Wednesday, 25 June 2014


On June 16 of this year there was a unanimous recommendation by both Conservative and Liberal senators of the Senate National Security Committee endorsing Canada’s participation in U.S. ballistic missile defence (BMD).

In the report Daniel Lang, the Conservative chair of the committee, and Roméo Dallaire, the Liberal deputy chair, cited the threat posed by rogue states and the need for Canada to be explicitly protected in the event of a ballistic missile attack.

The committee pointed out that more than one policy expert had highlighted the contradictory nature of Canada’s explicit support for NATO allies to be protected by BMD, but not Canada itself.

In response John Polanyi, who is a professor of chemistry and Nobel laureate at the University of Toronto and who has written extensively on arms control, wrote an opinion piece published in the Toronto Star entitled “Missile defence is still a bad idea”.

Professor Polanyi wrote that we should heed the words of another committee, one composed of atom-bomb scientists under the chairmanship of Nobel Prize-winner James Franck in June of 1945 who, before the bomb was used, he quoted as saying “In the past, science has often been able to provide new methods of protection against new weapons of aggression, but it cannot promise such efficient protection against the destructive use of nuclear power. This protection can come only from the political organization of the world.”

His other arguments against Ballistic Missile Defence appeared to be his belief that it would not work and the fear that if it did, the response by an aggressor would be use more missiles.

Although James Franck may have won the Nobel Prize, it is still true that the state of the art for weapons delivery when the statement was made was the B-29 bomber. Much has changed since then, not least technology. While it is true that protection can come from “the political organization of the world” it is also true that one of the most important discoveries of the last seventy years has been the extent to which politics and society are influenced and molded by technology.

Just as nuclear weapons and their threat have informed much of our world, so it is true that newer technologies are forming the world we will inhabit in the future. We can’t make that technology or there effects disappear by pretending they don’t exist.

The argument that Ballistic Missile Defence is some how morally wrong because it won’t work has never made a great deal of sense. The argument seems to be that you know it won’t work, I know it won’t work, everybody knows it won’t work, except of course all those nuclear armed powers whose actions may be motivated by the uninformed belief that it might work.

In theory, if it doesn’t and can’t work, why don’t we let the war mongers spend there money on this non-offensive weapons system while the rest of us laugh at them and carry on, sure and certain in the belief that this Maginot line of the stratosphere will have no real effect. Perhaps it’s the waste that offends so much.

Professor Polanyi’s other objection is that even if interceptions could be made as much as 50 per cent effective an attacker would have the option of using two weapons instead of one. That would not be a desirable outcome as it nullifies the defence while encouraging an increase in the offence.

This objection made no sense during the height of the Cold War when the nuclear armed nations had plans which included the exchange of thousands of weapons with little thought of any kind of restraint and makes even less now when the limited defence system envisaged is specifically designed to deal with limited numbers of missiles. The plan is not to lesson the effects of Armageddon but rather to deter or defend against an opportunistic or rogue small scale attack.

Professor Polanyi does not see much use for Canada with a “place at the table” where decisions will be made concerning the defence of the U.S. homeland and also of Canada. He points out that to do so “Canada will then be endorsing a view contrary to the one it has long avowed. Missile defence is not our chosen path to peace… Our national priorities lie elsewhere, in diplomacy and disarmament.”

Perhaps the good Professor does not see how our place at the table could be used to further those national priorities. I am sure that Professor Polanyi would agree that it would be hypocritical in the extreme to protest the defensive measures undertaken by the U.S. while sheltering under them. As it stands now, should some errant nuclear armed missile fired by a rogue state come wobbling towards the west coast of Canada there is a real danger that the United States might try to shoot it down. In these situations decisions are going to be made in seconds and without a strong Canadian voice at the ready to stop any attempt to protect us there is no telling what might happen.

It may be that as a west coast resident I have a less then objective view of the situation. Even so, it makes more sense to engage with the U.S. as they develop this technology. It makes more sense to spend on defensive weapons then aggressive ones. It makes more sense to be involved with the defence of our own country then to leave it in the hands of others. It makes sense to follow the recommendations of the Senate National Security Committee. Missile Defence is still not a bad idea.

Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence: Responding to the evolving threat

Missile defence is still a bad idea