Canada and the Great Missile Defense Temptation

The recent dramatic spike in tensions on the Korean Peninsula has sparked fresh calls for Canada to join the American Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system.

Proponents of the system claim it can either intercept and destroy a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking North America – a dread combination of range and power North Korea now seems close to achieving – or at least limit the carnage from such an attack.

Arrow anti-ballistic missile launch. Point Mugu Sea Range, Calif. 26 August 2004. (US Navy photo, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Arrow anti-ballistic missile launch. Point Mugu Sea Range, Calif. 26 August 2004. (US Navy photo, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Twelve years ago, citing concerns over cost, technological capability and strategic rationale, the Liberal Government of Paul Martin decided not to join what is sometimes referred to, reassuringly but inaccurately, as the ‘shield’ then under construction, a ‘dovish’ decision interestingly not reversed during the stridently ‘hawkish’ Stephen Harper era.

This past August, Peter MacKay, Harper’s Minister of National Defense from 2007-2013, confessed to “regrets we weren’t able to advance those discussions,” arguing that in light of North Korea’s new but predictable capabilities it was now “a huge problem” for Canada to remain outside. A similar sentiment was voiced in September by Paul Martin, who told Global News “circumstances have changed substantially” since he left office.

And in an even clearer indicator of the new mood, on August 24, retired General and Liberal Senator Romeo Dallaire, a champion of peacekeeping and outspoken supporter of a nuclear-weapon-free world, argued that “Canada should join” because “we currently cannot put a hand on our heart and say that it [the system] will be used to help us should something happen.”

Radioactive fall-out not being known as a respecter of national borders, it has long been assumed that the US would attempt to shoot down any ICBM headed (by design or accident) to any part of North America. But on September 14,  Lieutenant-General Pierre St-Amand, Canada’s senior officer in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), told a House of Commons Committee for “a fact” that it was “US policy not to defend Canada.” Retired General Tom Lawson, Chief of the Defense Staff from 2012 to 2015, chimed in, telling MPs that as part of “NORAD modernization” Canada “should come on board” and belatedly accept the “open invitation from our American hosts.”

“Most military advisers,” Lawson added, “find it a very odd stance that Canadian politicians have taken.”


Frustrating as elected officials often prove to men in uniform, there actually remain compelling reasons for Canada to continue to resist the siren songs of ‘safety’ and ‘security’ now flooding the airwaves to persuade the public and politicians to ‘trust the technology’ and ‘invest’ in the ultimate ‘life insurance’ policy. As Postmedia commentator Anthony Furey crooned  on (appropriately) September 11, “when you take a look at one of those maps showing the reach of North Korea’s arsenal and realize Canada’s within range, signing up for BMD now seems like common sense.”

Oh, that it could be so simple…

Strategically, missile defense is a game of leapfrog you can never hope to win; technologically, it is a game you can only appear to win by rigging. As an instructive timeline from the highly-respected Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)  – ‘The Real Story of Missile Defense’ – details, since the dawn of the atomic age, scientists have sought a technological fix to an insuperable problem: the ease with which the ‘arrows’ can penetrate, elude, overwhelm or fool whatever ‘shield’ you build.

In the trenches of the First World War, the strategic advantage lay always with the defender: there was no real way through No-Man’s Land. But you can’t mine the sky or build barbed-wire clouds: your only ‘defense’ is to fire more ‘arrows’ and hope you get lucky. In the words of former senior Pentagon missile scientist Philip E. Coyle in Congressional testimony in May 2014:

Shooting down an enemy missile going 15,000 mph out in space is like trying to hit a hole-in-one in golf when the hole is going 15,000 mph. And if an enemy uses decoys and countermeasures, missile defense is like trying to shoot a hole-in-one in golf when the hole is going 15,000 mph and the green is covered in black circles the same size as the hole.

