Canada and the US National Missile Defense Program

Tasneem Jamal

Bill Robinson

The Ploughshares Monitor September 2000 Volume 21 Issue 3

This article was adapted from briefing materials prepared by Project Ploughshares to help groups and individuals discuss the issues surrounding missile defence with their member of Parliament.

The United States is developing a National Missile Defense (NMD) system designed to intercept and destroy a small number of long-range ballistic missiles launched at the United States.

The prospect of a defence against a ballistic missile attack is attractive, but the deployment of such a system could have major, potentially very damaging, implications for global security, provoking dangerous reactions in Russia and China, undermining or destroying important arms control agreements, blocking vital safety initiatives such as the de-alerting of nuclear forces, and even raising the possibility of a new nuclear arms race.

The NMD proposal raises special dilemmas for Canada, which must consider not only the global security implications of such a system but also the possibility that Canada will be invited to participate in operating the system (which has the potential to cover most of Canada as well as the United States) if the US does decide to deploy it. Canada is already coming under strong pressure to accept such an invitation if it is made, and the Canadian government is undecided on how it would respond.

National Missile Defense

The primary mission of the proposed National Missile Defense system is the defence of the entire territory of the United States against a limited long-range ballistic missile attack by a “rogue” state. The system is also intended to provide some capability against a small accidental or unauthorized launch of ballistic missiles by other states with nuclear arsenals.

System components

The proposed NMD system would be composed of several major components: radar and satellite systems optimized to detect and track a missile attack; ground-based interceptor missiles designed to destroy the approaching warheads by colliding with them as they fly through space; and supporting battle management, command, control, and communications facilities on the ground to coordinate the operation of the defence.

The Clinton administration’s NMD plan envisaged deployment of the system in a number of stages: a “Threshold Capability 1” system with 20 interceptors based at a single site in Alaska beginning in the year 2005; an “Expanded Capability 1” system with 100 interceptors in 2007; a “Capability 2” system, featuring an improved ability to deal with countermeasures, in 2010; and ultimately a “Capability 3” system with 250 interceptors based at two sites in 2011. According to NMD planners, the “Expanded Capability 1” deployment would have the ability to intercept “a few tens” of attacking missiles, while the full “Capability 3” deployment would have the ability to intercept “several tens” of missiles. The US Congressional Budget Office projected that the full system, including satellite sensors, would cost approximately $60-billion US.

Many NMD supporters, including Republican presidential nominee George W Bush, are not satisfied with the limited capabilities of the Clinton administration’s proposed system, arguing that it should be expanded to include additional ground-, sea-, or space-based interceptors, or even more exotic technologies such as space-based lasers. The US Space Command believes that NMD deployment ultimately will represent only one element of a broad array of “space control,” “missile defence,” and “force application” capabilities.

ABM Treaty

None of the proposed NMD deployments complies with the US-Russian Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which, among other provisions, commits each party “not to deploy ABM systems for a defense of the territory of its country.” In May 2000, the 187 parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty — including both the United States and Russia — reiterated the necessity of “preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability.” The Clinton administration has argued, however, that the best way to preserve and strengthen the treaty is to modify it to permit NMD deployment; the US has threatened to withdraw from the treaty if Russia does not accept such modifications. US-Russian talks on the subject are continuing.

Deployment decision deferred

The question of whether or not to begin deployment of the system came before the Clinton administration during the summer. On 1 September 2000, President Clinton announced that he would not authorize deployment of the system but that the NMD research and development program would continue. This decision was based on four criteria:

  • the extent of the missile threat;
  • the status of NMD technology;
  • the cost of the system; and
  • the impact of deployment on US security, including arms control and disarmament regimes, relations with Russia and China, and the effect of the decision on US Allies.

President Clinton’s decision deferred the possibility of NMD deployment, but did not end it. A decision to deploy the system — or some other system — could be made by the next President as early as next year. (The deployment timetable outlined above would slip by at least one or two years, however.)

