The Problem With Canada’s Ballistic Missile Defence Debate

by Oct 4, 2017

North Koreans perform during the Mass Games  in which large numbers of performers take part in a highly regimented performance that emphasizes group dynamics rather than individual prowess. Flickr/(stephan)

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In September, the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence considered “Canada’s abilities to defend itself…in the event of an attack by North Korea.” It spent a surprising amount of time discussing potential Canadian involvement in US ballistic missile defence programs. Just as surprising is the wider emerging narrative that Canadian participation is now “common sense”. It is far from it.

Canada’s conversation over North Korea policy should not be about missile defence. The current Korean crisis demands a broader conversation amongst the US and its allies about sanctions policy, dialogue efforts, cyber threats, and human rights promotion – a conversation in which Canada has a role.

Moreover, Canada’s missile defence discussion should not be about North Korea. Pyongyang is not the only adversary capable of targeting North America with ballistic missiles. And the idea that its long-range missiles should lead Canada to join in US Ground-based Midcourse Defence (GMD) – the system designed to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles fired from across the Pacific – is perplexing.

Firstly, Canada is not on Pyongyang’s nuclear target list, as suggested during the Parliamentary hearings. North Korean state media has never mentioned Canada in security terms — except to call us “peaceful” and “friendly”. North Korea’s foreign minister recently reaffirmed that they have no intention “to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the countries that do not join in US military actions” on North Korea. Analysts have a good sense of what the country’s targets actually are; Pyongyang believes selective transparency enhances deterrence, and shows us “maps of death” with some frequency. One way to put Canada on nuclear target lists, however, would be to station important ballistic missile defence assets here.

Secondly, predicating participation on the supposed threat of a North Korean missile gone astray is misguided. Some commentaries assert that either Pyongyang could get the “math” wrong, or its missiles are so inaccurate that they could inadvertently hit “Vancouver instead of Seattle” or Toronto instead of Detroit. Both notions rest on the classic assumption that the North Koreans are technically incompetent – ironic as Canada is only having this debate now because North Korea has repeatedly demonstrated its technical competence. And Seattle and Detroit do not appear to be on Pyongyang’s target list either. Scenarios of an attack on Canada – deliberate or accidental — involve extremely small probabilities.

Additionally, claims that Canada is “defenceless” are misleading. Despite the recent comments of NORAD’s deputy commander that US policy is “not to defend Canada,” in the above scenarios it is hard to imagine the US not attempting an intercept anyway. Doing otherwise would be tantamount to permitting an attack on a NATO ally, and a strike would also have major ramifications for Americans across the border.

All of these considerations come on top of the existing shortcomings of GMD. Despite President Trump’s latest assertion that the probability of intercept is “so high,” the system only works about half of the time, and against “simple” targets. Shooting down a single simulated warhead in a highly scripted testing environment (at a cost of a whopping USD $250 million for the most recent test) bears little resemblance to shooting down a wartime salvo like Pyongyang rehearsed in March. North Korea may also work to deploy decoys or other penetration aids in the future. Far from being a “shield,” as GMD is often called, in a wartime it could in fact be a sieve.

In addition to the low success rate of GMD interceptor tests, current GMD plans are to deploy a total of forty-four interceptors. Given that the US intends to fire four interceptors at each missile to maximize the chance of a hit, the system will get shots at no more than eleven missiles in a crisis. That is math that North Korea and other adversaries can do, and limitations they can overcome.

Canada should do its own calculations too. A decision to participate in US GMD would be imperfect protection against a mostly non-existent threat to Canadians; if anything, it would raise Canada’s profile as a target. It also has major long-term political, diplomatic, strategic, and financial implications. While the proposal has advocates of several political stripes, it neither enjoys nor merits higher-level cross-partisan support. Meanwhile, several other national defence initiatives, like our Arctic operating capability, do deserve additional, serious attention.

For now, while debates over Canada’s role in both the North Korean crisis and US ballistic missile defence are reasonable, the grounding of one in the other simply doesn’t add up.


Andrea Berger & Matt Korda
Andrea Berger is a nuclear weapons specialist at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and a Senior Fellow at the Canadian International Council.

Matt Korda is a Research Assistant in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.