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Time for a mature discussion about missile defence

by Archives March 15, 2006

WINNIPEG (CUP) — When former Prime Minister Paul Martin announced that Canada would not take part in the U.S. ballistic missile defence (BMD) program, it came as something of a surprise. Both Martin and National Defence Minister Bill Graham were public supporters of Canadian participation, and the Liberal government had already agreed to amend the North American Aerospace Defence (NORAD) agreement to share missile tracking information with the command responsible for the BMD system.

Moreover, Canada was being asked only for a statement of support. The U.S. BMD system would defend Canada from the risk of nuclear catastrophe at negligible cost.

Nonetheless, the Martin government seemed to give in to several objections that had been aired by critics of the BMD system in the debate that preceded the decision. But all these objections are wrong.

First, the BMD systems under development will not result in the “weaponization of space.” None of the systems currently under development would locate interceptors in space, avoiding any possible entanglements with the Outer Space Treaty. The program will include surveillance satellites, but these are not prohibited under the Treaty, nor are they different from existing satellites. Either space won’t be weaponized, or it already is.

Nor will the U.S. BMD programs inaugurate a new arms race. It is not clear what other countries would join the U.S. at the start line, as Russia and China cannot afford BMD systems, and few others would be interested. Moreover, Russia has too many missiles for the BMD system to counter effectively, and China soon will, which means China’s ability to deter a potential U.S. first-strike would remain unaffected.

More persistent are concerns about cost effectiveness given the threat at hand. Indeed, the official Canadian position has been that “the ballistic missile threat to Canada is not currently considered to be high.” U.S. policy makers are less sanguine about the risks. Whatever their probability, accidental or unintentional launches are possible.

Canadians should consider these odds carefully; an attack on Seattle or Detroit would devastate Vancouver and Windsor. Arguments that U.S. money would be better spent keeping “rogue states” or terrorist organizations from smuggling a nuclear weapon into the United States also miss the point – the U.S. can afford to do both. They have spent about $9 billion per annum on the system, just two per cent of the total military budget, and it only takes one attack to make the system worthwhile.

Finally, it has been argued that the system is not technologically feasible. This is false. Unlike the fantastical Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), the new BMD program is designed to deal with a very limited number of missiles. Moreover, the U.S. is not the only country in the BMD game. Israel already has an operational missile defence system, and Japan intends to have one by 2011. Although Israel and Japan are significantly smaller than the U.S., they are also much closer to the missiles that threaten them, which shortens detection and response times while limiting the possibility for multiple interception attempts that the U.S. system will incorporate.

What really sets these countries apart is that they have the technological and financial wherewithal to make these programs work. Canada, by itself, does not. Of course, the U.S. has offered an implicit guarantee that the system will protect Canada and Mexico because that is the only way to protect themselves, but this only makes Canadian support more important.

To date, the public debate on BMD in Canada has had precious little to do with strategy, diplomacy, or reality in general. Instead, it has been hijacked by activists and politicians who see political mileage in preening Canadians’ self-image as peaceable and well loved, while wagging an admonishing finger at our southern neighbours.

The election of a Conservative government is an opportunity to change this. During the campaign, the Conservatives promised to improve bilateral relations with the U.S. and to do more to ensure the security of Canada. Moreover, the new Minister of National Defence, Gordon O’Connor, has stated that Canada would be willing to participate in U.S. BMD programs if asked to do so, and he is not alone.

If the new government is serious about its campaign promises, it must abandon the policy of relying on the U.S. for our defence while testing their forbearance, and instead try to do what is best for Canada and Canadians. As in the past, this will mean cooperating with the U.S. on continental defence. It will also mean articulating a responsible and forward-looking policy, the validity of which many Canadians have yet to be convinced.

But part of being a political leader is actually trying to lead now and then. As Paul Martin’s recent trouncing indicates, letting opinion polls determine policy does not assure success when the most important poll is taken.

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