Canada’s ‘half-pregnant’ ballistic missile defense stance

(DND Headquarters in Ottawa. Photo: CP)

By Jeff Collins, Research Associate

Ballistic missile tests on the Korean peninsula and Russian deployments of cruise missiles bring nuclear proliferation back into focus. The National Post reports that the federal cabinet has considered Canadian involvement in the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system.

BMD is a series of radars and missile batteries designed to intercept (predominantly) nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, launched from sea or land. BMD was last debated in 2004-2005 when Canada controversially opted out. Today’s government is apt to reconsider participation, as much has changed in the last dozen years.

The 2004-2005 dithering on BMD was largely the result of electoral calculations: the combination of a minority government with a divided caucus, sensitivity to Quebec seats and unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration made participation unsellable.

A different climate confronts decision-makers today. But Canada’s non-committal stance still creates a “half-pregnant” policy.

BMD has been normalized in defence policy circles. Within NATO, BMD is a core policy, adopted at the 2010 Lisbon Summit with Canada’s support. There are BMD radar sites in Turkey, Romania and, starting in 2018, Poland. The Netherlands and Denmark are outfitting their frigates with BMD-supporting radars. Spain hosts BMD-capable ships at its naval base in Rota.

In North America, Canada indirectly participates in the U.S.-based BMD program. Both countries have jointly defended continental aerospace since 1958. With a Canadian officer as its second-in-command, a 2004 amendment to the NORAD agreement saw Canada provide U.S. Northern Command with access to integrated data obtained through the North Warning System in the Arctic.

Normalization of BMD follows a volatile international security situation. North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, Iran’s ambitions remain on hold and instability feeds uncertainty about Pakistan’s ability to guard its nuclear stockpile.

And with the Trump presidency, U.S. allies face stringent calls to invest in their military capabilities, or risk losing longstanding security guarantees.

Defence commentators and decision-makers have taken note. In 2014, the Harper government indicated openness to revisiting the 2005 BMD decision in light of the global security situation. A 2015 bi-partisan Senate report recommended Canadian participation in BMD over concerns about North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities. The Trudeau government’s 2016 Defence Policy Review consultation paper remarked that ballistic missile threats are “expected to endure and grow more sophisticated.”

The recent joint statement by President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau hinted at possible BMD participation with a call “to modernize and broaden our NORAD partnership” in “aerospace warning, aerospace control…as well as cyber and space.”

The time is right to join BMD. Fortunately, the government has several options, all at a relatively low cost when compared to purchasing new multi-billion dollar destroyers or fighter jets.

Canada could opt to join BMD in exchange for upgrading NORAD’s NWS radars, due for replacement in the mid-2020s. Similarly, defence scholar David McDonough has argued that BMD-supported radars could be placed in Labrador.

Ottawa could also commit to sharing data from its space assets. A select number of the yet-built frigates and destroyers of the Canadian Surface Combatant project could be configured to carry the sea-based Aegis BMD system (the UK is currently considering this model). Such an approach would give Ottawa a floating, mobile BMD platform to meet NATO and continental defence needs.

Whatever option is pursued, Canada needs to clarify its position by formally joining the U.S. based system. With decreasing international stability, the government needs to ensure that the country’s security is not taken for granted.

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