Canada and Strategic Ballistic Missile Defence: Arms Control and Other Imperatives

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2004 Volume 25 Issue 4

This material was originally presented as a Brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade on November 4, 2004, as the committee began its study on disarmament issues.

Canada should attend to three key arms control imperatives in the face of the imminent US deployment of strategic ballistic missile defence (BMD):

  • Agreed international limits on ballistic missile interceptors consistent with stated “limited defence” objectives;
  • A ban on anti-satellite weapons testing and deployment; and
  • A ban on testing and deployment of weapons in space.

The arms control imperatives of BMD

Limiting BMD interceptors

The US National Missile Defence Act1 commits the United States to deploying a strategic BMD system, when technologically possible, “against limited ballistic missile attack.” Canadian officials and political leaders have also given assurances that the only thing under consideration is a limited system, so one of the first questions we should be asking is: what defines a “limited” system?

The now defunct Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty did not place a blanket ban on ballistic missile interceptors, nor is a blanket ban likely in the current environment. On the other hand, the ABM Treaty did place strict limits on interceptors and that is what is needed now as well. From the point of view of those wishing to deploy BMD, a limited system would presumably have to include enough interceptors to dissuade a threshold nuclear state from thinking that it could easily mount a strategic missile force capable of overwhelming a minimal BMD system. At the same time, from the point of view of BMD advocates and opponents alike, the number of permitted interceptors must be low enough not to induce any other nuclear weapon state to expand its forces as a result of BMD deployment. And if the United States is determined to forge ahead, as it certainly appears to be, the rest of the world must at least seek legal assurances that any system it does deploy in fact remains a defence against limited attack and does not become the basis for future expanded defences designed to intercept major attacks and undermine the deterrent forces of established nuclear weapon states, and thus trigger a new nuclear arms race.

American BMD advocates say their system will need about three interceptors for each attacking missile (to allow for multiple intercept attempts). The lowest level of limited attack, such as a single accidental launch or the deliberate launch of a few (two or three) missiles by an emerging nuclear state, would suggest the need for only three to nine interceptors, but even assuming that a limited attack might be as high as a dozen missiles, the need would only rise to about 36 interceptors. Even assuming that BMD powers might want a few interceptors in reserve to address undetected additional capability, the maximum interceptor force for any one state or strategic region that could credibly be claimed as limited might be about 50 (leaving aside the matter of their actual performance).

That is not to say there would be no adverse affects from even a limited deployment. Disarmament efforts could still be expected to suffer inasmuch as China , with its small strategic force, could and probably would still credibly argue that its offensive arsenal would have to grow in response. As long as any strategic BMD system were present, Russia would obviously not allow its arsenal of offensive missiles to drop anywhere near a level that the deployed or potentially deployed BMD interceptors could theoretically shoot down. And, in both cases, significant forces would be retained on the dangerous high alert that increases the risk of launch in response to a false alarm.

An ASAT ban

Strict numerical limits on strategic BMD interceptors are also essential to the second BMD arms control imperative, a universal ban on anti-satellite weapons. In an environment in which there are no legal constraints on the number of BMD interceptors that the United States is allowed to deploy, states such as China will be drawn to asymmetrical responses. In other words, they may well conclude that, because of the high costs of building up a strategic nuclear arsenal to exceed all potential US interceptors, their preferred option would be to turn their attention, as they have already signaled, to developing a capacity to attack vulnerable American satellites (the eyes and ears of America’s military might). In spite of their current championing of an ASAT ban, we can be sure that China and Russia will respond to US BMD and ASAT capabilities, not only with increased offensive ballistic missiles, but also with accelerated ASAT development (Krepon & Clary 2003, p. 108).

At the moment there is still a broad consensus in support of a ban on attacks on satellites, from either space or terrestrial (ground-, sea-, or air-based) systems. A joint proposal (Permanent Mission of China 2002) by Russia , China , and five other countries, submitted to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on June 27, 2002 , includes, in addition to its primary focus on a Treaty banning weapons in space, a prohibition on the “resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects.” 

