Fraser Forum | 11.1.08
By Alan W. Dowd

In 2005, after then-Prime Minister Paul Martin decided Canada would not participate in the U.S.-led international missile defense system (IMD), Washington moved ahead without Ottawa, as expected. What was perhaps less expected was the very different reaction Washington’s missile defense plans received in other allied capitals—and the wide-ranging progress missile defense has made.

Missile defense advocates can be thankful the IMD coalition didn’t wait on Canada.

Before recapping IMD’s progress since Martin politely rebuffed President George W. Bush, it pays to recall some of the history that preceded Martin’s surprising reversal.

Some critics of IMD—in both Canada and the U.S—believe it was Bush who forced the issue and pushed missile defense from the realm of theory into the arena of international politics. In fact, this shift began in the late 1990s, after a Congressional commission raised a number of warnings about ballistic missile threats and, as if on cue, North Korea test-fired a three-stage rocket. President Bill Clinton then signed legislation that paved the way for deployment of a system “as soon as is technologically feasible” to defend against “limited ballistic missile attack” (National Missile Defense Act of 1999).[1]

Clinton’s critics say he could have done more, which is true. But he also could have done much less. In the end, he followed the Hippocratic Oath when it came to missile defense: he did no harm.

By endorsing missile defense, Clinton reflected the emergence of a national consensus on the issue. As Gen. Henry Obering, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), observes, today’s missile defense program is the product of four administrations, 11 Congresses and $115 billion in U.S. investment (Obering, April 30, 2008).

Thanks in part to that consensus, Bush was able to accelerate the program. First, he notified Moscow of America’s intentions to scrap the anachronistic ABM Treaty. He promised to slash America’s nuclear arsenal from 6,000 warheads to 1,700 and assured the Russians that IMD wouldn’t upset the U.S.-Russia deterrent balance. At the time, Vladimir Putin agreed, albeit less than wholeheartedly, concluding that Washington’s decision “does not pose a threat to the national security of the Russian Federation” (BBC News).

Bush then began building the IMD coalition.  

In February 2003, the British government agreed to upgrades of ground-based radar stations in the UK. Denmark soon approved similar upgrades at radar and satellite-tracking stations in Thule, Greenland. 

Tokyo had been cooperating quietly with Washington on missile defense since the late 1990s, but it wasn’t until December 2003 that Tokyo gave the go-ahead for construction of a layered missile defense system, in close partnership with the U.S. 

Word of Australia’s participation in the IMD coalition also came in December 2003 (Dobell). The U.S. and Australia signed a 25-year pact on missile defense cooperation in 2004.  

It was also in 2004 that Ottawa formally notified Washington of its desire to participate in the blossoming missile defense program. Citing “the growing threat involving proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction,” Canadian defense minister David Pratt informed his U.S. counterpart that the Martin government envisioned “a mutually beneficial framework to ensure the closest possible involvement…in the U.S. missile defense program” (Pratt).

That same year, Ottawa ordered Canadian personnel at the North American Aerospace Command to share missile-launch information with their U.S. counterparts (Struck). But then Martin had a change of heart, and Canada backed out in 2005. It was not exactly a profile in courage. “When Mr. Martin put his finger in the air over missile defense,” as The Globe and Mail editorialized, “he felt a chill” (Struck).

Writing in a Fraser Institute report, Alexander Moens, Sean McCarthy and Cassandra Florio concluded that “Canada worsened the situation by delaying its decision and eventually refusing to take any responsibility for cost-free participation in ballistic missile defense”(Moens, et al.).

“The Bush administration had asked for little more than moral support for the new system,” as The New York Times observed (Krauss). But Martin lacked the political capital to provide even that.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada criticized Martin’s decision at the time, and during his first bid for prime minister raised the possibility of reopening talks with Washington on missile defense. As PM, Harper has hinted at his support for the program, noting, as the Associated Press reported in 2007, that he recognizes the need for “a modern and flexible defense system” against missile threats (AP, March 5, 2007).

But trying to corral a minority government has pushed missile defense to the bottom of the PM’s inbox. The result: Harper’s hopes remain in a holding pattern and Canada remains on the sidelines.

It’s worth noting that other voices in Canada have expressed support for missile defense. In 2006, for instance, a committee of the Canadian Senate endorsed participation in the IMD program, with a note of common sense. “If there is the tiniest chance that it could [work], why would we turn up our noses at the opportunity to be a partner in this project?” the committee asked (CBC, October 5, 2006).

