Staples Op-ed: Harper and the missile defence bait

Embassy News
Steven Staples
14 May 2014


Are the Conservatives really considering re-opening the missile defence debate?

Stephen Harper’s Parliamentary secretary to the minister of national defence, James Bezan, set missile defence boosters in Ottawa abuzz last week when he suggested the Harper government was open to revisiting the 2005 decision by former prime minister Paul Martin to stay out of George Bush’s Star Wars.

When asked a question from the floor of a defence conference in Ottawa, Mr. Bezan replied that “the government hasn’t made any decision,” but he went on to say that he found it concerning that Canadians would have no say about intercepting a missile that might stray from its intended target toward a Canadian city.

He added that the decision to join would be a political one, and ventured to say that if the government met resistance, the status quo would remain.

Cracking open a big ol’ can of missile defence would be a risky move for the government, which is already being hammered by one multi-billion-dollar defence program foul-up after another. Between the gold-plated F-35 and a growing legion of angry veterans, does Stephen Harper really want to add the faulty US ballistic missile defence program to the fire?

Mr. Bezan noted that the before making any decision, the government would wait for reports from both the House of Commons and the Senate’s defence committee, which have been holding low-key hearings on missile defence.

On Monday the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence got a detailed assessment of the missile defence system from the best-informed witness yet, and it wasn’t good.

Philip Coyle was the associate director for national security and international affairs in the Obama White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and in the 1990s he was the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, responsible for more than 200 major defence acquisition programs.

He has spent decades at the centre of America’s nuclear weapons complex, including overseeing nuclear weapons testing during the Carter administration, and devoting over 30 years at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Mr. Coyle told the senators that Canadians were “justifiably skeptical” of US missile defence plans in 2005. “Since 2005 the performance of the GMD system in flight intercept tests has gotten worse, not better,” he informed a likely astonished group of senators, who have been working under the false assumption that the program had improved greatly in recent years.

The ground-based midcourse missile defence system that covers North America intends to use missile interceptors based in the US to intercept enemy nuclear armed missiles as they follow their trajectory to North America through the vacuum of space.

It was built and declared operational by the Bush administration, but has not achieved a successful test intercept since George W. Bush left office. “Since early December 2008, there have been four attempts, but only one successful hit. That’s only 25 per cent,” Mr. Coyle testified.

During the course of their hearings, the senators have listened intently to missile defence advocates describing the malevolence of North Korea and the “threat” it poses to Canada from a nuclear missile strike. North Korea has no such missiles, but as Coyle told the potentially anxiety-stricken senators, “apparently some Canadians believe that participation in US missile defence will somehow guarantee Canada protection from enemy missiles. The GMD system can’t even guarantee protection for the US.”

These tests are highly scripted and controlled, but even so, the interceptor can’t find its target in space. “Shooting down an enemy missile going 15,000 mph out in space is like trying to hit a hole-in-one in golf when the hole is going 15,000 mph,” Mr. Coyle has written.

“If an enemy uses decoys and countermeasures, missile defence is like trying to shoot a hole-in-one in golf when the hole is going 15,000 mph and the green is covered with black circles the same size as the hole. The defender doesn’t know which target to aim for.”

Rumour has it that the question of Canada’s joining—whatever that would entail, exactly—could be considered in the context of the promised review of the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy, which is expected to be completed within the year, and released before the next federal election.

There isn’t much evidence to suggest Stephen Harper is interested in going down this road. While the missile defence boosters can busy themselves writing op-eds and briefs from the safety of their offices, it’s Mr. Harper who would have to defend the missile defence system before the electorate in 2015.

The NDP has already signalled that their position against missile defence has not changed. In fact, Mr. Mulcair would like nothing more than for Mr. Harper to hitch his wagon to Bush’s old faulty missiles. For Mr. Trudeau, we’ll have to wait and see whether he wants to keep the position of the Martin government when it said “no” to missile defence.

The Harper government controls the agenda of the House and Senate committees. He should drop the curtain on the missile defence hearings and steer the members toward dealing with the 101 other more pressing issues faced by our armed forces.


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