Missile-defence radar at Goose Bay?

Palm trees? In Labrador? This artist's impression of an X-band radar in the Marshall Islands accompanied the Ottawa Citizen's recent report on the proposal to build a missile-defence radar at Goose Bay.

The Department of National Defence is looking for ways to contribute to the U.S. missile defence system and may try to revive a proposal to build a radar at Goose Bay, David Pugliese reports (“Defence officials eyeing Goose Bay for U.S. missile shield radar site,” Ottawa Citizen, 2 May 2013):

Canadian military officials are trying to revive a plan to install a high-tech radar system at Goose Bay as an offering to the U.S. for Canadian participation in the Pentagon’s missile shield. …

U.S. officials have said there have been no recent discussions with Canadian representatives about the missile defence shield, but that’s because Canada is still gathering information for various options it hopes to present to the U.S. government.

A radar located at CFB Goose Bay, NL would have an advantage over other sensors as it would be able to give several minutes more advance warning of a missile attack on North America’s eastern seaboard.

One of the top options is reviving a 2005 proposal that federal government and aerospace industry representatives were moving on shortly before then-Prime Minister Paul Martin announced Canada would not take part in the American missile defence system. That proposal centred on the installation of an X-Band radar for surveillance missions and to provide another set of eyes for the Pentagon’s shield. Such a radar on the East Coast could detect an incoming rocket fired from the Middle East.

At the time, the construction of the X-Band radar was not only being promoted as a way to contribute to the North American Aerospace Defence Command’s (NORAD) surveillance mission but, in addition, to keep a strong military presence at Goose Bay. The cost of the proposal was pegged at around $500 million. The offering to the U.S. this time around would only include territory for the radar and support services. The U.S. would have to provide the radar.

Defence officials believe they have a good chance of convincing the Conservative government to move ahead with the plan because of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s pro-military stance and his desire to fulfill election promises for Goose Bay.

Some facts relevant to Goose Bay and similar proposals:

  • As the Obama Administration has made clear on several occasions, the United States has no interest in adding East Coast facilities to the existing U.S. missile defence system at this time. In December 2012 then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declared that “the Administration has not identified a requirement for a third U.S.-based missile defense site, nor assessed the feasibility or cost in a cost-constrained environment.”
  • It is possible that the U.S. stance will change in the future. There is already considerable support within the U.S. Congress for an additional interceptor site in the eastern United States, and, as this U.S. National Research Council report points out, it is possible that a series of upgraded radars might also be deployed as part of such an expansion. However, that report argues for new radars at the existing U.S. radar sites at Fylingdales Moor, U.K.; Thule, Greenland; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Grand Forks, North Dakota; and Clear, Alaska — not at a site in Canada.
  • In the grand tradition of pork-barrel politics everywhere, Congress members are already applying pressure for any new facilities built on the East Coast to be constructed within their own regions. Quelle surprise, if there’s more spending to be done, they want it done in the United States, where they get to hand out the big cheques!
  • In short, no one should expect the Canadian government to win any friends in Washington by asking the United States to spend $500-million that it doesn’t have to build a radar that the Obama administration doesn’t want at a location that Congress won’t support.
  • The U.S. position might be different if Canada proposed to pay for the radar itself. But (as far as the public knows) that proposal is not on the table, and if it were it would certainly raise serious questions about how the Canadian government would pay for it at a time when it is cutting back spending across the board and already hopes to buy far more equipment for the Canadian Forces than it can afford with the money it is planning to spend.
  • Although it would be expensive to build, operating such a radar would require relatively few people, and thus the annual payroll at the site would do essentially nothing to keep the base at Goose Bay running. The government may or may not be committed to keeping the pork flowing to that particular regional barrel, but anyone who thinks the base will be saved by committing to build a radar at the site is dreaming.
  • Even if the U.S. missile defence system does get upgraded to include an additional East Coast interceptor site and X-band radars, it will still have little or no capability against real-world missiles using simple countermeasures. So, no, don’t imagine that this boondoggle would actually make anyone any safer. (In fact, as we noted here, if anything it is likely to make us less safe.)
  • Finally, if Canada did manage to convince the U.S. to deploy at Goose Bay what that country would then consider to be an essential component of its missile defence system, we would have succeeded only in tying ourselves to a system whose future evolution even supporters acknowledge we would have no control over. Let’s be clear here. No Canadian government would dare risk the U.S. wrath that would accompany a Canadian decision at some future date to shut down a fundamental component of the U.S. system. If a future U.S. administration decided, for example, to expand the system to include missile defence interceptors in space, something Canada has long considered to be a dangerous mistake, we would be stuck. The government would almost certainly be unwilling even to criticize the move into space for fear of fueling public demands for Canadian withdrawal. When Brian Mulroney chose not to participate in the U.S. missile defence program in 1985, he specifically cited concerns about “getting involved in a situation where the parameters are beyond our control and where the government of Canada does not call the shots.” He also cited the potential limiting effect of participation on Canada’s freedom of action: “Does it hinder your capacity to act independently? Does it mute a noble voice, Canada’s, in the question of arms reduction and arms limitation? These are important questions for a national government…”

They are still important questions.

And here is another important question: Is our current national government smart enough to see past the groundless boosterism of missile-defence supporters and recognize the realities of missile defence?

That crucial question remains to be answered.

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