We can debate IMD’s chances for success, but one thing is certain: The chances of a rogue missile attack or accidental missile launch are growing.

Three decades ago, there were nine countries that possessed ballistic missiles. Today, there are 32 (Arms Control Association). By my count, 12 of them are unfriendly, unstable or uncertain about their relationship with the West. With their twin terror programs that seek to match rockets with nukes, North Korea and Iran top this list.

In July, according to Obering, “Iran orchestrated launches of several short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Israel and the U.S. bases in the Middle East” (Obering, July 15, 2008).

Once deployed, Iran’s latest variant of the Shahab rocket will be able to hit targets in southern Europe and across the Middle East. The Defense Intelligence Agency “estimates that Iran could have an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015,” Obering notes, ominously adding, “We should not assume that we have full understanding of ballistic missile activities around the world. We have been surprised in the past” (Obering April 30, 2008).

That brings us to the paranoid regime in North Korea. Over the past decade, Pyongyang has test-fired long-range rockets and detonated a nuclear weapon—both coming as stunning surprises to Western intelligence agencies. In September, we learned that North Korea conducted tests on rocket engines for a newer long-range missile and constructed a new facility for ICBM tests—and launches (Hess/Harden).

Yet if proliferation gives us reason to worry, IMD’s important strides this year offer reason for hope.

On the diplomatic front, NATO officially endorsed the IMD system during its summit in Bucharest. No longer agnostic on missile defense, the alliance now envisions a “NATO-wide missile defense architecture” that will extend “coverage to all Allied territory and populations not otherwise covered by the United States system” (NATO).

In August, Poland and the U.S. agreed on deployment of IMD interceptors on Polish soil. The bed of interceptor missiles will work in tandem with a new radar facility in the neighboring CzechRepublic.

To prepare Moscow for this eventuality, U.S. officials held ten formal IMD discussions with their Russian counterparts from 2006 through 2007. Washington even offered to allow Russian personnel to be stationed at IMD facilities in Central Europe.

However, Moscow was not pleased with the deal.

Poland,” warned Russian Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, “is exposing itself to a strike” (AP, August 15, 2008). Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov called the basing of U.S. interceptors in Poland “a threat to Russia’s security” (AP, September 11, 2008).

To cut through all of Moscow’s bluster, ask yourself this question: Who is more provocative and threatening—the cop wearing a bullet-proof vest or the gunman loading a weapon? And to extend the metaphor, if Russia is not planning to open fire on Europe or North America, then why is it so concerned about a wholly defensive system aimed at shielding the West from threats to Russia’s south and east? 

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice matter-of-factly observed after inking the deal with Poland, missile defense is a matter of, well, defense. “It is in our defense that we do this,” she explained (Rice).

Moreover, it pays to recall that, due to both the placement of the system and the number of Russian missiles, the IMD elements in Poland could never defend against Russia’s arsenal.

“Ten interceptors in Poland could absolutely not match the hundreds of interceptors and thousands of warheads that the Russians have deployed,” Obering observes (Obering July 15, 2008). 

Plus, as an MDA report explains, “There would not be sufficient time to detect, track and intercept” Russian missiles launched toward North America using the radars and interceptors planned for Central Europe (MDA, June 15, 2007).


Beyond Europe, Washington and the UAE announced plans late this year to cooperate on deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD). It will be America’s first THAAD sale (Wolf), and the UAE seems an ideal candidate. Sitting just across the Persian Gulf from Ahmadinejad’s Iran, the UAE would be a prime target for Iranian missiles in a time of hostilities. According to the State Department, the UAE “hosts more U.S. Navy ships than any port outside the U.S.” (U.S. State Department).

On the capabilities front, in September, the Airborne Laser (ABL) was successfully tested aboard its demonstrator aircraft (though not yet in the air; that comes next year). Mounted on a 747, the ABL will be able loiter just outside enemy territory and intercept missile threats long before they enter allied airspace.

Those threats that the ABL can’t thwart will be engaged by a growing number of sea-based and ground-based assets. There are already 15 Aegis warships equipped with SM-3 interceptors, with three more set to be deployed by the end of 2008. We glimpsed the real-world capabilities of these ships in February 2008, when the USS Lake Erie intercepted a falling satellite—traveling 17,000 mph 150 miles above the earth—with an SM-3.

In addition to naval assets, there will be 30 ground-based interceptors at U.S. sites by the end of the year. By 2011, the U.S. will have 44 interceptors at U.S. sites—with more on the way in Europe (Obering, April 30, 2008).

