Monday, October 25, 2004

To Be Or Not To BMD?

The question of participation in North American ballistic missile defense (BMD) has become one of the hottest items in Canadian foreign policy. It has also proven to be surprisingly divisive. During the spring 2004 federal elections, Conservatives promised to bring Canada into BMD, NDP Socialists came out staunchly against it, and Liberals cleverly sidestepped the issue by stating that they opposed the militarization of outer space. Even the Bloc, whose sole wish remains to extricate Quebec from Canada, figured Canada should reject BMD. The debate rages further within the Canadian government with the Department of National Defense (DND) opting for BMD, and Foreign Affairs Canada (FAC) generally advising against it. Canada’s population is also split on the question, with slim majority (48%) of Canadians in favor and 44% against. British Columbia and Quebec remained most opposed to BMD (53% and 50% opposed respectively) and the Prairies and the Maritimes more in favor. (for stats see Ottawa Citizen of October 5th 2004). Faced with such a divisive issue, what policy should Canada pursue? The bad news is that there is no clear answer to this complex question. The good news is that the outcome of a decision on BMD will not be devastating to international security and bilateral relations. Furthermore it is also an issue with a range of policy options that is amenable to being finely tailored to Canadian interests. This essay will tackle the question in two parts. First, the political and financial costs of the proposed missile shield will be outlined with a particular emphasis on arms racing and diplomacy. Second, the advantages of such a shield will be explained and the concerns of the anti-BMD party addressed. It will be concluded that Canada has an interest a limited participation in BMD, without nonetheless embarking wholeheartedly in the venture.


Opponents of BMD make four main points regarding the costs of missile defense and its strategic, diplomatic, and environmental consequences. First, missile defense is prohibitively expensive. At a bare minimum, missile defense requires a network several high-powered radar sites (some on floating platforms in the ocean), a constellation of early warning satellites, strategically located silos, and missile interceptors. Such bases must be staffed by specially trained personnel, be well maintained and kept on high alert. The U.S. missile defense agency has already spent $130 billion on BMD. Despite these expenses, the missile defense system being put into place is not even properly functional. The Bush Administration has rushed the establishment BMD without being assured that the system actually works, motivated by a combination of ill-advised campaign promises, post-9/11 fear, and departmental budgetary infighting. Instead of proving the science and engineering behind BMD and then building such a system, the American Department of Defense (DoD) has been operating on the euphemistically named evolutionary acquisition. This means that the DoD has decided to build first and think later about the functioning of the system. The track record so far is less than encouraging. Few of the already little tests be categorized as a success, and only because the exercises was highly scripted, with the DoD knowing precisely the origin, time, and type of missile to be intercepted. Such tests are not realistic, and it would be wishful thinking that America would become any safer because of them. If anything, such a spatial “Maginot line” will endow the U.S. with a false sense of security. Physicists such as Ted Postol at MIT have long argued that the technology is immature and it is foolish to devote our capital and energies to these projects at this time. Furthermore there is a real opportunity cost for Canadian taxpayers attached to BMD. Every dollar spent on an immature missile defense is a dollar that is not spent on badly needed hospital beds, daycare for single mothers, and military equipment for our own pitifully underfunded military.
Second, BMD may have cause diplomatic damage. Canadian foreign policy has long rested on its reputation of being pragmatically idealist, an honest broker, and a leader on initiatives such as peacekeeping, human security, and anti-personnel landmines disarmament. Canada leverages a disproportionate amount of so-called ‘soft power’ because countries trust its intentions, admire its vision of a more peaceful world, and believe it is a country that keeps its word on international law. If Canada were seen to be embarking on a BMD project that may violate international space law, bilateral treaties against missile defense, and the spirit of arms control, it may find it more difficult to push its progressive agenda on a range of issues from human rights to nonproliferation in the future. Since its foundation, Canada has nurtured a reputation that garnishes it respect, confidence, and leverage in international affairs. While Canada should not feel needlessly bridled by world opinion, it must weight its effects in the context of a possibly expensive, inefficient, and unnecessary BMD system.
Third, ballistic missile defense will have adverse strategic effects. No country can be completely safe if other major players in the international system feel insecure. It is this logic that underpinned the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, which maintained stability during the Cold War. Thus, the U.S. cannot make itself invulnerable without generating a whole range of countermeasures by peer competitors such as Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and North Korea among others. These countermeasures can go from the basic, such as simply smuggling in WMD into the U.S. through cargo ships or attaching decoys to missiles, to the complex, such as building ballistic missile that follow erratic and unpredictable paths, such as the “Crazy Ivan” currently being developed by Russia, or by investing in blue sea submarines that can launch missiles closer to the shores of the U.S. where they will be difficult to intercept. Most likely, the result of a BMD will be a renewed arms race. States that were previously content with a minimal deterrent force will produce more ballistic missiles with multiple warheads in order to overwhelm the missile shield. Tragically by trying to become secure, the U.S. will find itself in the long term in a similar state of vulnerability, only this time with more weapons pointed at it. The U.S. could always upgrade its missile defense system. However, it must be cognizant that it will constantly be at a disadvantage so long as that the cost of intercepting an extra missile is greater than the cost of building an extra missile. Thus Canada may be unwillingly promoting an arms race by giving political and military backing to North American BMD. BMD may also produce an arms race in outer space that goes against Canadian policy and interests. So far, the U.S. has been talking about a ground-based BMD involving interceptors based on Earth. However, it is not unlikely that the U.S. will go ahead with a second phase of space-based BMD similar to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI dubbed as “Star Wars”) proposed by President Reagan in the 1980s. Indeed, DoD has recently approved a project for a space-based interceptor test bed by 2012. While a space-based interceptor is likely to improve the effectiveness of BMD, it has two drawbacks. First, if such a BMD involved weapons of mass destruction, it could violate the Outer Space Treaty, as well as seriously anger states such as China and Russia who vehemently oppose the weaponisation of outer space. In the future, if such countries come to view satellites as offensive weapons, they will seek to develop anti-satellite devices (ASATs) to negate them, thus opening the previously untouched sanctuary of outer space to the ravages of war. The use of ASATs could also lead to the creation of millions of pieces of space debris. Such debris, which in the space environment travels at 10 km per second could eventually cripple the satellite network modern society has come to depend on, or render outer space increasingly inaccessible. Because of these concerns, Canada has consistently opposed the weaponisation of outer space. However, if Canada refuses to join on the second phase of BMD, it is likely to face an even more serious rebuke from the U.S. than it does today, since the U.S. would have at that point sunken considerable capital in a BMD infrastructure. Therefore the cost of saying no to the second phase of BMD will eliminate the political favor Canada could accumulate from the U.S. by joining the first phase of BMD. Canada needs to closely evaluate this prospect in its continuing mission to improve bilateral relations with the U.S.
Lastly, Canada must examine the environmental impact of BMD. The first issue involves the stationing of radar and interceptor bases on Canadian soil. Because it is likely that such bases would be placed in the Arctic or the West Coast, both areas with potentially fragile ecosystems, Ottawa will need to carefully evaluate its responsibilities as custodian of Canada’s natural resources. Furthermore, BMD bases stationed on Canadian soil could become target of any preemptive strike. In this sense, BMD will make Canada a greater target. The second environmental issue revolves around the question of missile debris. Because ballistic missile en route to the U.S. tend to arc over the far north, it is likely that a missile intercept would occur just above Canadian airspace. This means that debris, including WMD warheads, from intercepted missiles could come falling down on Canada, posing an environmental and safety threat. The third environmental issue, briefly touched upon previously, is the question of orbital debris caused by an intercept in outer space. Such orbital debris could wreck havoc on satellites and jeopardize mankind’s access to outer space. With all these concerns in mind, it is understandable that many Canadians are weary or opposed to BMD. Most Canadians don’t find the prospect of a North Korea missile crashing down on Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal credible. Nor do they feel it is worth draining the nation’s coffers and bruising its international reputation in order to avert such a remote threat.


