'A big joke': Only imperfect U.S. defences can save Canada from North Korean missiles
by John K. Elliott (feat. Colin Robertson)
September 19, 2017
If North Korea launched a dozen nuclear weapons at North America the U.S. missile defences probably would not be able to stop them all, and they wouldn't be required to defend Canada, either.
Canada currently has no means of defending against an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile, and no formal guarantee that the United States would use its missile defences on Canada’s behalf. In fact, Canada declined to work with the United States on its missile defence program in 2005, and has not reversed course under subsequent Liberal and Conservative governments. And with North Korea now claiming it can strike a target anywhere in the continental U.S., Canada is technically defenceless against such an attack.
“It’s a big joke,” said Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute. “Canada is too vulnerable in not buying into ballistic missile defence,” he told CTVNews.ca.
Leuprecht points out that the U.S. and Canada have an information-sharing agreement in place through their participation in the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. However, that agreement does not include a specific plan for dealing with a missile headed toward Canada.
In other words, Canadian military personnel at NORAD might be able to spot an incoming missile, but the decision to try and shoot that missile down rests entirely with the Americans.
NORAD’s Canadian deputy commander, Lt.-Gen Pierre St-Amand, echoed that sentiment in September, saying that under the current policy the U.S. would not come to Canada’s defence.
“It’s not that Canada is a target, but the danger is… if those missiles are coming over the pole, they may be aimed at Chicago but they wind up in Toronto,” Colin Robertson, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said on CTV News Channel Sept. 14.
But arms control expert and UBC political science professor Allen Sens says the direct threat to Canada is a “red herring,” because the Americans would likely shoot down an incoming missile anyway.
“When a missile is in its flightpath, it’s difficult to determine exactly where it’s going to land,” Sens, of the University of British Columbia, told CTVNews.ca. Sens also cast doubt on the notion that the U.S. would back off with its missile defences once it learned that the weapon was headed for Canada.
“The Americans don’t want a missile to hit Canada because the Americans could be impacted,” he said.
The North Korean threat has renewed debate in Ottawa over whether Canada should participate in the U.S. missile defence program. Canada’s recently-released defence policy does not specifically address missile defence, although it does acknowledge the dangers of North Korea’s burgeoning arsenal.
“The number of countries with access to ballistic missile technology, including some with the potential to reach North America or target Canadian and allied deployed forces, has increased and is expected to grow and become more sophisticated,” the policy says.
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan has said the missile defence issue will be revisited as part of efforts to modernize NORAD.
“We’re going to have a much more thorough discussion with the U.S. on this,” Sajjan told CTV's Question Period in June.
Those who oppose missile defence argue that it can be a cause for escalation, prompting rival countries to build more nukes so they can maintain the ability to overwhelm American defences. Essentially, greater defences call for greater offensive capabilities.
With the political debate only just ramping up, Leuprecht says it’s unclear what it would cost for Canada to buy into missile defence. “Technologically, no additional material would be required,” he said.
However, it is possible that the U.S. would ask Canada to pay for it, Leuprecht said.
And as many experts have pointed out, the primary U.S. missile defence system simply can’t guarantee protection with its success rate of just 55 per cent in controlled tests.
How the U.S. missile defence system works
Although it’s often characterized as a “shield,” the United States isn’t actually protected by some kind of sci-fi force field. Instead, it relies on missiles intended to intercept and destroy incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles before they detonate over a populated area.
The flight of an incoming missile is broken down into three stages.
The first stage is called the boost phase, during which the enemy ICBM takes off from its launch site, shedding its boosters one at a time as their fuel is expended. The missile is particularly vulnerable at this stage, as it spends about four minutes to work itself up to a speed of about 24,000 kilometres per hour. This is the best time to shoot it down, but since these launches usually occur in enemy territory and without warning, it can be difficult to detect it and respond to it in time, Leuprecht says.
