Canada’s Weakening Commitment to a Prohibition on Weapons in Space

Tasneem Jamal

Briefing 04-1

Ernie Regehr

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The US fiscal year 2005 budget request that President Bush has now sent to Congress upgrades the Missile Defense Agency’s commitment to pursuing a space-based element to ballistic missile defence (BMD). At the same time, Canadian Defence Minister David Pratt’s recent letter to US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld appears to downgrade Canada’s commitment to preventing the placement of weapons in space.

The Washington Center for Defense Information points out that only a few months ago, in the context of FY 2004 budget discussions, the Missile Defense Agency was down-playing the space-based elements of BMD, citing major technological hurdles. In the FY 2005 budget document, however, space is back and the development of a space-based interceptor test bed receives funding.

Earlier budgets included some basic research funds, but the FY 2005 budget provides funds for a start to development work, preparing for the planned 2012 deployment of the test bed from which to begin testing space-based interceptors. The amounts are not large, compared with overall BMD spending, but enough to make the intentions clear. In 2004, $14 million was set aside for research, while in 2005 a $47 million technology development fund is provided for space and other elements of a multi-layered system. The significant change is not in the amount of funding but in the move from research to development funding. [Source: Center for Defense Information and a Feb 2/04 Reuters report by Jim Wolf, “Bush moves toward Star Wars missile defense”.]

The White House emphasizes an “evolutionary approach” to BMD, and Mr. Rumsfeld says they will “evolve” BMD and “experiment with it”, insisting that they do not have a final BMD architecture in mind but that they will go where the technology leads. The point is to emphasize that all options, including space weapons, are on the table.

Mr. Pratt’s letter follows the American lead.
He notes that “the technical extent of protection afforded by the US ballistic missile defence system will evolve over time,” and then adds that “bilateral cooperation in this area should also evolve.” The letter avoids the Government’s earlier assurances that Canada’s involvement would be confined to the ground-based, mid-course interception system, and by declaring an openness to technology-led evolution he signals that there really is no redline protection of a firm Canadian policy against space becoming a weapons zone.

It is true that an operational space-based interceptor system is still decades away, but it is the pursuit of that capacity that will continue to undermine diplomatic efforts toward an international convention banning weapons in space. Such a convention has been a long-term, concrete Canadian policy objective, and the question is, will it survive Mr. Pratt’s negotiations with Mr. Rumsfeld?

The US commitment to placing weapons in space is unambiguously part of its strategic BMD intention. It is an intention that Canada would not escape as a BMD collaborator. 

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