Twenty years ago, then-president Ronald Reagan went before the American people to declare his bold new vision of a nuclear-free world. Appearing on national television, he said: “Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope. It is that we embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive. Let us turn to the very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the quality of life we enjoy.” Thus was born the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, which came to be known as “Star Wars.”

Although SDI was something of a Reagan invention, the idea of ballistic missile defence was not new. U.S. defence efforts began in the 1950s with the development of the army’s Nike series of surface-to-air missiles to be used to attack Soviet bombers. The air force’s competitor to the Nike was the Bomarc surface-to-air missile, which was built by Boeing. In addition to the 14 Bomarc sites in the U.S., there were two in Canada — one at North Bay, Ont., and the other at La Macaza, Que. — with 56 missiles in total.

In a major political crisis that precipitated a federal election and the downfall of the Conservative government of prime minister John Diefenbaker, Canada balked at the prospect that the Bomarc would be tipped with nuclear warheads. However, prime minister Lester Pearson, who won the election, reversed Diefenbaker’s decision, thus allowing the nuclear-armed Bomarcs to be deployed on Canadian soil. It was a wise decision and one the Canadian public supported. The missiles stayed here until 1971 when prime minister Pierre Trudeau phased them out.

Today, strategic defence goes under a different name: Ballistic Missile Defense or BMD. Although we are still a long way off from Reagan’s vision of a perfect defensive system that would shield North America from an intercontinental ballistic missile attack, there has been major progress in the intervening years in developing new technologies capable of shooting down ballistic missiles.

During the first Gulf War against Iraq — known as Operation Desert Storm — Raytheon Corporation’s Patriot missile system was used to shoot down Scud missiles that were launched by Saddam Hussein’s army against targets in Saudi Arabia and Israel. However, there was a lot of controversy about the successful “kill rate” of the Patriot system, with some experts (notably at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) questioning the high interception rates that were touted by the U.S. government. But, as the system evolved, the Patriot’s interception rates got a lot better, and during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003), the second Gulf War, Patriots successfully brought down Iraqi tactical ballistic missiles.

The U.S. has also deployed the Aegis missile defence system on ships to deal with intermediate-range ballistic missile threats. In a comprehensive series of tests, the system has shown its ability to detect, track, intercept and successfully destroy its intended targets. The U.S. also has a rudimentary missile defence system designed to attack intercontinental ballistic missiles, which consists of 13 ground-based interceptors located in Greely, Alaska, and two more at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The U.S. is now in the process of adding more interceptors while perfecting its BMD systems.
For many years, Canada has had an aversion to the entire concept of ballistic missile defence on the grounds that such technologies, if deployed, would stoke another arms race. There was also widespread skepticism about the technical limits of ballistic missile defence and its cost.

But strategic defences, even if they are imperfect, can play an important role in deterrence. As U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger argued in 1984, when he endorsed the idea of limited strategic defence in the Los Angeles Times: “Even granting — as I do — that a perfect defence of the U.S. population is almost certainly unattainable, the existence of some defence means that [an] attacker must plan on saturating [its target]. This massively complicates the attacker’s calculations. Anything that magnifies doubt inspires hesitation and adds to deterrence.”

Although the logic of Kissinger’s case for BMD is persuasive, the nature of the strategic threat has changed. It no longer comes, as it once did, from the Soviet Union, but from an array of the world’s smaller totalitarian regimes. As a 2010 review by the Obama administration of the U.S. BMD program made abundantly clear, the threat of nuclear missile attack against North America is growing. Its assessment highlighted the growing threat from North Korea and Iran, which have developed medium-range missile capabilities.

Western analysts have consistently underrated North Korea’s ability to acquire and develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and missile capabilities. However, there is a real risk that North Korea may one day be able to put a nuclear warhead on a missile that would be capable of striking targets in the United States, though it still has some distance to go in missile accuracy and intercontinental delivery capabilities. Iran is a threat, too. It has the most extensive inventory of short- and medium-range missiles of any developing nation in the world, including its Shahab-3 and Ghadr-1 ballistic missiles, which can strike any target in the Middle East, including Israel.

A “thin” ballistic missile defence capability could provide much-needed protection against a North Korean missile attack or an attack by some other third party, or even an accidental missile launch. It would also, in Kissinger’s equation, seed doubt in an attacker’s mind about his ability to successfully launch such an attack.

In a world in which missiles can be fired across oceans and from one continent to another, geography makes Canada a target whether Canadians like it or not. The flight path of any missile fired at North America from North Korea (or perhaps even one day, Iran) would take it over Canada, especially if it were directed at cities on the U.S. eastern seaboard, such as New York or Washington, D.C. North Korea clearly doesn’t have that capability now, but one day it could. A missile could easily land on a Canadian city, either by accident or design.

In 2005, the Liberal government of Paul Martin, through foreign minister Pierre Pettigrew, rejected an offer by the Americans to join their missile defence program, apparently because the U.S. was unwilling to give Canada the kind of guarantees it sought over how the architecture would be defined. As a consequence, however, the opportunity to rebrand Norad — the North American Aerospace Defence Command — into a meaningful security instrument of the 21st Century that would deal with the full spectrum of threats to the North American continent, including ballistic missiles, was missed.
National security should be the foremost priority of any government and undergirds “peace, order and good government.” The risk of nuclear proliferation has grown in this century and it comes not just from North Korea, but other radical regimes. New initiatives are already under way to quash the threat from terrorists, including the homegrown variety. Far more lethal, however, is the looming missile threat against which Canada has no practical defence other than the hope that the United States will act in its own interest and defend us against an attack, accidental or otherwise.

That is simply not good enough. The best antidote to the antics of North Korea is, as Nicholas Eberstadt contended in the Wall Street Journal, a “threat reduction strategy,” — a combination of sustained military and civilian actions and not a repeat of offers of dialogue in the face of “bait and switch” extortion demands from North Korea as it attempts to gain rewards for bad behaviour from all-too-gullible western powers.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.