry with it the grave implications and consequences of a retaliatory attack. In the event of a false alarm or a miss, the kinetic kill vehicle, which does not have a warhead, will simply continue to coast in space and gradually be pulled to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere where it will burn up and disintegrate.

The two versions of a ground-based interceptor rocket booster will not receive “operational” testing until 2004, after its initial deployment in Alaska.[vi] The modified ICBM booster used in the tests to date has been unreliable, so the Pentagon is developing two new prototype boosters (one by Lockheed Martin and the other by Orbital Sciences Corporation).[vii] Each of the boosters will likely be put through only one intercept test before deployment (Coyle 2003). Arms Control Today (Boese 2003) reports that “the Pentagon has essentially been repeating the same test at a lower altitude and slower speeds than what a real intercept is likely to demand. The Target in all the tests has been equipped with a C-band transponder, and data from that transponder is used to calculate the intercept plan guiding the interceptor into space toward the target. MDA justifies this practise as necessary due to the lack of a radar in the testing area to track the target in its early stages of flight. Information on the target is also fed into the EKV [Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle] before the intercept attempt so that it can identify the mock warhead from among the other objects, including decoys, in the target clusters. The decoys used in testing, balloons that are not vaguely similar to the mock warhead, are also largely considered unrepresentative of the foils a potential enemy might employ.”

11.  Based on the information received from the DSP satellites and ground radars, the interceptor is aimed into the path of the oncoming warhead(s), decoys, and debris and when it comes within a certain distance of its target it releases its own kill vehicle. The kill vehicle itself must now identify the cluster of targets coming toward it and distinguish between the warhead(s) and the decoys. If, in fact, the oncoming missile has a payload of 10 warheads the chances of intercepting them all are remote (and would require at least nine more interceptors to be launched).

If the payload is one warhead and multiple decoys, the chances are not a lot better.  As long as heavy warheads and light decoys are coasting in the vacuum of space they behave identically and are not readily distinguishable. But the radars and the sensors on the interceptor kill vehicle must nevertheless identify the real target. The upgraded radars have some limited capacity to discriminate between warheads and decoys, and the US is in the process of developing an X-band radar on a sea platform off the coast of Alaska. Though it is especially focused on missiles that may be launched from North Korea, it would also be able to track a missile launched from Russia and add to the data needed to distinguish between warheads and decoys and debris.

Analysts generally assume a requirement for three interceptors per target, but in the 2004-5 period there will only be 10 interceptors available. By 2006 an additional 10 interceptors are to be available, increasing the chances for interception, but still requiring an unrealistic, and certainly undemonstrated, success rate.

The single most challenging element of the intercept is not so much to develop a kinetic hit-to-kill capability (that capability has been around ever since the capacity to strike a satellite was acquired some 15 years ago). The problem “is the inability to come up with sensors and software that can discriminate between real warheads and either cheap decoys or launcher debris” (Ross 2002, p. 124).

It is only at the end of the mid-course and beginning of the terminal phase, when all the objects begin to enter earth’s atmosphere, that they are readily distinguishable by weight and changing speed and temperature as the lighter objects quickly lose speed and burn up as they enter the earth’s atmosphere.

12.  The sensors on board the interceptor kill vehicle are key to monitoring and assessing the oncoming space-borne objects, trying to find the warhead among the decoys and space debris, and then using its on-board computers and “divert” propulsion systems to steer itself into the particular path of the warhead.

To distinguish between the oncoming warhead and the decoys that accompany it, the kill vehicle has three kinds of capacity on board: an infrared sensor and telescope to identify the targets; on-board discrimination processor to carry out the calculations on data received from the sensors; and a guidance and navigation system capable of steering itself directly into the path of the warhead, rather than a decoy. These are only partially tested systems, with the first test in “a real world environment” coming in 2004 (GAO 2003b, p. 12).

13.  If everything works the way technology and hope have envisioned it, the interceptor’s kinetic kill vehicle collides with the warhead. The combined speed of the two (each travelling at more than seven kilometres per second) produces an impact so enormous that the kinetic energy released upon impact produces a major explosion. The warhead is not detonated but is destroyed (along with the kill vehicle) by force of impact and the two are shattered into a cloud of debris. Most of this material, travelling at less than orbital speed, gradually loses altitude, enters the earth’s atmosphere, and burns up.