Implications for Canada

Canada must consider not only the global security implications of NMD but also the possibility that it will be invited to participate in operating the system if the US does decide to deploy it. Canada has not been formally invited to participate in NMD, and no such invitation will be extended before the US has made its own deployment decision, but US officials have made it clear that the United States would like Canada to participate if the system does get approved.

If Canada did agree to participate, the NMD system would be operated by the joint US-Canadian North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) as a Ballistic Missile Defence of North America. Canada’s contributions, monetary or otherwise, would be minimal; the current NMD plan does not envisage the deployment of any BMD components or facilities in Canada (although the possibility of future deployments has not been ruled out). The main contribution that Canadian participation would make would be to help legitimize the program in the eyes of sceptical US allies and other countries around the world.

Canadian response to NMD

The Canadian government is undecided on how to respond if the United States does decide to deploy the NMD system and then invites Canada to participate. Canadian Members of Parliament need to learn more about the missile defence issue and what their constituents think about it.

Project Ploughshares has been encouraging groups and individuals to meet with or write letters to their MP to convey the following three key themes:

  • The deployment of missile defences would increase, not reduce, the nuclear threat to Canadian and global security.
  • Canada is therefore obligated to oppose the deployment of a missile defence and should not participate in the operation of such a system.
  • Canada should propose constructive alternatives to missile defence.

Missile defence would increase, not reduce, the nuclear threat to Canadian and global security.

The continued existence and proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world does pose a real threat to Canadian and global security.

The US National Missile Defense proposal is designed to respond to the possibility of a deliberate missile attack by a so-called “rogue” state or an accidental or inadvertent launch of a small number of missiles by other nuclear powers. In both respects, however, NMD is the wrong solution to the wrong problem.

The missile threat posed by “rogue” states is exaggerated and must be balanced against other threats that NMD deployment might increase. None of the “rogue” states (or “states of concern” as the US State Department now terms them) currently possesses either nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles capable of reaching North America. It is technologically possible — although not at all certain — that these or other states will acquire such capabilities over the next 5-15 years. Even if they do acquire nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, however, deployment of a missile defence would be a useful response only if:

  • the state in question actually intended to launch an attack, and intended to do so despite the fact that it would be tantamount to suicide;
  • the attacker cooperated with the defence by using a ballistic missile instead of one of the many other available means of delivering an attack;
  • the attacker further cooperated by deciding not to use decoys or other simple countermeasures that would almost certainly render the currently proposed NMD system ineffective; and
  • the system actually worked when needed.

None of these requirements is likely to be met in the real world.

A far more pressing nuclear threat to Canada and the world is posed by the huge US and Russian arsenals, which together account for 97 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons. NMD deployment would impede efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate the threat posed by the US and Russian arsenals, and could even lead to a serious worsening of it.

NMD deployment could also lead to a significant increase in the nuclear arsenal of China and possibly a further increase in the risk of accidental nuclear war.

In addition, Russian and Chinese reactions could lead to counterreactions by other nuclear and near-nuclear powers, undermining the Non-Proliferation Treaty and encouraging the wider spread of nuclear capabilities.

NMD would not provide effective protection against accidental or inadvertent launches. The single most important step needed to prevent accidental nuclear war is the de-alerting of the US and Russian nuclear forces. This step, which the Canadian government already advocates, is the only measure that can entirely eliminate the possibility of accidental or inadvertent nuclear launches. NMD deployment will almost certainly block progress on de-alerting. As a result, NMD deployment is more likely to increase, or at least perpetuate, the danger of an accidental or inadvertent nuclear attack than it is to protect against such an event.

In sum, NMD deployment would do little or nothing to protect North America from either nuclear accidents or the supposed “rogue” threat, but it would almost certainly provoke extremely undesirable responses by Russia, China, and possibly other countries that would significantly increase the nuclear threat to North America and the world as a whole.

Canada should oppose the deployment of a missile defence and should not participate in the operation of such a system.

