by Michael Dawson
April 20, 2016
As Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan kicks off a review of Canadian defence policy, all Canadians can take great pride in the accomplishments of the Canadian Armed Forces over the past fifteen years — accomplishments won at considerable cost.
During these years, much of our focus has been on the fight against Islamicist extremism. But the current review needs to take into account a much wider spectrum of threats. One of the most serious of these is the proliferation of long-range ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads — a combination which North Korea continues to pursue as a national priority and which the regime has taken to brandishing against its neighbour to the south and the United States.
North Korea may or may not have tested a thermonuclear weapon, but it’s clear that the regime intends to continue its quest for one. For both neighbouring states and those further afield, it is North Korea’s ballistic missile program which operationalizes the threat. Beginning with copies of the old Soviet Scud short-range ballistic missile, the North Korean missile-makers have steadily advanced to an intermediate-range missile (the Musudan), are developing an ICBM and seem to be aspiring to a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
How good are North Korean missiles? North Korea is dependent upon 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 based on systems that worked just fine in their day. To dismiss them as a threat seems like a foolish echo of American and British mockery of Japanese 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, will be the more serious threat since it relies on storable liquid propellants, allowing the missiles to be held ready for use over extended periods. The KN-08 has not yet been flight-tested but key technologies have been tested in ground facilities and possibly on the Taepo Dong vehicle. Given North Korea’s track record, the KN-08 probably will turn out to be a reasonably reliable system.
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. These ICBMs could be housed in shelters carved from solid rock and deployed covertly to hidden launch sites.
Finding mobile ballistic missiles has proven difficult. The KN-08 missiles could be launched with very little prior warning from concealed sites. Iran’s ICBM program — which it refuses to even discuss with outsiders — 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 is a non-nuclear system which uses the interceptor’s kinetic energy to destroy the target. 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 with U.S. Northern Command. The assumption that the United States 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. 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.
So the only way to make certain Canada is covered by the missile shield is to participate in it. 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 a rehash of Ronald Reagan’s old ‘Star Wars’ concept but a pragmatic, minimalist defence against evolving ICBM threats from unpredictable regimes. It’s impossible to know whether North Korea or Iran would subscribe to the understanding of deterrence shared by the United States and Russia. While neither regime is “crazy” as such, it’s very difficult to be sure about how they would behave in a crisis — regime collapse in North Korea, to choose just one example.
Canada stands alone among major U.S. allies in shunning active participation in missile defence (except in European NATO territory, so long as Canada is notdefended, which is a rather eccentric policy position). Time to get off the fence.
What would it take? During an earlier round of negotiations, aborted under Prime Minister Paul Martin, the Americans made it clear that Canada would have to make a contribution of some kind. The most straightforward approach would be to allow Canadian personnel at NORAD to immediately staff missile defence billets and then add a few additional Canadian Armed Forces personnel for the mission. Canada also could install some form of radar or communications nodes, both of which are key components of the system. That wouldn’t necessarily require locating interceptors at Canadian bases.
While a decision on missile defence should be made on its merits (which include strengthening our decades-long alliance with the United States), there’s an economic argument to consider as well: Participation under a negotiated agreement is a prerequisite for Canadian companies seeking contracts in advanced areas of technology.
In the past, Liberal politicians have acknowledged that Canada should have joined missile defence when the offer was last made. It’s encouraging that the current government may revisit the decision to stay out. The time has come.
Michael Dawson is a retired Canadian Foreign Service Officer who served as Canada's political advisor to the commander of NORAD and United States Northern Command in Colorado Springs from 2010 to 2014.