Missile defense advocates point out that while some of the concerns of those who oppose BMD may be valid, overall a missile shield would serve Canada’s interests. First, there are many misconceptions about the scope and intentions of missile defense. The BMD system being put in place is designed to protect North America from a fairly limited number of ballistic missiles. The reasons for such a limited system are not just related to technological hurdles. A limited system would be prudent since it could protect against an accidental launch of a few missiles by Russia or China or by extremist elements within those regimes. Given the state of the former Soviet arsenal, and the degree of corruption in both countries, such concerns cannot be dismissed lightly. A limited system could also protect against rogue state that fail to grasp the logic of deterrence. The prime example of this is North Korea, which in 1998 conducted a missile test over Japan and has recently admitted developing nuclear weapons. Although the U.S. and Canada could easily retaliate to such an attack, Reagan aptly pointed out: “would it not be better to protect lives than to avenge them?” A limited system could also mitigate the negative strategic implications of BMD. Countries like China or Russia who has armories of 100 and 10,000? Intercontinental ballistic missile respectively would have little incentive to build more weapons to penetrate a system designed to intercept only 20 missiles at a time. Thus it is possible to maintain the stabilizing effects of MAD while protecting against accidents or irrational leaders. This is why in spite of the shrill warnings of a 21st century arms race, we have seen relatively little reaction from China or Russia. Part of the reason for this lies, in what Stephen Van Evera calls the offense-defense balance. So long as defensive technology is predominant, international relations remain more stable since states do not fear a devastating first strike. Thus states are more willing to engage patiently in diplomacy and negotiations, and are less likely to be bedeviled by suspicions and misperceptions. In the case of BMD, ballistic missile can be considered (albeit counter-intuitively) defensive weapons since they are generally retaliatory weapons that cannot in and of themselves conquer territory. So long as ballistic missiles are cheaper and easier to produce than BMD systems, the offense-defense balance, and consequently stability, is maintained. While BMD cannot be the panacea to all forms of WMD attacks on the mainland from smuggling to submarine-launched weapons, it does not follow that it should not be undertaken at all. It can only be one brick in North America’s defensive wall.
It is interesting to note the contradictions in the anti BMD crowd’s rhetoric. One the one hand they note that such a BMD defense will not work because the technology primitive for the challenge of intercepting missiles. On the other hand they state that such a defense system will, trying to make America invulnerable, spur an arms race. The contradiction is deeper among those peace activists that worry about a nuclear Armageddon, yet at the same time are opposed to steps to help avert nuclear attacks.
While Canada may not believe it is a target of an eventual attack, it will be affected directly and indirectly by an attack on the U.S. Canada will be affected directly if a WMD warhead lands in a city close to the border. Such an attack could produce fallout that could reach Canada, especially in border twin cities such as Seattle/Vancouver, Buffalo Toronto, or Detroit/Windsor. Canada could be affected indirectly because of its economic dependence on the U.S. A ballistic missile attack on the U.S. would have a devastating impact on its economy, much like the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Because some 85% of Canada’s trade is with the U.S., a hitch in the American economy should have a strong ripple effect in Canada. For better or for worse, Canada’s security cannot be disentangled from that of the U.S. It is also likely that regardless of Canada’s participation or consent, the U.S. would use Canada’s airspace to shoot down incoming missile that threatens the lives of thousands of its citizens. Another indirect effect will be felt on bilateral relations with the U.S. If Canada chooses to opt out of BMD, it will be left out of the American politico-military decision-making processes, such as North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD). Without a seat at the table, Canada will find it ever more difficult to influence American policy. Because much of Canada’s clout in the world derives from its special relationship with the U.S., opting out of missile defense will also decrease Canada’s global influence.
Opponents of BMD often describe it as the “son of Star Wars”: Reagan’s ill-fated missile defense system in the 1980s. They also claim that BMD will lead to the weaponisation of space. Such comments are disingenuous because they mischaracterize the nature of BMD and the weaponisation of space. The SDI program proposed by Reagan foresaw a constellation of satellites with laser capabilities designed to shoot down missiles. In contrast, the BMD plan being implemented is earth-based. While surveillance and early warning capabilities are in part space-based (with much of the same technology used for meteorology and mapping), all the weapons are non-spaced based. This means that BMD does not in and of itself weaponize space. What it does do however is contribute to the militarization of space, which is a distinct, and not altogether negative, thing. Think for example of satellite guided precision munitions that help avoid civilian casualties during bombing campaigns, or satellite mapping devices that help verify disarmament treaties and track down terrorists. Military uses of outer space are not inherent bad, it is the weaponization of outer space that constitutes a threat to the secure and sustainable use of outer space for the greater benefit of mankind. If anything it is the ballistic missiles themselves that already constitute a weaponisation of outer space since their trajectories inherently involves a transit through low earth orbit. Therefore claiming that BMD will contribute to weaponisation of space is deceptive. Lastly, Canada will be breaching no international law by engaging in BMD. The Outer Space Treaty only bans the placement of WMD in space, and the Moscow Treaty against BMD has already been annulled by the U.S. (in any case it was a bilateral treaty between the U.S. and the USSR/Russia that was not signed by Canada).