Joining the NMD program would put Canada on the wrong side on an issue of vital importance to Canadian and global security.

Some proponents of Canadian participation argue that US deployment is a foregone conclusion and the only question that Canada should consider is how participation or nonparticipation would affect Canada-US relations. But NMD deployment, although likely, is not a foregone conclusion. And even if an initial decision to deploy the system were made, vitally important questions would remain concerning the ultimate size and development of the system, the addition of space-based components, mitigation of the damaging consequences of NMD deployment, and even the question of reversing the deployment. Decisions on these questions would directly affect Canadian arms control and disarmament, defence, and security policies and interests, and would need to be assessed on that basis.

Nonparticipation would enable Canada 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 the political level, not the Canada-US military level, where the ultimate decisions will be made, where attitudes are not already fixed, and where Canadian influence (in concert with other countries) would be most likely to produce results.

There is no reason to believe that a Canadian decision not to participate in NMD would damage Canada-US relations. The US has already made it clear that it does not need Canadian participation in the NMD program. In any case, the Canada-US relationship is far too deeply rooted, wide-ranging, and co-operative to be derailed by disagreement over a limited issue such as NMD. Non-participation might be expected to have some effect on NORAD, but even in that limited context a mutual interest in cooperative aircraft monitoring and control would continue to exist. The US would also have a strong interest in continued, and expanded, co-operation in other aspects of “homeland defence,” such as border control, counterterrorist operations, and protection against cyberattack. The US knows that the Canadian government is keen to co-operate in these areas, and that it would make no sense for the US to undermine its own national security by refusing such co-operation.

Canada should propose constructive alternatives to missile defence.

There are alternatives to missile defence.

The best way to protect against the potential nuclear threat posed by the so-called “rogue” states is for the international community to work collectively to:

  • make it clear that it will not tolerate such acts and will act to remove any regime that commits them (non-nuclear deterrence);
  • provide security assurances designed to alleviate security concerns that may be encouraging the acquisition of such capabilities (reassurance);
  • work to build a broader and more cooperative political, economic, and social relationship that can ultimately transcend the possibility of armed conflict (engagement); and
  • negotiate to freeze or eliminate nuclear weapon, other weapon of mass destruction, and long-range ballistic missile programs (arms control).

The case of North Korea is a good example of the potential effectiveness of this approach. The US intelligence community considers North Korea to be the country most likely to develop missiles that could threaten North America during the next 15 years. But 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 tens of nuclear weapons by now) and, since September 1999, a freeze on ballistic missile tests, pending the outcome of negotiations with the US on the elimination of the North Korean missile program. Canada’s recent decision to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea will facilitate Canadian efforts to contribute to these processes.

A useful global reassurance measure would be the creation of a multilateral ballistic missile early warning and monitoring system. Such an arrangement has been proposed by Russia and suggested by Foreign Affairs Minister Axworthy. The idea already enjoys broad support, but it needs further development to define the technical, administrative, and political elements of an effective system.

Such a system would be designed to carry out 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 (among other benefits, this would assist in verifying nuclear de-alerting measures);
  • to receive and share pre-launch notification of missile launches; and
  • to detect and track ballistic missile launches and flights and share the information in real time (to reduce the dangers of false alarms).

Even the active pursuit of such multilateral mechanisms would have a helpful effect on the international security and disarmament environments.

MPs have an important role to play.

The Canadian government is undecided on how to respond to NMD. The government needs to hear that Members of Parliament and their constituents are concerned about the NMD issue and do not support Canadian participation.

Please meet with or write to your Member of Parliament (House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A6, postage free) and ask him or her to challenge Canadian participation in NMD and, in particular, to:

speak up at party caucus meetings to make the following points:

  • NMD would increase, not reduce, the nuclear threat to Canadian and global security.
  • Canada is therefore obligated to oppose NMD deployment and should not participate in its operation; and
  • Canada should propose constructive alternatives to missile defence.

write to the Prime Minister making the same points. (Please ask your MP to send you a copy of this letter.)

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