In The Media

Would the U.S. defend us from North Korean missiles? Don’t bet on it.

by Michael Dawson

February 9, 2016

North Korea may or may not have tested a thermonuclear weapon — but it’s clear that the regime intends to continue its quest for the most powerful of all weapons.

For both neighbouring states and those further afield, it is North Korea’s ballistic missile program which makes the threat operational. Beginning with copies of the old Soviet Scud short-range ballistic missile, North Korean missile-makers have steadily advanced to an intermediate range missile (the Musudan), are developing an ICBM and have even tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

How good are North Korean missiles? North Korea is dependent upon building and improving on old Soviet designs from the 1960s and 1970s. These may seem archaic compared to those deployed by the Permanent Five nuclear powers — but they’re still based on systems that were successful in their day. Dismissing them as a threat seems like a repeat of the American and British habit of mocking Japan’s military capabilities in the 1930s.

North Korea already may have a crude ICBM in a version of its Taepo Dong space launch vehicle, an unwieldy rocket which requires several days to assemble and fuel. The KN-08, in an advanced stage of development, is the more serious proposition since it relies on storable liquid propellants, allowing the missiles to be held ready for use for extended periods.

North Korea has made the correct strategic choice in developing the KN-08 as a road-mobile system on a Transporter-Erector-Launcher vehicle (TEL) reportedly based on a Chinese design. The ICBMs can be housed in shelters carved from solid rock and deployed covertly to hidden launch sites.

Finding mobile ballistic missiles has proven difficult. So the KN-08 missiles could be launched with very little prior warning from concealed sites. Iran’s ICBM program appears to be following a similar path, in part because of that nation’s cooperation with North Korea.

The United States’ ground-based missile defence system is built to defend the homeland against a rudimentary, small-scale ICBM attack. It relies on NORAD for aerospace warning and Canadian Forces personnel have for many years been part of the NORAD warning function.

Canada is not a part of the defence function which resides in U.S. Northern Command. The assumption that the U.S. would defend Canada against a deliberate or (more likely) an errant shot from North Korea is problematic because the U.S. has only a limited number of interceptor missiles to defend against an unknown number of North Korean ICBMs — and a sure kill might require several shots at an incoming ICBM, with some interceptors held in reserve against unknown contingencies. The defence functions according to pre-scripted algorithms, leaving no time for political consultations.

For Canada to be protected, participation in the defence is the only sure route. That would involve a negotiated set of parameters which would cover Canadian cities — not just the ones covered by default because of their proximity to the border.

This is not ‘Star Wars’ — it’s a pragmatic, minimalistic defence against evolving ICBM threats from unpredictable regimes. And it’s impossible to know whether North Korea or Iran would subscribe to a U.S./Russia-style understanding of mutual deterrence.

Canada stands alone among major U.S. allies in shunning active participation in missile defence, except in European NATO territory. It’s time we got off the fence.

What would it take? An earlier round of negotiations, aborted under Prime Minister Paul Martin, made it clear that Canada would have to make a contribution of some kind. The first contribution would be to allow Canadian personnel at NORAD to immediately staff missile defence billets. Following on could be some form of radar or communications nodes, both of which are key components of the system. It wouldn’t necessarily require deploying interceptors at Canadian bases.

Liberal politicians have, in the past, accepted that Canada should have said yes to missile defence under PM Martin. The time has come.

Michael Dawson was the Canadian political advisor to the commander of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command from 2010 to 2014.

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