OTTAWA — The Liberal government has signaled its willingness to reopen one of the most contentious debates in recent Canadian military history: whether the country should participate in ballistic missile defense. And the results could be very different this time around.
|An RCAF BOMARC-B being launched as a target drone at Vandenberg Air Force Base Launch Complex BOM1, California (USA), on 1 May 1977. The BOMARC was Canada's last large guided missile defence system. The BOMARC program ended in 1972. Unknown to many today, a number of Canadian BOMARC's had Nuclear-warheads.|
Earlier this month, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan released a document asking for public feedback on what the military should — and should not — be doing. One section focuses specifically on ballistic missile defense, noting that the issue “has not been considered by Canada for over a decade.
“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,” reads the document.
It goes on to note that many of Canada’s partners and allies are working together on ballistic missile defense while Canada remains outside such efforts. This is a reference to not just the U.S., but also European NATO members, as well as Australia and South Korea.
“Should this decision be revisited given changing technologies and threats?” it asks. “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?”
Missile defence has been largely off the public and political radar since then-prime minister Paul Martin famously opted not to join the U.S. program following a heated and extremely divisive national debate in 2005.
Martin’s decision was seen by many as an attempt to bolster his minority Liberal government. The NDP, and many Canadians, opposed missile defence, in part because of its links to the Bush administration. But there were also questions about whether such a system was even technically feasible — or needed.
The U.S. has since pressed ahead with missile defense, spending about $100 billion over the last decade to develop land- and sea-based systems that would stop a limited ballistic missile attack from a rogue state like North Korea or Iran. (They would not protect against an all-out attack by Russia or China.)
The programs, which have had mixed success in testing, have been developed in co-operation with NATO allies as well as Australia and South Korea.
Canada has provided the U.S. with aerospace warning information for North American missile defence under an agreement signed between the two countries in 2004. It has also publicly supported missile defence in Europe. But it has not had any direct participation in the programs — so far.
Prime minister Stephen Harper did quietly agree that ballistic missiles posed a threat to Canada and the U.S. by removing the word “European” from a NATO leaders’ statement on ballistic missiles in 2014. But otherwise his government did little to change Canada’s policy of non-engagement.
Supporters, including military officials, experts and the head of the Senate defence committee, are confident that the circumstances are now ripe for Canada to participate. And they’re hoping the inclusion of ballistic missile defence in the Liberal defence review is only the first step to Canada’s full enlistment.
Two years ago, Conservative and Liberal members of the Senate defence committee, including retired general Romeo Dallaire, unanimously called for Canada to join the U.S. in building a ballistic missile defence.
The committee largely accepted the warnings from defence officials about the risks to Canada from Iranian and North Korean ballistic missiles, the importance of being at the table when the Americans are discussing missile defence, and even the potential industrial benefits to Canadian companies.
“I think it’s overdue, and I think that debate should ensue,” the committee’s chairman, Conservative Sen. Daniel Lang, said in an interview. “Times have changed, and there’s not a lot of reason not to join.”
Briefing notes obtained by the Citizen show defence officials have also quietly set the stage by warning successive defence ministers, including Rob Nicholson, Jason Kenney and, most recently, Sajjan about the threat posed by ballistic missiles from rogue states and other actors.
Officials have also noted that many of Canada’s allies and partners — “including all of NATO — are now engaged in missile defence activities.” And they called the program “much more effective,” even though the system is still in heavy development and testing.
Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, believes the U.S. would welcome Canada’s involvement. He also says there are several ways that Canada could contribute, such as hosting interceptors or even providing command-and-control capabilities.
But any move to reopen the issue is sure to prompt many of the same questions and arguments against Canadian participation as a decade ago.
Eugene Lang, who served as chief of staff to Liberal defence ministers Bill Graham and David Pratt when the Martin government was dealing with missile defence 10 years ago, and is now an adjunct professor at Queen’s University, said the question of whether Canadian participation is necessary remains front and centre.
“The Americans are going to build this,” he said. “And they may be right about North Korea. But why do we need to be part of it? That was never a question we got a good substantive answer to. And I still don’t think they have a good substantive answer.”
Arms control groups have also long warned that missile defence actually hurts international security by undermining nuclear deterrence. This is among the reasons that Russians have strongly opposed the positioning of U.S. anti-missile defence systems in Eastern Europe.
There is also the question of cost and whether Canada would be required pay into the multi-billion-dollar project. The defence budget is already thin, and Canada’s participation in another development project, the F-35 stealth fighter, caused major political headaches for the Conservatives.