Even more reasons for Canada to stay out of American ballistic missile defence

Ever since the US Air Force came up with a truly Dr. Strangelove-worthy plan for upgrading the defence of North America (which, most thankfully, is still a proposal with as yet no Pentagon funding behind it, despite all the hype), excitement has been building among Canadian BMD advocates. Entitled Strategic Homeland Integrated Ecosystem for Layered Defense (SHIELD) strategy, its Canadian proponents are convinced that this time Canada will see the light and join in.

Adding to the excitement, or consternation depending on your perspective (and in our view any prospect of Canada caving in now should indeed be a cause for concern), is recent speculation about Canada’s intention to outfit its new warships, the Canadian Surface Combatants (CSC), with a type of radar that has applications for both theatre and ballistic missile defence.

In a May 2021 article in the Naval Review, its administrator asks:

Are defence planners in league with industry officials in trying to sneak in a potential ballistic missile defence (BMD) capability for these ships by stealth?

Michael Byers, writing in the Globe and Mail back in June 2021, goes further, arguing that even without the longer range missiles, these radar systems are:

inconsistent with Canada’s longstanding policy on ballistic missile defence.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

While this development merits extremely close attention, we do not agree that Canada is now “de facto inside American BMD” as Byers asserts. Canada is only acquiring theatre range missiles for use with the radar, and this is entirely consistent with our continued non-participation in BMD.

None of that matters, argues Dr. James Fergusson, who has been publicly advocating Canadian participation in US missile defence research and deployment plans since Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars plans in 1984-85 — the same amount of time that RI President Peggy Mason has been opposing this stance — because, in his view, the plan for a fully integrated homeland defence means Canada will simply have no choice, despite the fact that the command and control of American BMD is entirely outside NORAD.

Why Canada should still not be involved: the problem with BMD

Recently the Canadian Global Affairs Institute hosted a virtual roundtable exploring the adaptation of continental defence to new missile threats with Peggy Mason (Rideau Institute), Sarah Mineiro (Center for a New American Security), and Todd Sharp (NATO) (recording forthcoming). Institute Vice-President and roundtable moderator David Perry asked Mason the following question:

During the mid 2000s and since you’ve been one of the prominent voices speaking out against Canadian participation in the US BMD system.  Do you have the same concerns now about Canadian participation in that system, as Canada and the US look to modernize NORAD and enhance the defence of the continent?

In response Mason stated:

The short answer is yes, even more so. All the concerns I had back in 2004 (and actually as far back as 1984-85, the first time Canada said no to participation in American strategic missile defence) — all those concerns have been borne out in spades.

And now there are even greater concerns as aggressive first strike options have been added to the equation.

Consider that way back in 1972, the then Soviet Union and the USA agreed to ban a broad  category of weapons systems – ballistic missile defences — with a very narrow exception for one limited, fixed site to defend their respective capitals and one to protect missile silo launchers. The result was the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

Why would these two arch-rivals, militarily and ideologically adamantly opposed, agree to forgo strategic missile defence systems?

The preamble to that prescient, landmark treaty (unilaterally abrogated in 2001 by then President George W. Bush, in probably one of the most short-sighted decisions in a very long list of bad decisions by this American President), reads:

Proceeding from the premise that nuclear war would have devastating consequences for all mankind,

Considering that effective measures to limit anti-ballistic missile systems would be a substantial factor in curbing the race in strategic offensive arms and would lead to a decrease in the risk of outbreak of war involving nuclear weapons

Veteran arms controller Michael Krepon, in Killing the ABM Treaty: A Retrospective (armscontrolwonk.com, 8 March 2021) writes that one [treaty] Founding Father, Thomas Schelling, called the ABM Treaty:

a remarkable story of intellectual achievement transformed into policy.

Krepon continues:

The Treaty reflected two of arms control’s central tenets. One was the imperative to stabilize the strategic arms competition. The second was the necessity to complement deterrence with reassurance. The ABM Treaty backstopped what Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev later articulated — that a nuclear war must not be fought and could not be won.

