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Return of the SDI: ballistic missile defence for North America.

Is Star Wars back? The Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) is long dead, but support for the deployment of ballistic missile defences is growing in the United States, and under the Clinton Administration's National Missile Defense plan a decision either to deploy such a system or to continue its development is scheduled to be made during fiscal year 2000 (i.e., as early as October 1999). The Canadian government continues to proclaim its support for the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which forbids the deployment of significant missile defences, and senior officials at the departments of National Defence (DND) and Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) insist that no decision involving Canada is imminent and no changes in Canadian policy are required. Nevertheless, DND believes in being prepared, and it has begun quietly to lay the groundwork for the possibility of Canadian participation in the development and operation of a joint US-Canadian Ballistic Missile Defence system for North America (BMD-NA).

Canadian participation sought

In a sense, the ball is already in Canada's court. In August 1996, the Pentagon's Joint Requirements Oversight Council agreed that NORAD, the US-Canadian aerospace defence command, should operate the BMD system if Canada agrees to participate. (1) And the Commander in Chief of NORAD (CINCNORAD), General Howell Estes, has made it clear that he wants a Canadian decision now. In March 1997, General Estes told the US Senate Armed Services Committee that "Now is the time to work with Canada to determine its interest in participating in the development of a system that would extend the US national missile defense system program to a ballistic missile defense for North America." (2) Estes also has stated that "the time to get the Canadians involved is not once we decide to deploy it, but, rather, in the development [stage]," which is currently underway; "it's up to the Canadians to look at this issue and decide they want to participate, and, if so, at what level." (3) In July Estes made the pitch directly to a Canadian air force conference in Winnipeg, arguing that a Canadian decision to participate "would bring much more influence now than later." (4)


* USCINCSPACE's vision is BMD-NA

* Defend Canada

* History of military cooperation

* Military apparatus in place

* Current situation:

* NORAD mission language modified in 1996

* Canadian R&D participation

* High level US-Canadian discussions

Ballistic Missile Defence of North America (BMD-NA): This slide, part of a May 1997 presentation by US Space Command, makes the case for NORAD - and Canadian - involvement in ballistic missile defence. General Howell Estes, the Commander-in-Chief of Space Command (USCINCSPACE), is also the Commander-in-Chief of NORAD.

The question before the Canadian government is not whether it is willing to commit itself to the deployment of a BMD system - as noted above, no deployment decision has yet been made by the US. The question before the government is whether it is open to the possibility of participation in such a system and whether it is willing to help plan the system and contribute to its technological development. Last fall, Estes stated publicly that "we have begun to dialogue with our Canadian friends on their involvement in this very important project." (5) And just a few months ago, General Estes' deputy, US Space Command Director of Plans Brigadier-General Alan Johnson, reported that "high level US-Canadian discussions" are currently taking place. (6)

Canadian officials characterize these discussions simply as briefings within NORAD and the Permanent Joint Board on Defence - part of Canada's prudent monitoring of US developments. Indeed, they note that given the immaturity of BMD technology, its cost, and the lack of a threat justifying its deployment, a US decision actually to proceed with deployment is unlikely to be made for many years (if ever), and that until then there is no Canadian decision that needs to be made and no necessity to change the policy on BMD laid out in the 1994 Defence White Paper. (7)

The door is already open

In short, General Estes is unlikely to get a definitive "yes" from the Canadian government. But he also is unlikely to get a definitive "no."

In 1985 the Mulroney government opted not to participate directly in SDI-related research (while nonetheless encouraging Canadian companies to seek SDI contracts). But DND fought hard to participate in the US Strategic Defense Architecture 2000 study, which examined future missile defence options, and the department was successful in keeping the door open to the possibility of participation in any future deployed system. (8)

The 1994 Defence White Paper opened the door to Canadian participation even wider, authorizing DND to co-operate in "the examination of ballistic missile defence options" and to participate in BMD-related research. It also laid out a set of conditions under which Canada might participate in BMD, stating that "Canadian involvement in ballistic missile defence would ... have to be cost-effective and affordable, make an unambiguous contribution to Canada's defence needs, and build on missions the Forces already perform, such as surveillance and communications." (9)

