As Canadian leaders signal the potential for major new missile defence infrastructure, experts are warning that defence shields and early warning systems could have the opposite of the intended effect—placing the country at greater risk of armed conflict or nuclear war.
Citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, federal leaders appear to be reconsidering Canada’s four decades of successful resistance to “ballistic missile defence” systems. In the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s July 7 remarks challenging the West to fight Russia “on the battlefield,” a flurry of proposed military infrastructure could include technically dubious but profitable inception systems to new Arctic radar sites. If implemented, the proposals could reach tens of billions of dollars in new spending.
On the eve of the fall 2021 federal election campaign, then-Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced that, in the face of new threats “exposing North America to a greater and more complex conventional missile threat,” Canada would “modernize” the Canada-US North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) agreement, including an intention to “move forward deliberately with coordinated investments.”
The apparent policy about-face received little public attention, and efforts continued. Sajjan’s successor Anita Anand said in May 2022 that the government is “taking a full and comprehensive look” at joining the US’ ballistic missile defence system, “leaving no stone unturned in this major review of continental defence.”
Any such move by the Trudeau administration would impugn what experts, non-proliferation advocates and even former prime ministers have said for decades: ballistic missile defence systems (BMDs) simply don’t work.
BMDs “undermine nuclear deterrence,” Laura Grego told The Breach. A physicist and Nuclear Security Fellow with the Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Grego emphasized the centrality of deterrence. Nuclear war, she said, is prevented because nuclear-armed countries deter others from attacking them. That understanding has maintained an uneasy peace between the world’s principal nuclear powers for much of the last century.
Ramping up defence systems, on the other hand, could prompt military aggression, Rideau Institute Vice-President and policy analyst Steven Staples told The Breach.
“Imagine two warriors of equivalent strength, skill, and experience standing on the battlefield, each armed with a sword,” he explains. “Neither is likely to attack first, but if you give one of those warriors a shield, they have an advantage over their opponent. The equilibrium between the two, which has dissuaded both from attacking the other, is lost.”
Amid growing global instability, changes to Canada’s defence policies carry potential to exacerbate the likelihood of war and should be subjected to the highest forms of scrutiny—by media and the public.
No. No. Yes?
In the 1980s, the US invited Canada to join Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defence strategy. And in 2005, the George W. Bush administration summoned Canada to help protect the continent against perceived “rogue states’s” development of nuclear capabilities in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Canada declined both invitations.
In the late 1960s the US and Soviet Union came to essentially the same conclusion: anti-ballistic missile systems were likely to provoke an arms race rather than provide adequate national defence. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) limited both nations’ anti-ballistic missile launch sites and their missile inventories. In the years that followed, both countries dramatically reduced their global nuclear stockpiles.
All that changed after 9/11. George W. Bush announced the US’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002, citing the possibility of a limited nuclear attack by Iran or North Korea.
Russia, then China, responded by investing in new strategic weapon defence spending. In 2018, Putin revealed several experimental weapons—all new potential nuclear delivery systems, including nuclear-powered torpedoes and cruise missiles, as well as hypersonic missiles that Russia claims to have used against Ukraine. Development of those new systems began shortly after the cancellation of the ABM Treaty in 2002.
Intercepting and destroying traditional ballistic missiles is notoriously difficult, to say nothing of new hypersonic missiles and the potential for underwater delivery.
So far, the US has only conducted successful interceptions under the most favourable of conditions. American tests in recent years have deliberately omitted real world conditions—ICBMs armed with multiple warheads, the use of decoys and other countermeasures, and the launch of more than one ICBM at a given target at the same time—to ensure successful test results.
Even with the deck stacked in their favour, existing American ABM systems have about a 50 per cent success rate. Tests benefitted from knowing when missiles would be launched and the launch location, and all but one of the tests took place during the day—the lone night-time test failed.
“Canada is on the right path, in that we’ve said no to these systems at least twice,” says Staples. “We were on the right side of history.” Staples says the Americans’ ABM system “has cost them billions of dollars, provides no real improvement to their security, and has prompted other countries to develop more aggressive weapons.”
Whose finger on the button?
Anand has reaffirmed that Canada’s 2017 “Strong, Secure, Engaged” defence policy will serve as the foundation of Canada’s planning moving forward. While the policy states Canada’s position on ballistic missile defence hasn’t changed, it also says Canada will work closely with the US to assess all new and emerging threats as part of a NORAD modernization.
The policy also commits Canada to continued involvement in key global defence pacts, including North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and re-asserts the country’s commitment to the Washington Treaty, in which Canada would maintain military forces sufficient to participate in collective defence, while defending an attack against any other member of the alliance. The acquisition of new arms equipment, new warships and new fighter jets are all laid out as ways Canada meets these commitments.