Even worse, the ‘shield’ itself acts as a large shining target, a magnet increasing your vulnerability to – and the likelihood of – a first-strike attack, while also creating irresistible pressure for adversaries to increase their arsenals. For these reasons, the US and Soviet Union in 1972 concluded the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, severely limiting permissible defenses (one small site per side), a crucial Cold War restraint surviving even the techno-fantasies of President Ronald Reagan’s 1980s ‘Star Wars’ BMD program before falling victim in 2002 to President George W. Bush’s post-Cold War bid for of nuclear supremacy and military ‘full-spectrum dominance.’

To justify his demolition of the ABM Treaty, President Bush insisted both that epochal technological breakthroughs were imminent and that defense was only being sought against ‘rogue states’ like Iran and North Korea. However, as a comprehensive 2016 UCS study — Shielded from Oversight: The Disastrous US Approach to Strategic Missile Defense — shows, the Bush-era Missile Defense Agency (MDA) took blatant liberties with its R&D and testing program — avoiding ‘real-world’ test conditions (plausible trajectories, flight-times, etc), for example, and deploying various aids to help the interceptor find its target, despite which massaging (and messaging) multiple failures occurred.

While no conceivable US BMD system could stop a small-scale nuclear attack, let alone a massive Russian (or Chinese) nuclear attack, it could seriously destabilize the strategic nuclear balance between Washington, Moscow and Beijing, creating a grotesque calculus where nuclear reductions become less ‘realistic’ and likely than nuclear war.

In addition, the satellite monitoring deployed in support of missile defenses can also spy on vast swathes of territory, and so provide intelligence (reliable or otherwise) on nuclear facilities and deployments. For example, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) intercept system recently deployed in South Korea can peer deep into China, making its nuclear forces more susceptible to a disabling pre-emptive assault.


While President Barack Obama scaled back some of his predecessor’s more ambitious testing and deployment programs – and effectively eliminated the nuclear threat from Iran by diplomatic means – he passed on to his successor essentially the same unproven system, evaluated by equally dubious, self-serving means, and backed by the same wishful rationale.

US President Donald Trump being briefed on military strike in Syria. (Photo by Shealah Craighead, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

US President Donald Trump being briefed on military strike in Syria. (Photo by Shealah Craighead, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Trump is, of course, far more dangerous and intemperate, as both his juvenile taunting of North Korea and contemptuous dismissal of the Iran Nuclear Deal chillingly illustrate. But the basic American missile defense addiction runs deep in the veins of the nuclear national security state: and one of the main elements fueling the ‘high’ is profit.

Writing for Open Canada in early August, former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament Paul Meyer stated memorably:

The pungent American-originated term ‘boondoggle’ can be defined as ‘a project that is considered a useless waste of time and money yet is often continued due to extraneous policy or political motivations.’ It is a fitting word to describe the 15-year exercise undertaken by the United States to provide a ballistic missile defense for that country.

During that time, at least $40 billion has been spent, a figure set to climb steeply, lining the limitless pockets of Lockheed Martin and other overfed denizens of the BMD trough. Even worse, as the 2016 UCS study notes, inadequate Congressional oversight “has not only exacerbated the…system’s problems, but has obscured their full extent, which could encourage politicians and military leaders to make decisions that actually increase the risk of a missile attack against the United States.” And, if Ottawa succumbs to the Siren Song, against Canada, too…

“How,” the study’s authors ask, “did we end up in this position?” By neglecting the only dependable route to peace on the Korean Peninsula and other potential nuclear flash-points: patient negotiation and disarmament diplomacy.

On September 24, John McCallum, Canada’s Ambassador to China, insisted “Canada stands ready…to help to broker a peace” between Pyongyang and Washington. Notwithstanding Canada’s recent deft touch in securing the release of one its citizens, Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, from North Korean custody in early August, its participation later that month in computer-simulated nuclear war games in South Korea surely eroded Ottawa’s potential status as neutral intermediary. If the Trudeau Government was now to fall for the Pentagon’s Great BMD Scam, any residual hope for a constructive diplomatic role would be gone.

Featured image: USS Bainbridge conducting a missile exercise. (US Navy photo, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.







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