In The Media

Ballistic missile defence is good enough for Europe, but not for us?

by Frank Harvey

National Post
February 28, 2014

The Senate National Defence Committee is holding another round of hearings on Canadian participation in ballistic missile defence (BMD). It’s about time – Canada’s current position on BMD is, in a word, perplexing.

In November 2010, 28 NATO members met in Lisbon to sign NATO’s updated Strategic Concept, a document outlining the principles and commitments for collective defence. Included in the new Concept is a crystal clear obligation by all NATO members to: “Develop the capability to defend our populations and territories against ballistic missile attack as a core element of our collective defence, which contributes to the indivisible security of the Alliance. We will actively seek co-operation on missile defence with Russia and other Euro-Atlantic partners.” As U.S. President Barack Obama summarized after the meetings, “we’ve agreed to develop missile defence capability that is strong enough to cover all NATO European territory and populations, as well as the United States.”

As a NATO member, Canada now officially endorses the logic, strategic utility and security imperatives underpinning ballistic missile defence. In essence, the government has surreptitiously embraced the merits of BMD as part of Canada’s treaty obligations, so one would expect the debate in Ottawa to be over.

It isn’t.

The most perplexing aspect of Canada’s official endorsement of BMD is the ongoing refusal by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to engage in bilateral talks with Washington to discuss BMD architecture to protect Canadian territory and citizens. The only reasonable explanation for the government’s silence on continental BMD is an uncharacteristically strong preference for freeloading on American and European security measures and related expenditures. What other explanation is there?

Presumably, Canada’s signature on NATO’s Strategic Concept confirms Ottawa’s rejection of the views expressed by BMD critics. Consider the very sound reasons why these considerably outdated arguments should be dismissed. Critics were absolutely convinced, for example, that U.S. BMD would compel Russia to launch a new arms race. Instead, we’ve witnessed some of the most sweeping bilateral disarmament agreements in history. The most recent U.S.-Russia agreement was motivated by the expiry of START II Treaty in December 2010. The new deal cut the number of deployed strategic warheads from 2,200 to 1,550 – 74% lower than the 1991 START Treaty and 30% lower than the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

Critics also predicted massive increases in China’s nuclear program and defence expenditures, yet no such proliferation has occurred, for two reasons: China remains comfortably committed to a strategy of minimum deterrence, and its leaders understand that U.S. BMD is not designed to undermine the credibility of their deterrent threat. What we are witnessing instead is unprecedented co-operation between the U.S. and China, including tacit acceptance by Beijing of accelerated U.S. BMD deployments to Guam and South Korea in 2013, to address an increasingly antagonistic and nuclearized North Korea.

And critics continue to dismiss BMD technology as worthless, despite compelling evidence from testing records showing measurable progress over time. According to recent updates by the Congressionally monitored U.S. Missile Defence Agency (MDA), the sea-based Aegis BMD platform has accomplished 24 intercepts in 30 at-sea attempts since 2002. The Ground-Based (Midcourse) program produced 8 successes out of 15 attempts, and 3 of 5 successful intercepts using “operationally configured interceptors” since 1999. With respect to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (to intercept missiles during the final stage of flight), the MDA reports 10 out of 10 interceptions since 2006.

Not a bad record for worthless technology.

The Canadian government should engage in high-level consultations with Washington on BMD architecture, precisely because they have already embraced the policy. Any reasonably balanced assessment of these facts would confirm that BMD critics have lost the debate, so why would the Canadian government support BMD through NATO to protect Europeans and Americans, yet continue to shy away from bilateral negotiations with the U.S. to protect Canadians? Hopefully the Senate National Defence Committee will provide answers to these puzzling questions.

Frank Harvey is a fellow of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute and Professor of Political Science with Dalhousie University


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