It was 40 years ago that the United States began to consider the Strategic Defense Initiative, a ground and space based system to defend itself against nuclear ballistic missiles. Canada was invited to join that program, but believing the program to be too costly and that participation would provoke the Soviet Union, declined.
Despite reservations about the technology, and test failures, the belief that ballistic missile defence was a worthy investment that could diminish the threat of nuclear war has remained a part of US defence strategy.
The missile defence system today is a global network of systems which aims to deflect attacks from rogue nations like North Korea or Iran. For this reason the system continues to expand. On March 15th, it was announced that the United States would construct an additional 14 ground based interceptors at Fort Greeley in Alaska by 2017.
Canada has continued to abstain from participation in any form of ballistic missile defence. Based as much on strong public dislike for the Bush administration as any other consideration Canada rejected a second proposal in 2005 which involved enhancing the defense umbrella by installing an X-band radar for surveillance missions.
In other parts of the world, including Europe, the Middle East and in the Asia-Pacific region, the missile shield has gained support. In 2010, NATO announced the protection of Allied territory and populations as a core responsibility. To fulfill this commitment NATO relies on the Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) program, which links Allied and US systems into a common missile defense architecture.
Ottawa has quietly accepted BMD as part of Canada’s treaty obligations to help protect NATO allies from ballistic missile threats. As a member of the NATO alliance, Canada officially endorses the strategic and security benefits of ballistic missile defence, but only in terms of protecting European and American territory and populations. We do not engage in bilateral discussions with our most important NATO ally, the United States, to negotiate BMD architecture to protect Canadian territory and population.
NORAD, a Canadian-American military partnership currently provides aerospace warning and defence. While they participate in all aspects of airborne defence, Canadian members of NORAD can only issue warnings of an impending missile attack on the continent but cannot participate in decisions regarding interception.
Because of the international dimensions of missile defence, a decision by Canada to take a larger role in NORAD involving missile defence as well as warning should not be considered to be just a reaction to perceived security threats. It should also be seen to be within the context of Canada’s responsibility and commitment to promote international peace and security.
Canada’s lack of participation in this aspect of our own defence is as much reflexive as it is purposeful. Earlier debates on the subject were divisive and partisan. At this point only the NDP has a clear position on the subject and they are opposed to it. Although one might assume the Green party is generally opposed to Canadian participation in missile defence and the Conservatives generally in favour of such an initiative, a search of their official websites and attempts to contact the parties on the issue bring no results of any kind. The same lack of any identifiable position on the subject can also be ascribed to the Liberals. The silence emanating from these national parties on the issue can be truly deafening.
One can only assume that our politicians are taking their advice from the character of Sir Humphrey of the classic British comedy “Yes Minister”.
He famously explained that when guiding ministers to what he felt was the correct decision it was best to couch the advice in the correct terms.
“If you want to be really sure that the Minister doesn't accept it, you must say the decision is "courageous".
Bernard: And that's worse than "controversial"?
Sir Humphrey: Oh, yes! "Controversial" only means "this will lose you votes". "Courageous" means "this will lose you the election"!
In this case it would appear that the spin doctors who guide our elected leaders have been able to silence all talk on the subject of Canadian involvement in missile defence by invoking that most frightening of all concepts, “showing leadership”.