Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is the co-director of the Outer Space Institute.
The U.S. State Department – not the Canadian government – recently revealed that Canada’s next generation of warships could be equipped for ballistic missile defence when it announced it had approved the export of the AEGIS Combat System to Canada. The decision came in response to a very quiet request last year from the Department of National Defence; there was no presser by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and no opportunity for Canadian journalists to ask questions.
The announcement was made without a debate in Parliament and after 36 years of successive governments choosing to keep Canada out of U.S. missile defence programs, which began with Ottawa’s rejection of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program in the 1980s.
The AEGIS Combat System includes the world’s most advanced radar (AN/SPY-7) and vertical missile launching (MK 41) systems. Canada is also acquiring the Cooperative Engagement Capability, a remote firing system that allows a commander on one ship to launch missiles from another, without the latter being in the decision loop.
The AN/SPY-7 is designed specifically for ballistic missile defence. Canadian ships will be able to track incoming missiles and instantaneously share that information with U.S. vessels and ground-based missile interceptors. The U.S. Navy’s AEGIS-class vessels are equipped with SM-3 missiles designed for intercepting intermediate-range ballistic missiles and tested against intercontinental ballistic missiles. SM-3 missiles travel at 18,000 kilometres per hour and can reach an altitude of 1,000 kilometres.
Canada is currently purchasing shorter-range SM-2 missiles for air defence. But its newly equipped ships will also be able to launch SM-3 missiles, if and when Ottawa chooses to acquire them. Indeed, it makes little sense to purchase AN/SPY-7 radar systems unless the plan, at some point, is to buy SM-3 missiles.
Even without SM-3 missiles, AN/SPY-7 radar systems are inconsistent with Canada’s long-standing policy on ballistic missile defence. In 2005, prime minister Paul Martin not only rejected U.S. president George W. Bush’s request that Canada join the program, he also refused to host a U.S. radar facility in Labrador.
The AEGIS announcement comes with a hefty price tag: US$1.7-billion to equip just three of the 15 Canadian surface combatants being built in Halifax. And make no mistake – by choosing this ballistic missile equipment for the first three vessels, Canada is effectively committing itself to acquiring it for the next 12. Otherwise, its new warships would not be fully compatible with each other.
Canada’s military leaders will also know that the combination of AN/SPY-7 radar systems and SM-3 missiles provides a potent anti-satellite (ASAT) capability. In 2008, an SM-3 missile launched from a U.S. Navy AEGIS-class vessel was used to shoot down a malfunctioning U.S. satellite before it re-entered the atmosphere.
Acquiring anti-satellite capability would contradict Canada’s long-standing opposition to space weaponization and the generation of space debris, as it reaffirmed in a submission to the United Nations just two months ago.
The U.S. does not need to equip Canada with these technologies. With ballistic missile interceptors deployed in Alaska, California, Eastern Europe and on dozens of naval vessels, it can respond to any missiles that might be launched from North Korea or Iran. The question is whether Canadian ships will continue to be welcome in U.S. carrier groups, a practice much valued by our military leaders but dependent on technological interoperability with U.S. vessels.
Interoperability with our closest ally is certainly desirable, but it is not a trump card. We also need to weigh the implications of ballistic missile defence for nuclear non-proliferation and space weaponization, relations with China and Russia and Canadian sovereignty.
Clearly, Canadians deserve a parliamentary debate on this matter. Should we be supporting U.S. missile defence? Should we have the capability to strike both ICBMs and satellites? Do we really want to give U.S. commanders the ability to launch missiles from our ships?
In 1985, after numerous parliamentary debates, prime minister Brian Mulroney said no to Canadian participation in “Star Wars.” Two decades later, after more debates, Mr. Martin said no to U.S. missile defence. During his nine years as prime minister, Stephen Harper never revisited the issue.
In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed the decision to stay out of ballistic missile defence. He did so after proponents of Canada’s involvement, energized by president Donald Trump’s calls for more NATO defence spending, mounted an aggressive advocacy campaign.
Today, parliamentarians should insist that Mr. Trudeau explain his about-face. Why is he signing Canada up to U.S. ballistic missile defence? And why is he doing so on the sly?
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