Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence

Tasneem Jamal

Presentation to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade


The appeal of 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. 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 fully 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. None has ballistic missiles capable of posing a threat beyond their region. Only one additional threshold state is close to a nuclear weapon capacity, North Korea.1 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, experimental2 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.3


a. Weapons in space

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 FY04. 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 antisatellite 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 system.4

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.”5 Canada should, in the context of its discussions, make it clear that, here too, Canada needs assurances that this will not be so, with a minimum step toward that end being work on a multilateral agreement to ban all ASAT testing.

c. Space environment

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 midcourse 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 as you well know, space traffic monitors already have to track thousands of pieces of space junk.6 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.


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.7 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.8 The United States continues to explore new generations of nuclear weapons, notably battlefield weapons designed for use against targets in non-nuclear states.9 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.10


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.11 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.


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 WWII 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.



  1. “The ballistic missile threat today is confined, limited and changing relatively slowly. There is every reason to believe that it can be addressed through diplomacy and measured military preparedness.” Joseph Cirincione, “The Declining Ballistic Missile Threat,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Nonproliferation Issue Brief (VI, No. 7, April 28, 2003).
  2. The United States has expressly stated that the BMD system is a work in progress. When announcing the intent to have a BMD system deployed by 2004, President Bush described the first phase as a “starting point for improved and expanded capabilities later as further progress is made in researching and developing missile defence technologies and in light of changes in the threat.” Donald Rumsfeld said, “When it finishes some day…it very likely will look quite different than it begins. And it very likely will have layers. And it very likely will involve a variety of different locations. And it will very likely involve the participation of a number of countries” (Quoted in BBC Article, December 17, 2002). It will evolve gradually and, they hope, gradually become effective. It will not be effective when it is deployed – hence it is appropriately described as an experiment. The system is to be developed in stages, with deployments of new elements of the systems as technologies become available. Initially, in 2004, the
    system is to have six land-based interceptors in Alaska and four in California, with another ten added in Alaska in 2005 – all aimed at intercepting intercontinental missiles. Up to 20 sea-based interceptors are to be deployed on Aegis ships, to intercept short-and medium-range missiles in mid-course flight. In addition there are to be advanced Patriot missiles to intercept short and medium range missiles. The system will also require land-sea-and space-based sensors, including existing early warning satellites; upgraded radars in Alaska, UK, and Greenland; a new sea-based X-band radar; and other sensors on Aegis cruisers and destroyers. The FY04 deployments are really little more than “test beds,” by the Pentagon’s own admission, with little confidence about actual capabilities. Beyond that timeframe, a “layered” system is envisioned, with a capacity to intercept attacking missiles during boost, midcourse, or terminal phases.
  3. These are not new discussions. DFAIT’s backgrounder on the issue (updated May 8, 2003) reports, “Canada and the US also established a BMD Bilateral Information Sharing Working Group that has met twice a year since 2000. In addition, Canada placed a Canadian Forces Liaison Officer with the US Missile Defence Agency in early 2001 for the purpose of supporting the ongoing consultation and information gathering process” (http://www.dfaitmaeci/).
  4. The BMD interceptors planned for deployment in 2004/5 “will consist of a three-stage rocket booster that carries a kill vehicle into space. The kill vehicle, which is intended to intercept above the atmosphere, carries its own fuel for manoeuvring, as well as optical and infrared sensors, which are intended to allow it to track and home on an object, destroying it by direct impact….It appears that these interceptors could be effective as ASATs against a large fraction of satellites in low-earth orbit. The planned burnout speed of the ground-based interceptors is reported to be 7 to 8 km/s. If launched straight up, this interceptor could lift the kill vehicle to a height of roughly 6,000 kilometres. It could therefore reach satellites in low-earth orbit, which are typically at altitudes less than 1,200 km, but not satellites in geosynchronous (36,000 km) or semi-synchronous orbits (20,000 km). If launched against satellites in low-earth orbit, the interceptor could use some of its speed to reach out laterally thousands of kilometres, allowing it to hit satellites on orbits that do not pass directly over the launch site. Thus, even interceptors at fixed ground sites in Alaska and California could reach a large fraction of satellites in low-earth orbit—especially those in orbits that pass over the United States.”

    “As part of this system, satellite kill vehicles would be placed in orbit, where they would remain until a missile launch was detected. A kill vehicle near the missile launch site would then use its onboard propulsion and sensors to accelerate out of its orbit and home on the missile, attempting to destroy it by direct impact. The orbital speed of the kill vehicle would be roughly 8 km/s, and the propulsion system is intended to accelerate it an additional 6 km/s to allow it to reach a boosting missile in the relatively short time available. As a result, the kill vehicle would have a total speed of up to 14 km/s. Calculations show that such a speed would allow it to travel from low-earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit in just over an hour, and still have a speed of nearly 10 km/s at that altitude. Whether a kill vehicle designed solely for missile defense could be used to attack satellites in this way depends on details of its design, such as the type of sensors it contains, the amount of fuel for manoeuvring it carries, and the length of time it is designed to operate (a matter of minutes to reach a boosting missile versus an hour to reach geosynchronous
    orbit). It is clear, however, that these are design decisions and that these capabilities could be built into the kill vehicle to give it the capability to be an effective high-altitude ASAT.” Excerpted from: David Wright and Laura Grego, “Anti-Satellite Capabilities of Planned US Missile Defense Systems,” mimeo, Union of Concerned Scientists and Citizens and Scientists for Environmental Solutions, December 9, 2002.
  5. US Ambassador Jonathon Dean, former arms control negotiator and now adviser to the Union of Concern Scientists, identifies a range of legal measures against ASAT systems: “The concept of non-interference with national technical means of verification first appeared in the SALT I Treaty of 1972 and was taken over into the INF Treaty, which is of indefinite duration, as well as into the START I Treaty, which has been prolonged to 2009. The intent of this measure is to preserve from attack or interference technical means of verification, including space orbiting means. As I read it,” says Jonathon Dean, “It would be a violation of the provisions on non-interference with means of verification in the INF and START I Treaties to use weapons against any early warning, imaging, or intelligence satellite and, by extension, against any ocean surveillance, signals, intelligence or communications satellite of the US or Russia. This non-interference obligation was made multilateral in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which has thirty NATO and East European participants and is of unlimited duration. It is true that satellites must be used to verify specific treaties, but in most cases, it will not be feasible to determine which satellites are being actually used or could be used for this purpose. Hence all are protected.”

