Ballistic Missile Secret

28 February 2005

The Secret of Ballistic Missile

By Gwynne Dyer

This week’s tempest in a teapot in Canada has been Prime Minster Paul Martin’s long-delayed decision not to take part in the US project for ballistic missile defence (BMD). Canada will share radar information about any incoming missile with the United States through the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), but it will not allow anti-missile interceptors on its soil (not that the US wanted to put them there anyway), nor will it have any part in decisions to launch those weapons.

That should have kept everybody happy. The US gets the information it wants, while Canada withholds its formal approval of a weapons initiative that a majority of Canadians (and of Martin’s own Liberal Party caucus) think is dangerous and wrong. But US Ambassador Paul Celucci declared that Canada was forfeiting sovereignty over its own airspace by refusing to participate in BMD, Prime Minister Martin replied that “we’re a sovereign nation and you don’t intrude on a sovereign nation’s airspace without seeking permission,” and the fat was in the fire.

It’s all nonsense, of course. Any missile intercepts would take place in space, and sovereignty doesn’t extend into space. In any case, intercepts by the BMD system now being deployed in Alaska would happen far out over the Pacific, not above Canadian territory. And even if Ottawa did sign up for BMD, it couold have no meaningful say in an American decision to launch an interceptor. There simply wouldn’t be time.

What Washington really wanted from Ottawa (and what Martin was being rebuked for failing to deliver) was Canadian approval of the PRINCIPLE of ballistic missile defence. The United States has been isolated on this issue since the Bush administration tore up the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and Canadian approval would have been useful diplomatically. The controversy will die down in a few days — but it did rouse former defence minister Paul Hellyer to speak the truth that no other Canadian public figure was willing to utter: “missile defence” is not really about defence.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Hellyer said bluntly that “BMD…has about as much to do with rogue missiles as the war on Iraq had to do with weapons of mass destruction.” The notion that North Korea might fire one or two ballistic missiles at the US, even if it had a few long-range missiles and nuclear warheads to put on them, is ludicrous. The entire leadership and most of the country would instantly be destroyed by a massive US retaliation. Pyongyang is a very nasty regime, but it hasn’t attacked anybody in the past fifty years, it isn’t suicidal, and it can be deterred by the threat of retaliation just like Russia or China.. So what is BMD really about?

BMD first emerged in the 1980s as President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” proposal. He was genuinely horrified by the idea of a nuclear war, and it was sold to him as a project that could save Americans from a Soviet missile attack. Reagan even wanted to give the BMD technology to the Soviet Union, too, so that they could jointly eradicate the danger of a nuclear exchange, but that’s not what the people who sold him the project really had in mind.

In practice, any system designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles that depends on ground-based interceptors can easily be overwhelmed just by building more missiles. The cost to the Soviet Union of building more ICBMs would always have been far less than the cost of the interceptors needed to shoot them down and their supporting systems, so the Soviet Union could always have saturated US defences in an all-out attack. But what if it were the victim of a US surprise attack that destroyed most of its missiles on the ground? THEN a good American BMD system might be able to deal with the ragged retaliation that was all the Soviets could manage.

Such a BMD system is not yet a technological reality even now, twenty years later, but that’s what it was always about: giving the United States the ability to launch a first strike against the Soviet Union and to survive the inevitable retaliation with “acceptable” losses. It seemed less urgent when the Soviet Union collapsed, but it was never abandoned — and in the later 90s the neo-conservatives revived it as part of a scheme for establishing permanent US military dominance over the planet.

Paul Hellyer quoted their own document, published by the Project for a New American Century in late 2000: “Building an effective, robust, layered, global system of missile defences is a prerequisite for maintaining American preeminence. Unrestricted use of space has become a major strategic interest of the United States.” By “layered” they meant not just ground-based interceptors, but space-based systems that can also destroy space stations and surveillance satellites belonging to any rival power. They intend to militarise space, and they still dream of gaining the ability to carry out nuclear first strikes against other countries with impunity.

The interceptors now going into their silos in Alaska are a (technologically problematic) down payment on this hyper-ambitious project, but they are intended to establish the principle that America has the right, despite the old ABM treaty and the still extant treaty banning the militarisation of space, to go down this road. That was why Canadian agreement to participate in BMD defence, even symbolically, was desirable to Washington. And it is why Canadians refused (though they were wise not to say so officially).


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 6. (“It’s all…time”; and”BMD first…mind”)