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Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence: Responding to the evolving threat

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The Report

Executive Summary

In 2004, the Government of Canada indicated an interest in participating in ballistic missile defence (BMD) through correspondence to the United States government and agreed to be a de facto participant through its agreement that warning information collected under the auspices of the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) could be used in BMD.
On 24 February 2005, the government announced in the House of Commons that it would not participate in the United States’ BMD program. To better assess the impact of this policy decision and whether maintaining this position today serves Canada’s security and foreign policy interests, the committee sought out expert advice on how the threat environment has evolved since 2005: the current state of the U.S. BMD effort today; how Canada’s BMD policy aligns with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commitments and its broader defence and security partnership with the United States; and potential opportunities for Canada should it decide to participate more fully in BMD.

In respect of the threat environment, the committee heard worrying testimony about the ongoing efforts of North Korea and Iran to acquire capabilities to deliver long-range, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles so as to threaten neighbouring countries, NATO allies and North America. These efforts – carried out in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions – have brought these two rogue nations, North Korea in particular, to the point where a threat has become a practical reality.

NATO has embraced BMD as part of its New Strategic Concept and allies such as Australia, South Korea, and Japan are also participating in what will become a global network of regional BMD systems. In rejecting full participation in U.S. BMD, Canada has excluded itself from this large collection of nations. Indeed, more than one policy expert highlighted the contradictory nature of Canada’s explicit support for NATO allies to be protected by BMD, but not Canada itself.

The Committee learned from the Deputy Commander of NORAD, Canada cannot simply assume that all of its territory will be protected by default under the existing U.S. BMD system. Because Canada is not a BMD participant, decisions on when, where and whether to intercept an incoming ballistic missile would be made not under the auspices of the binational NORAD structure but, rather, by the U.S. alone under its domestic defence command, United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM).

In an attack on North America using a plane, a fighter jet or a cruise missile, the committee was told that Canada is a full and equal partner in a seamless command structure within NORAD to defend our region. If that attack was from a ballistic missile, Canada is not a participant.

The committee is concerned that our military officials at NORAD will be asked to “leave the room” when it comes to determining how to deal with a ballistic missile attack that threatens Canada or North America.

A disjointed command structure raises operational issues, breaking down an otherwise seamless defence partnership and forcing U.S. military personnel to make decisions under the USNORTHCOM structure, which excludes Canada.

The U.S. BMD program is not without its critics. The committee heard concerns voiced about the potential for the BMD system to undermine strategic deterrence, militarize space or trigger an arms race.  However, it heard equally evidence to suggest otherwise.

Even some of the system’s harshest critics acknowledged that it would be in Canada’s interest to participate in the U.S. effort. They argued that Canada’s contribution could take on many different forms, including research and development directed towards solving some of the BMD system’s ongoing challenges or enhancing NORAD’s ability to defend against emerging threats, such as offshore attack using cruise missiles or short-range ballistic missiles. The possibilities are many but clearly these choices can only be made after the Government of Canada has assessed the risks posed to its territory and considered issues of sovereignty and security.

The committee is unanimous in recommending that the Government of Canada enter into an agreement with the United States to participate as a partner in ballistic missile defence.
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The committee is unanimous in recommending that the Government of Canada enter into an agreement with the United States to participate as a partner in ballistic missile defence.

Contact information

General Information:
613-990-0088 or 1-800-267-7362


Mailing Address:
The Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence
The Senate of Canada
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada, K1A 0A4