Canada is looking to up its efforts in missile defense – moving beyond simply early warning to conducting a study on “what it takes to defend the continent.” On May 10th, Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand announced the possibility of Canada joining the United States’ ballistic missile defense system. The Defense Ministry is studying a report by the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defense which unanimously recommends that “hat the Government of Canada enter into an agreement with the United States to participate as a partner in ballistic missile defence” (the full committee report is available here). A reversal from past Canadian defense policies, the consideration of a collaborative missile defense relationship comes from a national defense policy review and is promising for expanding the collective security of North America. This comes amid a changing landscape of missile threats from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to persistent North Korean ballistic missile testing, to Chinese aggression in the Pacific. Minister Anand stated that “threats are evolving quickly… from hypersonics to cyberattacks to the reemergence of great power competition.” This move could unlock significant potential from our allies to the north.
Canada is a strong partner and co-equal to the United States in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a binational treaty-level defense agreement established in 1958. NORAD was established to conduct aerospace warning and control in the defense of North America. In 2005, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin announced Canada would not partner in the United States ballistic missile defense enterprise, and in 2006 a maritime warning function was added as the NORAD Agreement was renewed indefinitely. However, since Canada had decided not to partake in missile defense, the United States was forced to exclude our partner from missile defense policies, planning, and execution that affects the security of both our nations. Since 2002, defense of the homeland has been the responsibility of United States Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which has had a close relationship with, but has not been able to fully integrate into, the bilateral NORAD.
Since that 2005 decision not to participate in missile defense, the reality has become too pronounced for the Canadian government not to recognize the growth in the missile threat. As the current conflict with Ukraine and recent conflicts in the Middle East demonstrate, missiles are a primary weapon of modern warfare. Without these capabilities, the billions of dollars of new investments the Canadian government is making in its armed forces will be limited in their impact.
A trusted missile defense architecture in Canada would greatly benefit the United States in its efforts to increase interoperability and capacity in its missile defense mission. Recently, this has been seen in action through Canada’s decision to pursue the purchase of 88 F-35s, which can operate jointly with the United States to protect airspace. In 2021, The United States State Department approved the possible $1.7 billion sale of the AEGIS combat system to Canada. While the sale has not been authorized, it does represent the potential that Canada has to operate AEGIS, and possibly other systems such as THAAD, Patriot Pac-3, and ground-based interceptors.
Canada’s willingness to study the question of whether to cooperate with the United States to defend both the U.S. and Canada from missile attack is long overdue. The missile threat has continued to grow since the Canadian government decided in 2005 not to participate in a cooperative defense of North America against missile attack despite decades of successful cooperation in NORAD to defend North American airspace.
The Canadian government has begun to increase its defense spending, although it still lags substantially behind the level NATO leaders set of 2% of GDP, with defense spending slated to rise from 1.3% to 1.5% of GDP in the next five years. Given the renewed threat from Russia and China, it is dangerous not to increase defense spending and field the capabilities needed in key areas like missile defense.
Imagine if Canadian forces were deployed to conflicts overseas and their newest naval vessels and deployed troops were unable to defend themselves against the onslaught of missile attacks that Iran’s proxies have unleashed on the UAE and Saudi Arabia or were unable to defend themselves against the kind of missile attacks being employed by Russia.
If Canada wants to stay in the NORAD arrangement with the U.S., it needs to step up to carry its share of the load. The NATO allies have endorsed and fielded missile defense capabilities. It’s past time for Canada to do its part. This means contributing real capabilities to a joint effort, not seeking to enjoy missile defense protection provided by the U.S. for free which was the position taken by Canada in the early 2000s.
Oh Canada, our eyes are upon you. We applaud the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence for conducting this study, although it has been long overdue. We need our closest neighbor to again be a steadfast partner in jointly protecting our people from the threats we face, from Sea to Sea.