Note that Krepon’s blog is an excerpt from his new book: Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise and Revival of Arms Control (2021).

Cost-exchange ratio for defensive versus offensive weapons systems

So this bring us to the question: why would limiting anti-ballistic missile systems — that is, systems to defend against offensive missiles — help curb the arms race in strategic offensive arms?

To understand why, it is necessary to also understand the inherent difficulty in developing reliable ballistic missile defences:

To defend against an incoming ballistic missile, it is necessary to physically intercept – literally collide with – the incoming warhead. This is a gigantically complicated feat, often described as trying to get a bullet moving tens of thousands of miles per hour to hit another bullet going equally fast.

There is no margin for error. – Matt Gurney, National Post editor and columnist

To this technological challenge we must add the necessity for the interceptor to distinguish the incoming missile from countless dummy missiles or decoys.

And note the point about “no margin for error”. To defend successfully, you have to stop all the incoming missiles while the attackers will be successful if only some of their nuclear-armed missiles get through.

The inherent advantage of offensive over defensive systems was summed up by legendary SALT I negotiator Paul Nitze when he stated that missile defences could only ever contribute to, rather than undermine, strategic stability if they were cost effective at the margins. Wikipedia explains this concept thusly:

This is essentially a common-sense rewording of the earlier concept of the cost-exchange ratio, the amount of money needed [in missile defences] to counteract a dollar of offensive [missile] capability.

…the cost-exchange ratio is the ratio of the incremental cost to the aggressor of getting one additional warhead through the defence screen, divided by the incremental cost to the defender of offsetting [interdicting] the additional missile.

At the time the ABM Treaty was signed, the anticipated cost of building a defensive system amounted to at least 20 times the cost of the offensive system it was meant to counter.

In short, both the Soviet Union and the USA understood that it was infinitely cheaper — and easier — to build offensive systems to overcome missile defences such that their deployment (beyond the limited exceptions in the treaty) would inevitably propel an offensive arms race to overwhelm missile defences.

And the unfavourable cost-exchange ratio between defensive and offensive systems was exponentially worsened by the introduction of MIRVs, multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, whereby a single ICBM can launch multiple warheads, each attacking a different target, such that one ICBM requires “dozens and dozens” of new ABMs to counter it.

And then there is the reliability problem

Bear in mind that this highly unfavourable cost ratio for ABMs is actually much worse when you take into account their likely failure rate in hitting their offensive targets. Sixty-five national security Leaders, in a recent open letter to President Biden, summarized the state of American strategic missile defence thusly:

Since the 1950s, the United States has spent more than $400 billion on various missile defense programs. Today, you have inherited the long-range GMD system that is currently “on hold” because of its repeated failures. The Government Accountability Office in 2020 found serious problems with the Missile Defense Agency’s testing program: “it only completed about a third of its planned flight tests each year between FYs 2010-2019.”

Furthermore, of the tests that have been performed, the system has only been successful in 11 of its 19 tests, including three of its last six, under highly scripted conditions and without the inclusion of even basic enemy countermeasures. Test results are not improving over time as one might expect.

And, to compensate for the system’s inherent unreliability, American missile defense planners have now developed mindbogglingly dangerous and aggressive “pre-emptive strategies” to destroy the adversary’s missiles before they are fired (since that is a technologically much easier challenge).

As countless arms control experts have noted, the belief that you have the best chance of prevailing if you strike first is the “ultimate destabilizing posture in a crisis,” a recipe for escalation and the antithesis of nuclear deterrence and the prevention of nuclear war.

Offensive arms race spurred on by American missile defences

The fact that US BMD would be a huge impediment to further nuclear arms limitations was apparent from the moment the US abandoned the ABM Treaty in 2002 as authors Matt Korda and Dr. Tytti Erästö remind us in an article entitled “Time to factor missile defence into nuclear arms talks” (sipri.org, 30 September 2021):

This has had major repercussions for efforts to limit nuclear weapons.