The principle against attacking satellites is already well established. The US-Soviet Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1972 (SALT I which remains in force until 2009) includes the concept of non-interference with satellites used for verification of Treaty compliance. The same principle was written into the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty – and since it is a Treaty of unlimited duration the sanction against attacking verification satellites is essentially a permanent feature of international law. While the non-interference principle applies specifically to satellites used for the verification of these particular Treaties, former US Arms Control Ambassador Jonathan Dean  (2002) points out that it is not “feasible to determine which satellites are being actually used or could be used for this purpose. Hence, all are protected.”

The challenge now is to universalize the ban against interference with any and all satellites to prevent a destabilizing ASAT arms race which would render all space assets of every space-faring state vulnerable to attack. The threat from debris resulting from attacks on satellites makes a permanent ASAT ban an urgent environmental as well as security imperative.2

Ban on weapons in space

An ASAT ban obviously needs to be negotiated in concert with a ban on weapons in space, since an ASAT ban without the latter would essentially create a sanctuary for space weapons. Canada ’s unequivocal opposition to the weaponization of space, along with support for a global treaty to permanently prohibit the deployment of any kind of weapon in earth orbit, is a good start, but it won’t be accomplished through declarations alone. The preservation of space as a zone free of military combat will require a direct challenge to the Pentagon’s continuing ambition to develop “counterspace operations” (i.e., attacks on the space assets – satellites – of adversaries) that lead to “space superiority” (Hitchens 2004). This is how a newly articulated US Air Force doctrine, Counterspace Operations (2004), puts it: “U.S. Air Force counterspace operations are the ways and means by which the Air Force achieves and maintains space superiority. Space superiority provides freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack…. Space and air superiority are crucial first steps in any military operation.”

The Air Force doctrine is at pains to put space warfare on the same level as air warfare and to reject any notion that space is a special environment – a doctrine that is obviously a long way from the 1958 proposal of President Dwight Eisenhower to the Soviet Union that space be preserved “for peaceful purposes” for all time.

But the objective to keep weapons and shooting wars out of space still has the global upper hand. The global stake in prohibiting attacks on what then Foreign Minister Bill Graham (2004) called “the growing global public goods provided by communication, navigation and remote sensing satellites [that] are now central to all our economics” is reflected in the annual UN General Assembly resolution on “the prevention of an arms race in outer space” (referred to as PAROS) that is almost universally supported, with only the US, Israel, and Micronesia abstaining. Mr. Graham called on the CD to finally begin work on a treaty to ban space-based weapons and preserve space for peaceful uses.

Arms control capacity-building in Canada

The pursuit of these arms control measures involves more than the occasional ministerial speech to the UN – as welcome as these still are. For Canada to make a serious impact on these questions – including critical attention to arms control compliance and verification mechanisms – it needs a new order of expertise and diplomacy. Although Canada ’s diplomatic resources are stretched beyond limit they have made internationally recognized contributions to issues like missile technology control, to name just one example. But managing a sustained role in, for example, space security, missile controls, and non-proliferation compliance and verification requires a major infusion of additional personnel and resources. Otherwise, resources would have to be shifted and would undermine a host of other priority items related to conventional and small arms control, and chemical and biological weapons.

Furthermore, Canada lacks well-funded domestic centres of excellence in arms control and disarmament. Expanded diplomatic capacity needs to be coupled with an expanded capacity for research and international engagement at the level of civil society to help to build the foundation of expert knowledge and political will on which effective action toward the non-weaponization of space, the banning of anti-satellite weapons, and controls on strategic ballistic missile defences, along with all our other arms control priorities, depends. 