“None of this existed just four years ago,” Obering is quick to remind us (Obering, July 15, 2008).

To be sure, the missile defense system has failed tests from time to time. But it pays to recall that no weapons system is perfect. Since 2001, IMD assets have scored successes on 35 of 43 hit-to-kill intercepts (Obering July 15, 2008), or 81.39 percent of the time. MDA is deploying new radars to enhance the system’s ability to distinguish between warheads and decoys—and improve the odds of success.

The critics latch on to this as reason to de-fund or downgrade the system, knowing that defining success as a 100-percent intercept rate makes “failure” inevitable. But what future president or prime minister would prefer a zero-percent chance of deflecting an inbound missile over an 81-percent chance, 50-percent chance or even 20-percent chance, for that matter?

Team IMD

No less than 18 nations are partnering with Washington on IMD (Obering, July 15, 2008). The IMD roster includes the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, South Korea, Ukraine, Taiwan and India (MDA, January 14, 2008). 

It’s time for Canada to join the team.

[1] Sources:

Arms Control Association (September 2007). Worldwide Ballistic Missile Inventories. http://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/missiles, as of October 1, 2008.

Associated Press (2008, September 11). Lavrov: Russia opposes missile defense in Poland.www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/09/11/news/Poland-Russia.php, as of October 1, 2008. 

Associated Press (2007, March 5). U.S. missile defense in Europe angers Russia. www.cbc.ca/world/story/2007/03/05/missiledefence-eu.html

Associated Press (2008, August 15). Russia: Poland risks attack due to U.S. missiles. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26203430/, as of October 6, 2008.

BBC News (2001, December 14). U.S. welcomes Putin's missile pledge.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1710249.stm, as of October 6, 2008.

CBC (2006, October 5). Canada should sign on to missile defense: Senate report. www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2006/10/05/defence-report.html, as of October 4, 2008.

Delacourt, Susan and Les Whittington (2007, June 7). PM backs ‘star wars’: critics. The Toronto Star. www.thestar.com/printArticle/222723, as of October 6, 2008.

Dobell, Graeme (2003, December 5). Australia to join in U.S. missile defence system. http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2003/s1003909.htm, as of October 6, 2008.

Harden, Blaine (2008, September 17). North Korea Tests Engine of Long-Range Missile, Report Says. Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/16/AR2008091600967.html, as of October 14, 2008.

Hess, Pamela (2008, September 10). N. Korea has quietly built long-range missile base. Associated Press. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080911/ap_on_go_ot/north_korea_missiles, as of October 9, 2008.

Krauss, Clifford (2005, February 27). Divergent paths: Canada breaks with U.S. over missile shield. New York Times.

Missile Defense Agency (2007, June 15). Proposed U.S. Missile Defense Assets in Europe. Page 8.

Missile Defense Agency (2008, January 14). Missile Defense Agency Accomplishments throughout 2007. http://www.mda.mil/mdaLink/pdf/08news0002.pdf, as of October 7, 2008.

Moens, Alexander, Sean McCarthy and Cassandra Florio (2007). Canadian American Relations in 2007. Page 3.

The National Missile Defense Act of 1999. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c106:S.269:, as of October 8, 2008.

NATO (2008, April 3). BucharestSummit Declaration. http://www.nato.int/docu/pr/2008/p08-049e.html, as of October 9, 2008.

Obering, Henry (2008, April 30). Remarks before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee. http://www.mda.mil/mdalink/pdf/spring08hogrc.pdf, as of October 7, 2008.

Obering, Henry (2008, July 15). DoD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Obering from the Pentagon. http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4263, as of October 7, 2008.

Pratt, David (2004). Letter to Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. January 2004. www.forces.gc.ca/site/Focus/Canada-us/letter_e.asp, as of October 2, 2008.

Rice, Condoleezza (2008, August 20). Remarks at the Prime Ministry of Poland, Warsaw, Poland. http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2008/08/108746.htm, as of October 6, 2008.

Struck, Doug (2005, February 25). Canada rejects missile shield plan. Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A51588-2005Feb24.html, as of October 9, 2008.

U.S. State Department (2007). Background Note: United Arab Emirates. June 2007. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5444.htm, as of October 9, 2008.

Wolf, Jim (2008, September 9). U.S. plans $7 billion missile-defense sale to UAE. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSN0845547120080908, as of October 8, 2008.