At the end of the day, there are compelling arguments for and against BMD. As with all low probability-high impact threats, the issue generates a high degree of both skepticism and panic. The first thing Canada should do is wait. Ottawa should wait to see the outcome of the November 2nd U.S. presidential elections. John Kerry has not come down strongly for or against BMD. Even his more hawkish comments about defending America should be viewed through the prism of election-year rhetoric. The result of the election and/or a shift in U.S. policy may settle the issue for Canada since it will not be considering building BMD on its own. Furthermore the question is not all that pressing. The U.S. DoD has made it known that it will not rush Canada and will be continuing with its plans regardless of Canada’s decision. If the U.S. decides to go ahead with BMD, Canada has an interest in a limited form of participation that helps it address the possible threat of a ballistic missiles and the need for warmer bilateral relations, while minimizing financial burdens and strategic/diplomatic fracas. Second, if Canada decides to join BMD it must make it clear that it will only contribute territory for bases and over-flight rights. It should not contribute resources to the research and development of an expensive and uncertain BMD system, nor should it pay for the bases, launchers, or early warning systems. Canada must make it clear that it is it that is doing a favor for the U.S. A favor that can hold benefits for it, but political and strategic liabilities as well. Third, Canada must make it perfectly clear from the beginning that it will not participate in any second phase of BMD that can involve the placement of weapons in space. Fourth, Canada should embark with China, Russia and a host of non-aligned countries on a campaign to ban the weaponisation of outer space. This will create a legal and normative firewall to the creeping weaponisation of outer space, and uphold Canada’s reputation in the eyes of the world community.

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