14.  The ground-based radars witness all this and signal a successful hit – or the interceptor misses and it’s time for a second shot. There could be as many as three interceptors launched at each incoming target. The preference would be for a “shoot-look-shoot” sequence, that is, an interceptor is fired, the sensors indicate whether there has been a successful hit, and if not, a follow-up interceptor is fired. In practice, and particularly in this scenario of the wayward Russian missile, because of the limited time and the long distances to be covered, the follow-up interceptor would probably have to be fired before the success or failure of the first shot has been confirmed.

Canada should be alert to the possibility that this flawed BMD system is headed for scandal. The combination of cost overruns, non-performance of the technology, further diplomatic success in mitigating the perceived North Korean or Iranian missile threat, and the declining fortunes of the Bush Administration could lead to a quick reversal of the political favour it now enjoys in Washington.

[i] On May 15 Foreign Minister Bill Graham also told the House that the “Government believes it is our responsibility to pursue talks with the United States, in order to ensure the security of Canadians and the future of NORAD.”

[ii]  This interception scenario relies in general on interviews and a review of BMD literature, and in particular on specific summary descriptions of the operations of the ground-based, mid-course, missile defence system: on several United States General Accounting Office Reports issued in 2003; and the Union of Concerned Scientists, Countermeasures, April 2000.

[iii] Space News reported on October 20, 2003 that the system which was to cost $2.1-billion with the first launch in 2002, is now estimated at $8-billion with the first launch in 2006, with still unresolved technology problems.

[iv] The Thule upgrade has become embroiled in an important Inuit land claim in Greenland. In 1953 the Inuit were forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands, enabling the construction of the American base. In 1999 the Danish High Court ruled the eviction was illegal, but denied them the right of return. The Supreme Court is now addressing the right of return and Inuit leaders are insisting that there should be no work on the Thule upgrade until the issue is settled. Many still expect their right of return to be honoured and believe that the base will have to close (Brabant 2003).

[v] The August 2003 GAO Report (p. 7) says, “The concept of operations assumes release authority has been previously granted by the President of the United States or the Secretary of Defense. Missile flight times may be too brief to ask for permission to launch interceptors and engage the enemy.”

[vi] “Development tests, especially in the early years of a program, may be heavily scripted with unrealistic or artificial limitations. Operational testing, on the other hand, must be realistic with the systems operated by real soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines, as they would be in battle” (Coyle 2003).

[vii] The GAO rates both boosters as having a technical readiness level of “6” out of 9, one that has been tested in laboratory or simulated operation environment – in other words, the boosters are still in the developmental stage without any operational testing yet.


Boese, Wade 2003, “Missile Defense Post-ABM Treaty: No System, No Arms Race,” Arms Control Today, June.

Brabant, Malcolm 2003, “Inuit battle to shut US air base,” BBC online, November.

Coyle, Philip 2003, “Is Missile Defense on Target?” Arms Control Today, October.

Department of National Defence 2003, Backgrounder on Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence, May 8, BG-03.026.

General Accounting Office 2003a, Missile Defense: Alternate Approaches to Space Tracking and Surveillance System Need to be Considered, United States General Accounting Office Report to the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, May (GAO-03-597).

—– 2003b, Missile Defense: Additional Knowledge Needed in Developing System for Intercepting Long-Range Missiles,  United States General Accounting Office Report to the Ranking Minority Member, Subcommittee on Financial Management, the Budget, and International Security, Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, August (GAO-03-600).

—– 2003c, Defense Acquisitions: Despite Restructuring, SBIRS High Program Remains at Risk of Cost and Schedule Overruns, United States General Accounting Office Report to the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, October (GAO-04-48).

Hitchens, Theresa 2003, “Technical Hurdles in US Missile Defense Agency Programs,” in James Clay Moltz, ed., New Challenges in Missile Proliferation, Missile Defense, and Space Security, Center for Nonproliferation Studies Occasional Paper No. 12, August.

McCallum, John 2003, Speech to the House of Commons, May 29 in support of an Alliance motion on BMD, Hansard, 37th Parliament, 2nd Session, No. 108.

Ross, Douglas 2002, contributor to James Fergusson, moderator, “Round Table: Missile Defence in a Post-September 11th Context,” Canadian Foreign Policy, Winter, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 111-130.

SIPRI Yearbook 2002: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security 2002, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

UK Ministry of Defence 2003, RAF Fylingdales Upgrade to Early Warning Radars: Environmental and Land Use Report, June 16.

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