BMD and the Canada-US security relationship

There is a striking reluctance among Canadian advocates of our participation in BMD to argue the merits of BMD itself. Even a recent Canadian Ambassador to Washington now argues that while BMD “contradicts” important Canadian security objectives, we should still participate because “Canada must maintain close defence relations with the United States” (Chrétien, Fortmann, Roussel & Brisson 2004, p. A19). Defence Minister Bill Graham recently said it would be “extremely dangerous” for Canada to refuse to be part of the US BMD system because such a refusal would call into question the cooperative security relationship that has been in place between Canada and the United States since the Ogdensburg agreement of 1940 (Malloy 2004).

Conditional security commitments?

The implication of these and other similar warnings is that the Canada-US cooperative security relationship is conditional – that instead of enduring through the ages, it can only continue if Canada agrees to go along with or endorse particular weapons systems that the United States decides it wants to develop from time to time. The truly dangerous position for Canada is the one that fosters the assumption that the North American security relationship must be “means tested” at regular intervals through new declarations of commitment related to particular defence programs, policies, or weapons systems independently conceived and pursued by the United States .

At Ogdensburg, Prime Minister Mackenzie King and President Franklin Roosevelt confirmed Roosevelt’s earlier declaration that if Canada were attacked, the United States would not stand idly by but would come to our aid.3  Roosevelt did not add “provided you agree with us whenever we develop a new weapon system.” In NATO’s Article V, all members, including Canada and the US, agree “that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”4

These are enduring mutual commitments that are not conditional on political endorsements of particular weapons systems, such as BMD. No one has suggested that the Americans are telling Canada that NATO and Ogdensburg commitments exclude attacks by missiles, just as no one said to the Americans that these historical commitments would not apply if the attacks on the US were by civilian airliners based inside their own territory (Canada through NORAD and other facilities came to immediate and extensive assistance to the US, and NATO invoked Article V, in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks). It would not serve the interests of either Canada or the United States if we now insisted that these commitments only have meaning if each gives the other endorsements of particular initiatives or weapons systems.

If Canada is attacked by a strategic ballistic missile, Ogdensburg commitments require that the US comes to our aid. Similarly, NATO commitments require that the US and other allies come to our aid in the same circumstances. Those are not conditional commitments. They don’t depend on our signing on to BMD any more than assistance in the event of a sea-borne attack would depend on Canada’s “signing on” to American aircraft carriers or other naval assets that might come into play.

Of course, the means by which those Ogdensburg and NATO assurances are to be acted upon are entirely the sovereign decision of each country. The US commitment to come to Canada’s aid doesn’t mean that it is obliged to make specific arrangements for the defence of Canada.5 Rather, it means that in the course of arranging for their own defence in the interests of their own security, the Americans will use, according to their own choosing, defence resources they have available to assist Canada.

In that context, the Americans themselves decided to make BMD a priority – they didn’t ask Canada first, and Canada certainly didn’t ask the US to pursue that capacity on our behalf. If the Americans assumed that participation in BMD was a test of Canada-US defence cooperation, then they had a responsibility to put that proposition to Canada and consult with Canada prior to passing the National Missile Defense Act. They didn’t consult us because they regarded BMD as strictly a national program, and not a test of the Canada-US security relationship. They had every right to do it, whether we think it wise or not, but they cannot now say that because the US has decided to pursue BMD, Canada ’s non-participation would call into question Canada ’s commitment to cooperative continental security.

Indeed, if cooperation is linked by them to endorsements of particular weapons systems, then it is the US that is calling into question the basic Ogdensburg and NATO commitments. Canada should take great care not to accede to the view that the historic mutual defence commitments between our two countries are tied to the two countries’ having always the same security and arms control priorities.

The obligation to consult

Whenever the Americans undertake defence initiatives with implications for Canada , they have an obligation to consult. That is why we have a Permanent Joint Board on Defence, amongst many other mechanisms – indeed that is why we have embassies in each other’s capital.

Where did the idea emerge that we somehow have to earn the right to be consulted? The obligation of neighbours is to consult when actions affecting the other are taken. We certainly do not have to provide a blanket endorsement of a particular US initiative before we can expect to be consulted on it – before we can set a table around which to discuss it. Consultation is the obligation of neighbours, especially neighbours as closely linked on security matters as we are.

