Going ballistic: Is Canada finally ready for a missile shield?

April 19, 2016


The Force has awakened — and it may be with Canada. Last week, Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan released a document which once again raised the question of Canada’s participation in the United States’ Anti-Ballistic Missile Program.

The ‘Star Wars’ missile shield concept was first floated three decades ago by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. It imagined laser beams mounted on satellites in outer space, shooting down enemy missiles in flight before they could hit their targets. Critics ridiculed the project as badly-scripted sci-fi, but it never completely went away: Successive Republican and Democratic administrations kept funding research, though at a regional defence level and involving planes instead of satellites.

After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush touted a ballistic missile defence system as a way to defend against terrorist groups like al Qaida and rogue states like Iran. His initiative proposed a missile defence shield covering not only North America, but Europe as well. In 2005, after a fierce public debate, Canada decided against joining with the U.S. in developing the program. Opponents cited sovereignty concerns, costs and the massive technical challenges confronting the project. Martin’s minority government also was facing an imminent election at the time, and did not want to be seen partnering with the unpopular Bush administration — particularly after Prime Minister Jean Chretien kept Canada out of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Now, ballistic missile defence is back on Ottawa’s radar. “Given the increase in the number of countries with access to ballistic missile technology and their potential to reach North America, this threat is expected to endure and grow more sophisticated in the coming decades,” says the report just released by Sajjan. It notes that many of Canada’s allies — including the U.S., European NATO members, Australia and South Korea — are working together on ballistic missile shield while Canada remains on the sidelines. “Should this decision be revisited given changing technologies and threats? … Would a shift in policy in this area enhance Canadian national security and offer an avenue for greater continental co-operation? Or are there more effective areas in which to invest to better protect the North American continent?”

The document is meant to form a framework for consulting Canadians about our military priorities, so nothing is set in stone. But it’s still a bit odd for a government that just deferred $3.8 billion in military spending in last month’s budget to contemplate a pricey new partnership with the United States. It’s also curious that a government that seems bent on returning Canada to a Pearsonian peacekeeping agenda would consider undertaking more aggressive, risky, high-tech military commitments.

Of course, the Liberals have not been particularly consistent on defence policy. During last year’s election, they stole the peacenik vote from the NDP by pledging to diminish Canada’s involvement in the war against ISIS by pulling the CF-18s from action. While they followed through on this commitment after the election, they simultaneously ramped up Canada’s training contingent in Syria and Iraq by a third. This had the paradoxical effect of increasing Canada’s potential involvement in combat situations, through return-fire situations and cases where the trainers have to defend the soldiers they’re training. Both types of incidents had occurred already — with much publicity — before the feds announced the enlargement of the training contingent.

Political self-interest notwithstanding, however, evolving threats have to be countered. With recent (and, so far, unsuccessful) attempts by North Korea to launch a working medium-range ballistic missile, and more ballistic missile testing by Iran (even after it promised to lay off), Canada can’t leave missile defence off the table. While it’s not clear how much of a threat ICBMs pose to Canada, the possibility that a rogue state or terrorist organization might use one against American targets is very real. According to the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago are just some of the cities that would be within the range of a North Korean missile — and any strikes against the U.S. would have vast repercussions for Canada, on our environment, economy and public health.

Two years ago, Conservative and Liberal members of the Senate defence committee unanimously called on Canada to join the U.S. in building a ballistic missile defence. “I think it’s overdue, and I think that debate should ensue,” the committee’s chairman, Conservative Sen. Daniel Lang, told the Ottawa Citizen. “Times have changed, and there’s not a lot of reason not to join.”

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