This policy did not commit Canada to participation in either the development or the operation of a ballistic missile defence system. But it did confirm that these options were not ruled out, and it gave DND the green light to proceed with contingency planning. In January 1995, one month after the white paper was released, Chief of Defence Staff General John de Chastelain declared that "Canada looks favourably on working with the US" in developing a North American BMD system, adding that "we're talking about joint involvement in the development of a product that would produce a regional ballistic missile defence system." (10)

A subsequent report produced by the Canadian NORAD Region Headquarters noted that "NORAD's leadership views missile defence as a logical extension of NORAD's current mission." Written in preparation for the 1996 renewal of the NORAD agreement, it went on to assert that "the necessity of having [a BMD] capability is becoming increasingly important." (11)

Officials state that this excessively enthusiastic report is no longer circulated by DND. But NORAD's own publications (which must be approved by both countries) continue to make similar assertions, stating that "NORAD may be the logical organization to have command and control of a ground-based North American limited ballistic missile defense system," and that "This future capability to counter a limited ballistic missile attack ... is crucial to maintaining a credible security strategy." (12)

Groundwork being laid

Other preparations for the BMD mission have been underway for a number of years. In March 1996 the NORAD agreement was rewritten to include a provision stating that "the addition of other aspects of [NORAD missions] may be made by agreement between the Chief of Defence Staff of Canada and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, with approval of higher authority" (in Canada's case, Cabinet approval would be required). Whether or not it was added with ballistic missile defence in mind, this Canadian-suggested change has had the effect of creating a mechanism to add BMD to NORAD's "Aerospace Control" mission without having to wait for the agreement's next renewal in 2001, should the two governments decide to use it. (13) NORAD is already "in the process of developing a Concept of Operations for BMD, modelled on the command-and-control system of NORAD's air defence fighters." (14)

The BMD research activities authorized by the white paper are also beginning to take shape. As of 1997 DND's Research and Development Branch was still working to establish the official "requirements" for BMD research, (15) but a number of co-operative research projects are already underway with the US Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. (16) DND also has established a Joint Space Project (JSP) to "contribute to a comprehensive space capability for the Department." The immediate priorities of the JSP are improvements to DND's intelligence processing and space surveillance capabilities that are unrelated to BMD activities, but the project also envisages the eventual development of "adequate defensive measures against space-related threats to Canadian territory and areas of vital national interest." "The preferred solution" to such space-related threats, the project description notes, "is to provide for territorial defence by some arrangement within NORAD." (17) Very little money has been committed to the JSP to date, but it is estimated that the overall cost of the project could run as high as $500 million. (18)

In the meantime, Canadian Forces personnel are already involved in potentially BMD-related activities. In recent years, for example, Canadian personnel have been assigned to US Space Command to help operate the Defense Support Program satellites, which track ballistic missile launches around the world. (19) These satellites currently function as part of NORAD's early warning system. But, as the US Ballistic Missile Defense Organization has acknowledged, they may also be called upon to function as components of a future missile defence system. The next generation of these satellites, designated the Space-Based Infra-Red System (SBIRS), is being optimized for exactly this role. (20) This means that, if a missile defence is deployed, Canadians will find themselves involved in its operations even if NORAD does not become directly involved - unless a deliberate decision is subsequently taken by the government to withdraw Canadian personnel from such activities.

Still a bad idea ...

Why deploy missile defences? Even the proponents of such a system have stopped promising that it could save us during an all-out nuclear war. Instead, they argue that the United States (and Canada) should deploy a limited missile defence system to protect against small-scale missile attacks by "rogue states" or accidental or unauthorized launches involving a handful of Russian or Chinese missiles. Such a system may seem like a prudent idea at first glance. But a closer examination reveals that even a limited BMD system is a bad idea.