And there is no shortage of tables at which to consult. The Canada-US Permanent Joint Board on Defence has been around since World War II and Ogdensburg. It is the highest level of consultation and is available to deal with the most contentious issues. Again, prior approval is not a condition for getting something onto the agenda. In fact, BMD is a case in point since a BMD Bilateral Information Sharing Working Group has been meeting twice a year since 2000 (DND 2003).

In addition, in December 2002 the Binational Planning Group was established. It is separate from but located at NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs and is a forum at which to address a broad range of Canada-US security issues. It has a particular focus on maritime issues, but it also has a broader mandate – in other words, if the appropriate table is not available, the Binational Planning Group is a model for creating a table to meet a particular need.



  1. The entire operational section is a single sentence: “It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate) with funding subject to the annual authorization of appropriations and the annual appropriation of funds for National Missile Defense.”
  2. A further objective of banning attacks on satellites is to protect space from the permanent debris that would result. While some ASATs are envisioned as using radiation and electronic jamming measures to disable satellites, rather than physically destroy them, most ASATs would be kinetic weapons, essentially the same design as BMD interceptors designed to collide with missile warheads in space. Kinetic weapons are designed to crash into the target – whether satellites or missile warheads – and given the extraordinary speeds of objects in space, the impact would result in clouds of debris, which would themselves continue in orbit indefinitely, becoming permanent hazards to those communication, navigation, remote sensing, and other satellites that now serve the public good. In very low earth orbit, much of this debris would gradually lose altitude and eventually burn up as it entered the earth’s atmosphere, but until that happened it would also pose major threats to objects in low earth orbit.
  3. In 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt said in a speech at Queen’s University (Granatstein 2002, p. 3) that the “people of the United States will not stand idly by if domination of Canadian soil is threatened by any other empire.” Granatstein explains, “A few days later [Prime Minister Mackenzie] King felt obliged to reply that Canada would ensure that it was as immune from attack or invasion as it could be and that it would not permit enemy forces to attack the United States ‘by land, sea or air’ from Canada. In effect, King pledged that Canada would maintain sufficient defensive strength to deter any incursions aimed at the United States and that the Dominion would never become a strategic liability to its neighbour.”
  4. Article V goes on to say that “consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
  5. Canada, in the lead up to Ogdensburg, did commit to take the measures needed to give the United States reasonable assurances that no threats to its security will emerge undetected from Canada.


Chrétien, R., Fortmann, M., Roussel, S. & Brisson, D. 2004, “We can’t beat it, so let’s join it,” The Globe and Mail, October 28, p. A19.

Dean, J. 2002, “The Current Legal Regime Governing the Use of Outer Space,” presented to the conference on Outer Space and Global Security, November 26-27, Palais des Nations, Geneva.

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

Graham, W. 2004, Notes for an address by the Honourable Bill Graham, Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, March 16.

Granatstein, J. 2002, A Friendly Agreement in Advance: Canada-US Defense Relations Past, Present, and Future, C.D. Howe Institute, The Border Papers #166, June.

Hitchens, T. 2004, “USAF Counterspace Operation Doctrine: Questions Answered, Questions Raised,” Center for Defense Information, October 4.

Krepon, M. & Clary, C. 2003, Space Assurance or Space Dominance? The Case Against Weaponizing Space, The Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, April.

Malloy, K. 2004, “‘Extremely dangerous’ not to sign on US Missile Shield, says Graham,” The Hill Times, October 18.

The North Atlantic Treaty 1949, Washington, DC.

Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva 2002, Working Paper on PAROS, presented by the Delegations of China, the Russian Federation, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Syrian Arab Republic, June 27.

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade 2004, Evidence, November 4.

United States Air Force 2004, Counterspace Operations, Air Force Doctrine Document 2-2.1, August 2.

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