Staples is shocked that media have not interrogated the Trudeau government on its willingness to collaborate on a new ballistic missile defence system.
“Would this system protect Canadian cities? Who would have their finger on the button to launch the missiles? Would it be under joint US-Canadian control, or would Canada be under a US defence command? How much would this cost us?” he said.
“All of these questions were asked by Paul Martin’s government in 2005 and there were no answers then, just as there are no answers now.”
Arctic radar installations and ship-based integrations
On June 20, Canada hinted that upgraded radar stations in the high Arctic could have an “‘over the horizon”’ capability. The announcement promised $4.9 billion in spending over the next six years—and $40 billion in the coming two decades—to bolster continental defence. Canada’s contribution to the technology upgrades represents about 40 per cent of their total cost. The US will pick up the rest.
“It’s unclear whether these improvements are intended to simply update Canada’s early warning capabilities or whether it’s meant to include Canada in US ballistic missile detection and tracking systems,” said Grego. “Those are two very different things.”
According to a May 2021 announcement, Canada’s next generation of warships could participate in ballistic missile defence, thanks to a green light from the US State Department to sell AEGIS technology to Canada.
The $1.7 billion Lockheed Martin-made AEGIS Combat System is a command, control, and coordination system that combines sophisticated technologies that effectively allow destroyers and cruisers to track hundreds of air, land, sea and space-based targets simultaneously while also centrally controlling the weapon systems used to engage them.
Coupled with new surface-to-air missiles developed by the US Navy AEGIS could potentially be used to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
“The idea is that you would move these warships to various positions off the coast of the United States where they could theoretically intercept an incoming ICBM before it hits the mainland,” said Grego.
But if the missile system is successful, it could lead to further escalation.
“My concern, and the concern of other advocates, is that if the SM-3 actually is a credible anti-ballistic missile system, it would disrupt deterrence,” said Grego.
While deployment of the SM-3 is still hypothetical, AEGIS and other technologies approved for Canadian purchase would make integration into a US-coordinated missile defence shield very simple.
Without clarity or scrutiny from the press, the technology is nearly in place for remote control of Canada’s weapons systems—and the potential to sidestep Canada’s political and military sovereignty.
The ABM systems currently in development are still highly experimental and are produced by the major players of the American military industrial complex, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman. While it’s doubtful highly classified ABM weapons or sensors would be built in Canada, all of the aforementioned defence contractors maintain Canadian subsidiaries and have long relationships developing weapons for—and lobbying for weapons spending in—Canada.
Avoiding mutually assured destruction
In June, Anand downplayed the prospect of Canada becoming directly involved in an American ballistic missile defence shield, indicating Canada would maintain its policy of non-involvement. Meanwhile, the chief of defence staff, General Wayne Eyre suggested that the evolving nature of threats to Canada and new technology have moved beyond the 20-year-old debate over ballistic missile defence. Eyre did not specify what technologies he was referring to but told the CBC that in the near future there could be new ways to shoot down incoming missiles.
The Breach asked the Department of National Defence whether Canada would support stationing ABM systems in Eastern Europe or the Canadian Arctic, whether the Navy’s new surface combattants will be capable of supporting the SM-3 missile, and whether Canada would share responsibility with the US through NORAD of a continental missile defence shield. Questions were also posed about the implications of ABM systems for Canadian sovereignty.
Daniel Minden, Anand’s press secretary, did not answer the questions directly. “Our position hasn’t changed,” he said, adding the department is “analyzing integrated missile defence as NORAD prepares for the next generation of missile threats.”
The two parts of Minden’s response contradict each other.
The most advanced missile defence systems ever considered were those promoted in Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative. In truth, there were no missile-armed satellites or elaborate laser weapons—only computer graphics and exaggerated claims. Star Wars was as fictional as its cinematic namesake.
Regardless of which technologies Canada employs in its efforts to scan the Arctic for incoming hypersonic or cruise missiles, there would be no way of determining what warhead the missiles carried. Conventional high-explosive warheads which could destroy a building or two and nuclear warheads that could destroy entire cities would appear nearly identical on the scope.
If new Arctic or space-based sensors aim to help the United States prepare a retaliation, heightened high-tech sensitivity could raise the likelihood of a nuclear counter-strike. Once the perception of nuclear missiles is confirmed, an escalating series of retaliatory strikes almost impossible to avoid.
“Mutually assured destruction,” as it is known, is both what makes nuclear warfare unthinkably violent and what prevents those weapons from being used.
According to Staples and Grego, the only certain method to effectively limit the use and proliferation of strategic weapons is through negotiated disarmament.
“Most Canadians don’t think giving handguns to teachers is a good solution to the school shooting crisis,” says Staples, “they know the solution is to ban guns. It’s the exact same thing with nuclear weapons.”