For starters, BMD is a "solution" in search of a problem. None of the so-called "rogue states" possesses ballistic missiles capable of reaching North America. And no one has explained why a state or terrorist group contemplating the kind of small nuclear attack that a BMD system might be able to handle would choose a delivery technology that it does not possess, is extremely expensive and time-consuming to develop, is vulnerable to pre-emptive attack, is relatively unreliable, and leaves unambiguous proof of the source of the attack when it could much more easily and reliably deliver a bomb in a commercial airliner or a shipping container. Even if it preferred the ballistic missile method, the most that a missile defence could do would be to convince the attacker to use these alternative methods of delivery.

As for accidental or unauthorized launches, even BMD proponents admit that, at best, such a system could provide only a partial defence against a very small number of missiles. Co-operative safety measures, such as the Canberra Commission's proposal to store warheads separately from their missiles, would provide much more effective protection against accidental or unauthorized launches of any scale.

Deployment of a BMD system would also have serious disadvantages - violating the ABM Treaty, undermining further nuclear arms control, and possibly sparking a renewed nuclear arms race. As the US National Academy of Sciences concluded in its 1997 report The Future of US Nuclear Weapons Policy, "deploying missile defences outside the bounds of the ABM treaty could greatly diminish the prospects for further reductions in nuclear weapons. The ABM treaty remains an essential part of the foundation of nuclear arms control. ... A possible strategic defense against a small number of nuclear warheads bought at a price of foreclosing further reductions in offensive nuclear arms - thus locking into place thousands of warheads capable of being aimed at the United States - would be a very poor investment."

Support for ABM Treaty

It is no great secret that BMD is on the NORAD agenda. Nevertheless, the issue has gone little noticed on Parliament Hill, where it failed to come up in either the one hearing held on the most recent renewal of the NORAD agreement or the subsequent parliamentary debate on the agreement, held two weeks before its renewal. (21) (The New Democrats raised the issue on other occasions during the last Parliament, but they were unable to participate in this debate.)

In February 1995, however, the government did pledge that "Canada will continue to oppose the abrogation or weakening of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty." And in March 1996 it reaffirmed that "Canada remains firmly committed to the 1972 ABM Treaty." (22)

Pentagon officials continue to assert that an initial BMD system might be deployed without violating the ABM Treaty, but DND officials insist that no effective BMD system could be deployed without renegotiating or abrogating the treaty. (23) Why, then, is DND continuing to participate in BMD research and consultations? Perhaps the department believes that it is possible to renegotiate the treaty in such a way as to eliminate its central provision - the commitment not to deploy a nation-wide missile defence system - without weakening the treaty. Apparently, however, DND is operating on the assumption that the government's opposition to the weakening of the ABM Treaty is not as absolute as it sounds, and that the government probably would not oppose a renegotiated treaty that had the support of both the Russians and the Americans even if it permitted the deployment of significant defences.

No matter how it was achieved, however, the deployment of a BMD system would gut the ABM Treaty. Depending on the elements of the system (if any) that were deployed in Canada, Canadian participation might be an additional violation of the treaty. (For example, depending on the design, officials note, it might be regarded as desirable to place one or more forward-based radars in Canada if a BMD system were deployed, (24) but siting such radars in Canada would violate the ABM Treaty as currently constituted.) Even a more limited step like modification of the NORAD mission to include Theatre Missile Defence (defence against short-range missiles) would effectively destroy the treaty, leaving it superficially intact but essentially meaningless. (25)

If the Canadian government is truly committed to the ABM Treaty, there is no need for discussions on Canadian participation in the development and operation of either a BMD system or a TMD system. All that is needed is someone to pass the word to General Estes.


An American deployment decision is at least two years away, and it is still by no means certain that that decision will be to proceed with deployment or that the Canadian government will choose to participate if deployment does proceed. But the fact that these decisions have not been made only compounds the folly of ignoring the issue. The American decision, when it comes, will be made on the basis of the deployment plans currently being developed. If those plans have been developed in co-operation with Canada, are designed to involve both Canada and the United States, and are built around a system designed to operate under NORAD command, jointly staffed by Canadians and Americans, and possibly predicated on the deployment of interceptors, radars, communications systems or other facilities in Canada, the United States might be inclined to take a highly uncharitable view of Canadian policy if the government were to determine - only after the United States had decided to proceed - that Canada was not interested in participation after all.

