The governing federal Conservatives appear to be trying to gauge the Canadian public's appetite for joining the U.S. ballistic missile defence program, defence watchers say.
Conservative-dominated committees in both the Senate and Commons are examining the merits of the U.S. missile defence program, which former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin opted against joining in 2005. Both committees are studying broader security matters but have been hearing witnesses on missile defence as part of their research.
The Conservative government is saying little. A spokeswoman for Defence Minister Rob Nicholson repeatedly declined to answer whether Ottawa is considering changing Canada's policy on missile defence.
Johanna Quinney, press secretary to Mr. Nicholson, would only say the policy is still intact.
"No decision has been made to change this policy. We will continue to monitor international developments and ensure the safety and security of Canadians both at home and abroad," Ms. Quinney said.
The minister's office said it looks forward to what the Senate's national security and defence committee report will say on the U.S. missile defence program.
James Bezan, the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Defence, told a defence summit last week that Ottawa "hasn't made any decision" on the matter.
Last Thursday, Agence-France Presse reported Mr. Bezan saying there is concern about the "accuracy" of missiles being developed by some rogue countries that could target Canada's neighbour, the United States, and end up striking Canada. In the same comments, the parliamentary secretary expressed concern that under the current arrangement Canadian officials would be "sidelined" in the decision-making on the response to any missile threat incoming to North America.
Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat who recently testified in support of joining the U.S. missile defence program, said he believes the Conservative government is weighing this during a promised review of Ottawa's defence strategy.
He said the United States isn't pushing Canada to join but that Ottawa is concerned about the rising threat from countries such as North Korea.
"I think the government is testing the waters to see whether the conditions are right," said Mr. Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute.
He called the missile shield an "insurance policy" and said it "makes a lot of sense."
David Perry, a senior analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, who also supports joining the U.S. system, said he thinks many of the 2005-era arguments against ballistic-missile defence have been proved immaterial. He thinks Ottawa is curious whether Canadians agree.
"I kind of get a sense they're floating a trial balloon," Mr. Perry said.
Philip Coyle with the U.S. Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, testified against Canada joining the U.S. program at Senate hearings Monday.
He said U.S. missile defences remain ineffective. "Shooting down an enemy missile going [24,140 kilometres per hour] out in space is like trying to hit a hole-in-one in golf when the hole is going [24,140 kilometres per hour]," he said. "The hardware being deployed in Alaska and California has no demonstrated capability to defend the United States, let alone Canada, against enemy missile attack under realistic operational conditions."