Canada and missile defence


North Korea’s apocalyptic nuclear bluster is turning out to be an all-purpose defence program justifier.

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently argued that Britain needs to retain nuclear weapons because only nukes can protect it from North Korea. The U.S. government, on the other hand, argued that only beefed-up missile defences can protect it from North Korea — nuclear weapons won’t do the job. And missile defence boosters in Canada, who never accepted that Canada did not join the U.S. missile defence program in 2005 (and 1985 and 1969), are now arguing that the “North Korean Nuclear Threat” means Canada should sign on to missile defence in 2013.

But is there really a good case for Canada to join missile defence?

Is there a North Korean Threat?

North Korea does have nuclear weapons. And it has managed to put one small, non-functional satellite into orbit. But it does not yet have a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to a target in North America (other than, perhaps, parts of Alaska). And there is no reason to believe that it has a nuclear weapon capable of being mounted on a missile and surviving the rigours of launch and re-entry to detonate on such a target. For the moment.

These are almost certainly temporary conditions, however. Far more important is the question of intent. For all its bluster, there is no reason to believe that the regime governing North Korea has any intention of using its nuclear weapons. The regime acquired the weapons to help ensure its survival. Like other nuclear-armed states, it wants the weapons as a deterrent. Actually using them would be the quickest way possible to ensure the regime’s demise.

That said, we have no guarantee that even a regime dedicated to its own survival will never blunder into a suicidal war. (This risk applies to all the nuclear weapon states, but probably to North Korea more than most.)

Still, it is worth recognizing that visions of an imminent North Korean nuclear attack on Canada and the United States are considerably overwrought. It would be helpful if calmer heads prevailed when considering whether missile defence is right for Canada.

Would the current U.S. missile defence system work?

Probably not. If North Korea does manage to build a reasonably reliable intercontinental missile and accompanying warhead, it will almost certainly be able to add simple decoys or other countermeasures that the current U.S. missile defence system has no practical way of overcoming.

Furthermore, even if some as yet unsuspected technological advance increases the chances of a successful intercept by the system, that wouldn’t mean the end of the problem. As long as the North Koreans believe their regime’s security is best ensured by being able to deter the United States and other countries through the threat of nuclear attack, they will seek the means to either overcome or go around the defences. They might choose, for example, to supplement their missile force with nuclear weapons hidden in third countries so they could be smuggled to targets during a crisis.

Pushing the North Koreans in the direction of smuggled weapons would not necessarily make us safer. It might instead tempt them to think that under some circumstances they could actually use a nuclear weapon without being recognized as the guilty party and held to account — that they might be able to use nuclear weapons without committing regime suicide. We should not want their thinking to move in that direction.

Unpalatable as it may seem, as long as North Korea retains nuclear weapons, it is probably in everyone’s security interest that those weapons remain on 100% traceable — and much less than 100% reliable — missiles.

Rather than making us safer, a missile defence that “worked” would only undermine that goal.

Are there other downsides to missile defence?

There are at least two other potential downsides to missile defence.

The first is that unwarranted confidence in the effectiveness of the system might convince U.S. political and military leaders to adopt a more confrontational posture towards North Korea in future crises, increasing the risk of a war in which nuclear weapons are actually used.

The second is that Russia and China will perceive the U.S. missile defence system (and in particular its potential for eventual enlargement and technological improvement) as a threat to their own nuclear forces and respond by enlarging and modernizing those forces and/or limiting the scope of future nuclear arms control reductions. Missile defence boosters often deny that this would ever happen, but the U.S. military is not so pollyannish: the Pentagon recently reported that “the new generation of mobile missiles [being developed in China] is intended to ensure the viability of China’s strategic deterrent in the face of continued missile defense advances in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Russia.” Russia argues that its recent nuclear modernization efforts also are justified by U.S. missile defence developments.

In short, there is a security trade-off at work here in which the more the U.S. missile defence system is improved to increase its chances of being effective against North Korean missiles (but not other forms of North Korean delivery) the more credible a threat it poses to Russian and Chinese missiles and the more distrust it breeds with those countries, leading in turn to a greater number of Russian and Chinese weapons pointed at the United States (and by extension Canada).

What would Canada bring?

Nothing, at least to the current system. The U.S. already has the radar sites and interceptor sites it wants to address missiles flying from North Korea. Canada has nothing to offer that would fix the existing system’s inability to defeat decoys, and future breakthoughs on that score are highly unlikely to come from us. Our personnel at NORAD and our surveillance capabilities do make some minor contributions to missile defence at the margins, but those contributions already take place (indeed, some people argue that we are already participants in the missile defence system). Other than a handful of additional personnel assigned to work at U.S. missile defence sites, we would bring nothing new with us by signing on in a formal manner.

For the same reason, we would win few if any brownie points in Washington by deigning to sign on now.

Over the longer run, however, we might very well come under pressure to make a more significant contribution to the system, especially if it is expanded in response to the “Iranian Threat”. It is sometimes suggested that a missile defence radar site might be built near Goose Bay, for example.

Of course such a site would have little or nothing to do with North Korea, our ostensible reason for joining, and continued expansion and modernization of the system would probably exacerbate the problems with Russia and China.

But by then Canada would be committed to participation in a system over which even Canadian supporters admit we would have no control*, and it would be much more difficult to extricate ourselves from it than it would have been to stay out in the first place.

*For further discussion of many of these issues, see Let’s not go ballistic: The case against Canadian participation in the U.S. missile defence system, March 2005. Although written during the Martin government’s consideration of missile defence participation, many of the questions discussed in the paper remain relevent to today’s debate.

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