One immediate impact was that START II never entered into force, as its ratification by Russia was conditional upon compliance with the ABM Treaty.

And Russia has now made explicit that it is developing new weapons systems specifically designed to overwhelm US BMD systems, in the event that they might ultimately prove more capable than at present.

But there is a further, even more fundamental problem with missile defences, evidenced by China’s efforts to move beyond its “minimum deterrence posture” over concerns that American missile defences are threatening its nuclear retaliatory capability.

American missile defences undermine nuclear deterrence

To understand the core of the problem, we need to briefly revisit the fundamentals of nuclear deterrence, the “sword of Damocles” keeping us “safe” from nuclear war (or at least as safe as is possible without the total elimination of nuclear weapons) through the certain promise of mutual assured destruction (MAD) if Russia or the USA launched a first nuclear strike.

A nuclear war can never be won; a nuclear war must never be fought.

As Ernie Regehr has argued in his brilliant briefing paper Canada and the Limits of Missile Defence (Simons Foundation, 26 July 2021), nuclear deterrence does not rely on the capacity to defend against it, for the simple reason that there is no adequate defence against nuclear attack. In nuclear strategic terms, deterrence rests on the capacity and intent to launch devastating counterattacks after having sustained an attack against which no defence was possible, with the aim of course of deterring the attack in the first place and thus forestalling mutually assured destruction.

And this inability to defend is the reason why Gorbachev and Reagan declared that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought — a principle reaffirmed at the Putin-Biden Summit in June of this year. MAD depends on each side believing it has a reliable retaliatory capability and enhanced missile defences puts belief in that reliability at direct risk.

It raises the spectre, as Ernie Regehr outlines, of a truly nightmare scenario:

For Russia and China, the possibility of an upgraded GMD [U.S. ground based missile defence] system raises another worry — namely, of the United States pursuing a first strike option. With enough additional interceptors, the Pentagon could theoretically at least persuade itself that a major pre-emptive attack on Russian and/or Chinese nuclear forces could destroy enough of their retaliatory capacity to keep it to levels that the enhanced GMD system could absorb.

In a crisis, that could drive Russian and Chinese strategists into a “use ‘em or lose ‘em” calculation — and thus lead them to “use ‘em” in an attempt to pre-empt the feared American pre-emption.

US BMD is headed for the weaponization of space

Would Canada want to be partnered to a system headed for the weaponization of space?

As if all the above were not enough to make it crystal clear that Canada should steadfastly continue its non-participation in American BMD, US plans to develop space-based interceptors run directly counter to Canada’s long standing policy against the weaponization of space.

What about Canada joining missile defence against conventionally armed strategic missiles?

The ever-creative advocates of Canadian participation in American BMD argue that we can do so without undermining nuclear deterrence if we focus on one aspect of this “integrated” system — the defence against conventionally armed hypersonic weapons and advanced cruise missiles.

The US Air Force plan for the defence of North America through the Strategic Homeland Integrated Ecosytem for Layered Defense (SHIELD) strategy, referenced in the introduction to this blog, incorporates a new concept of “deterrence by denial,”  since, in their view, these conventional threats from nuclear armed rivals are not amenable to nuclear deterrence.

In addressing this question during the CGAI roundtable , RI President Peggy Mason asked another:

Is it not highly contestable that Russia or China would launch a conventional attack on North America in the belief that this would not lead to a nuclear exchange?

Ernie Regehr in a separate email exchange with Mason paints yet another horrifying scenario:

Any Russian or Chinese conventional attack on a North American target would be risky in the extreme. The US would obviously retaliate — and once attacks and counterattacks between major powers began, who could have any confidence that it would not go nuclear?

But the SHIELD advocates still make the case that in order to prevent such a scenario, North America needs to have the capacity to intercept conventional attacks, even by hypersonic missiles.

And the absurdity of this argument becomes clear when SHIELD advocates admit that the only credible defence is a pre-emptive conventional attack on launch platforms [aircraft and ships], which, of course, would be the start of the attack-counterattack dynamic they claim to be trying to avoid.