Deployment of a BMD system would be a terrible mistake (see sidebar). Canada should be working actively and publicly to discourage the US from deploying missile defences. The government should make it clear that Canada will not participate in such a system. Unfortunately, we are currently proceeding in exactly the wrong direction. By signalling that Canada is open to the idea, the Department of National Defence is encouraging the US to proceed. Even worse, by participating in planning that foresees at least the possibility of Canadian participation in the system, the department is sharply reducing the Canadian government's room to manoeuvre in the event of an American deployment decision.

If the Canadian government wants to influence BMD policy, instead of just prepare itself to climb on board whatever decision ultimately is made in Washington, it needs to address this issue now.

(1) Jeff Erlich, "U.S. Panel Gives NMD Approval Despite Hurdles," Defense News, 26 August-1 September 1996, pp. 4, 26.

(2) General Howell Estes, Sustaining the Strategic Space Advantage, 13 March 1997 (

(3) Brigadier-General Alan Johnson, The User's Perspective, presentation to Advance Planning Briefing to Industry Conference, 1 May 1997, Slide 41 (the full presentation can be found at

(4) Fraser Holman, "Canada's air force in the new millenium," Canadian Defence Quarterly, Autumn 1997, p. 37.

(5) General Howell Estes, Speech for the Air Force Association Annual Symposium, 18 October 1996 (

(6) Brigadier-General Alan Johnson, The User's Perspective, Slide 40.

(7) DND briefing for Project Ploughshares, 26 November 1997.

(8) Challenge and Commitment: A Defence Policy for Canada, DND, 1987, p. 19.

(9) 1994 Defence White Paper, DND, 1994, pp. 25-26.

(10) Dave Todd, "Canada, U.S. plan `son of Star Wars': Anti-missile system to focus on new threats," Ottawa Citizen, 13 January 1995, p. A3.

(11) Canadian NORAD Region - Past, Present, Future: Evolution to Meet Tomorrow's Needs, Canadian NORAD Region headquarters, 1995, pp. 12-13.

(12) NORAD Into The 21st Century, NORAD pamphlet, 1997.

(13) NORAD Agreement, exchange of notes dated 28 March 1996.

(14) Canadian NORAD Region - Past, Present, Future: Evolution to Meet Tomorrow's Needs, p. 13; early versions of a "NORAD/USSPACECOM Ballistic Missile Defense Concept of Operations," classified secret, have been in existence since at least December 1993. See Aerospace Defense of North America (Joint Publication 3-01.1), US Department of Defense, 4 November 1996, p. A-2.

(15) Selected Technology Initiatives for 1997-1998, DND, 1997 (

(16) DND briefing.

(17) DND briefing; also Omnibus Space Project, DND, no date (reproduced at

(18) DND briefing. David Pugliese, "Canada Seeks Funds, Partners for Military Satellite," Defense News, 24-30 June 1996, p. 6 estimates as much as $600 million.

(19) Major Richard Sponder, "Missile warning in the nineties," Roundel, December 1995.

(20) Statement of Objectives for NMD Lead System Integrator Concept Definition and Lead System Integrator, Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, 1997 (reproduced at

(21) Evidence, Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs, meeting no. 30, 3 October 1995; House of Commons Debates, 11 March 1996.

(22) Government Response to the Recommendations of the Special Joint Parliamentary Committee Reviewing Canadian Foreign Policy, Government of Canada, February 1995, p. 16; "Canada and the United States to renew defence agreement," News Release, Government of Canada, 25 March 1996.

(23) DND briefing.

(24) DND briefing.

(25) George Lewis and Theodore Postol, "Portrait of a bad idea," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1997. US military doctrine already considers defence against "ballistic missiles with range capability less than 3500 kilometres" to be part of "air defence." See Aerospace Defense of North America (Joint Publication 3-01.1), US Department of Defense, 4 November 1996, p. I-1.
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Author:Robinson, Bill
Publication:Ploughshares Monitor
Date:Dec 1, 1997
Previous Article:Welcome to the 21st century.
Next Article:NATO expansion and European security.

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