Next comes the midcourse phase, which can last up to 20 minutes. During this phase the missile starts coasting up toward the peak of its arc (approximately 1,000 kilometres up).This is when the warhead might also release decoys to confuse any attempt to intercept the real nuke.
The missile’s final descent toward its target is known as the terminal phase, and usually only lasts about two minutes.
The U.S. missile defence system, perhaps best described as trying to stop an enemy bullet by shooting it with another bullet, uses short- and medium-range missiles. Each of these defensive missiles is a single-booster rocket used to deploy a “kill vehicle,” which manoeuvres itself into a collision course with incoming warheads so it can destroy them on impact.
The system uses radar posts and satellite imagery to constantly update the kill vehicle’s trajectory, despite its travelling at supersonic speeds.
Most of the Americans’ missile defences are geared toward intercepting missiles in the midcourse or terminal phases, with various weapons systems providing overlapping coverage to defend the North American coast and America’s Asian allies.
The Ground-based Midcourse Defence (GMD) system based in Alaska and California offers long-range intercept capability during the midcourse and terminal phases, while sea-based Aegis missiles and land-based PAC-3 missiles provide back-up defence during the terminal phase.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system is also designed to take out incoming missiles in the terminal phase, although it's geared more toward short- and medium-range attacks against Japan, Guam or South Korea.
Leuprecht says this overlapping system might be quite effective at taking down a single incoming missile, because it can make numerous attempts at intercepting an ICBM before it strikes. But if North Korea were to launch a dozen missiles, for instance, there would be no way to ensure they were all shot down.
“The North Koreans are working on the ability to overwhelm those missile defence shields,” he said.
Poking holes in the U.S. defence 'shield'
The Americans currently have THAAD defences deployed in South Korea and Guam, Aegis missiles on their destroyers in the Pacific, and at least 36 GMD missiles ready to launch from bases in Alaska and California.
However, defence experts don’t agree about the effectiveness of the American missile defence system. Some say the testing process is not scientifically sound, while others stand by the official results released by the U.S. military.
The Americans’ cutting-edge THAAD system is considered the best element of their arsenal, with a perfect 15-15 testing record. However, those trials were conducted under controlled non-combat conditions, and are geared toward shooting down shorter-range missiles that might strike at North Korea's neighbours.
The U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defence system has only taken out 10 of 18 targets in tests since 1999 – a result that leaves much to be desired, especially when imagining a nuclear weapon on the end of an incoming ICBM.
The Pentagon acknowledged this shortcoming in a 2016 report, which concluded that the GMD system “demonstrated a limited capability to defend the U.S. homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran.”
According to the report, the GMD failed its tests for a variety of reasons, while radar availability was also found to be an issue with its effectiveness. “The reliability and availability of the (ground-based interceptors) are low,” the Pentagon said.
Leuprecht says the U.S. system leaves something to be desired, but that’s intentional. He says it must be able to defend against North Korea or Iran, but not against nuclear superpowers such as China or Russia, because peace with those nations is partially built on the awareness that both sides could destroy each other in a nuclear conflict.
“The system can defend against North Korea, but the system can’t defend against the Russians,” Leuprecht said. “It’s mutually assured destruction.”
He added that North Korea is working on the ability to overwhelm the U.S. missile defence shield with sheer numbers, but it remains a long way off from that goal.
However, North Korea’s more immediate neighbours in Japan and South Korea are not so safe.
Leuprecht says the North is already fully capable of annihilating the South Korean capital of Seoul, regardless of whether or not it uses nuclear weapons. The North has been perfecting its short- and medium-range missiles for years, and could easily overwhelm the THAAD system in South Korea with those weapons.
“That would mean 10 million dead in the first hour of a conflict,” Leuprecht said.
That threat has existed on the Korean peninsula for years, but what Kim Jong Un really wants is to extend the threat to include North America.
He adds that, if North Korea ever did strike at North America, NATO’s member nations would all be drawn into the conflict. “They know,” he said. “If there’s a missile that flies toward North America, it’s going to be ‘all in.’”