So it would seem the SHIELD advocates are trying to make a conventional/nuclear distinction which no sober planner would expect to last in real world, crisis conditions.

And on the issue of a “layered” system that integrates non-strategic and strategic systems, here is what the 65 national security leaders referenced earlier had to say:

Current plans to develop a layered missile defense, by integrating theater systems with the GMD, and to pursue advanced capabilities to track and intercept hypersonic missiles via space-based sensors and, possibly, space-based interceptors, threaten to upend strategic stability between nuclear armed states.

Particularly troubling was the testing last November of an SM-3 Block IIA missile against an “ICBM-class” target. This test, in which an interceptor was launched from a U.S. destroyer at sea, has threatened Russia’s and China’s confidence in their strategic deterrent while eroding U.S. security as Russia builds new offensive forces to overwhelm U.S. defenses.

Delaying new work on the Navy Aegis BMD system by capping production of the Aegis SM-3 Block IIA interceptors and BMD-capable destroyers could be a first step to restoring strategic stability and stopping a nuclear arms race.

So how should Canada contribute to NORAD modernization?

Canada should stick to the focus mandated by the 2017 Defence Policy, our niche area of all domain situational awareness. This is a cost effective, stability enhancing contribution to  strengthening NORAD’s vital warning function.

The Government of Canada should also make clear that we will confine the use of the AN/SPY-7 radar, slated for the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC), discussed earlier, to theatre missile defence only.

Canada should also complement its NORAD defence contributions with a significantly greater emphasis on arms control and nuclear risk reduction, including advocating for limits on strategic ballistic missile defences.

Whither Canada?

Strategic stability is fundamental to global security. The Biden administration is indicating some openness to including BMD limits in its arms control negotiations with Russia but faces considerable domestic political obstacles to doing so.

We call on Canada to work in all appropriate forums, including within NATO in the context of the strategic doctrine review now underway, in preparations for the 2022 NPT Review Conference, and in bilateral Canada-USA security discussions, to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in strategic doctrine, and to help facilitate further nuclear arms reductions through the inclusion of potential limits on BMD.

Canadian Pugwash Group Policy Conference on Cyber Security on 19 October 2021 from 3:00 to 6:30 EDT

Once again we end today’s blog with information on an upcoming virtual conference with a Rideau Institute connection.

As part of its annual gathering of members, the Canadian Pugwash Group is hosting a policy conference, in virtual format, entitled International Cyber Security – Threats and Opportunities for Canada, to be held October 19, 2021 (3:00-6:30 pm EDT).

The event notice reads:

Global society is increasingly dependent on a functioning cyberspace for its well-being, yet the “militarization” of this environment is growing apace alongside criminal assaults on its users.

How should Canada position itself with respect to this emerging technology and its implications for security?

CPG has assembled eminent Canadian experts to discuss this topic, including former diplomats Paul Meyer and Peggy Mason, legal and political-security experts Professors Craig Martin and Stephanie Carvin, and cyber-security practitioners and civil society voices (Bill Robinson and Alyson Pytlak).

Click here for the full programme and short speaker biographies

All are welcome to attend this virtual conference by registering at this link:


Please note the conference host is located in Vancouver so adding the event automatically to your calendar by Zoom will show the event in Pacific Daylight Time (PDT), three hours earlier than Eastern Daylight Time.

Don’t miss this timely discussion where there will also be an opportunity for audience input.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Ploughshares.ca

Tags: "all domain situationa awareness", "deterrence by denial", Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty), Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD). Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI), Canadian Pugwash Group (CPG), Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC), cost effective at the margins, Cyber Security, Dr. Tytti Erästö, Ernie Regehr, Matt Korda, Michael Krepon, NATO Strategic Doctrine, Nuclear Deterrence, Nuclear Posture Review, Paul Nitze, Strategic Homeland Integrated Ecosystem for Layered Defense (SHIELD) strategy, Thomas Schelling, US GMD, weaponisation of space, weaponization of space