    Article VII of the Outer Space Treaty “makes treaty parties that launch objects into outer space liable for damage to the property of another treaty party – the procedure is spelled out in the Liability Convention of 1972. The Liability Convention foresees the establishment of a Claims Commission to determine the extent of liability for damage by the space objects of one country to the space objects or property of another state. Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty provides for consultations if any treaty party believes an activity planned by another treaty party could cause “potentially harmful interference with activities in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space.” [Excerpted from: Jonathon Dean, “The Current Legal Regime Governing the Use of Outer Space,” Conference on Outer Space and Global Security, Geneva, Nov. 26-27, 2002 (sponsored by Project Ploughshares, Simons Centre for Peace and Security Studies, and UNIDIR).]
  6. US Space Command’s satellite catalogue currently tracks over 8700 space objects, 94% of which are considered space debris and have no useful purpose. These objects range from 10-30 cm in Low-Earth Orbit, to over 1m in Geo-Stationary Orbit. In addition, experts estimate that some 100,000-200,000 smaller objects larger than 1 cm are not currently tracked. (D. Mehrholz et al., “Detecting, Tracking and Imaging Space Debris” ESA bulletin 109 – February 2002, 128-134.
  7. The Dec. 31, 2002 Nuclear Posture Review was submitted to Congress by the Pentagon in response to the Congress’ request for an account of the “direction for American nuclear forces over the next five to ten years.” Elements of the report were leaked to the press and elements were later made public. The Pentagon reports its view that “nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States…,” and describes three levels of “contingencies” (immediate, potential, or unexpected) for which “nuclear strike capabilities” must be prepared. Included in such contingencies are: “an Iraqi attack on Israel or its neighbours” (not necessarily involving nuclear weapons); “a North Korean attack on South Korea” (also no reference to that being a nuclear attack); “the emergence of a new, hostile military coalition against the United States or its allies in which one or more members possess WMD” (not necessarily nuclear weapons). North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya – all non-nuclear weapon states – are listed as states where “unexpected contingencies” could emerge that would require “nuclear strike capabilities” (Nuclear Posture Review Excerpts,
  8. On April 22, 2003 the US announced that it had completed the manufacture of the first nuclear weapons pit since 1989, signalling the start of a new production of pits (the fissile core of a nuclear weapon) to keep current stockpiles updated. In addition, BMD is explicitly linked to pre-emption in the September 2002 National Security Strategy. The Bush National Security Strategy lays out the preferred option quite clearly: “We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends. Our response must take full advantage of strengthened alliances, the establishment of new partnerships with former adversaries, innovation in the use of military forces, modern technologies, including the development of an effective missile defense system, and increased emphasis on intelligence collection and analysis.” Attacking “rogues” before they become a threat is the essence of pre-emption – and just to remove any doubts, the Bush strategy document goes on to explain that to prevent hostile acts, “the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.” And pre-emption in turn requires the forward deployment of American forces and the protection of
    those forces from short-to medium-range ballistic missiles. More than 30 countries already have operational ballistic missiles capable of ranges up to 600 km. In other words, the US does have a serious interest in missile defence to protect the American homeland – but the most immediate focus of that interest is in theatre defence, not strategic missile defence, to protect forward military forces sent to pre-emptively attack any state suspected of developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles (which, by the way, is why the Bush Administration rejected the term “National Missile Defense” in favour of the more generic ballistic missile defence and is busy obscuring the distinction between theatre and strategic defence).
  9. In May the US Senate voted to repeal the 1993 Spratt-Furse law, which banned research and development of lowyield nuclear weapons, opening the way for the development of new, useable nuclear weapons. At the same time, in consideration of the FY 2004 defence authorization bill, the Senate approved a program to research high-yield (at least 10 times the destructive capacity of the Hiroshima bomb) earth-penetrating nuclear weapons, known as ‘bunker busters’.
  10. In 1995 the US, along with other NWS, gave explicit assurances that the United States “will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons except in the case of an invasion or any other attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies, or on a State towards which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a nonnuclear-weapon State in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon state.” The statement then goes on to say such aggression with nuclear weapons, or even the threat of such aggression, against NNWS party to the NPT would have to be responded to by the Permanent Members of the Security Council to counter such aggression.
  11. Even so, the United States is considering an easing of its ballistic missile export controls in order to facilitate the sharing of missile technology with potential BMD partners (Globe and Mail, May 21, 2003).
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