Canada, North Korea, and BMD: When defence leads to less security

Published in Hill Times 16 August 2017

Ballistic missile defence leads to less security

An offence-defence arms race won’t make us any safer.

 

With both the rhetoric and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities escalating, the Canadian response invariably turns to debating the merits of joining the American ballistic missile defence (BMD) system that is designed to intercept North Korean missiles.

Former Harper Government Defence Minister, Peter MacKay told the CBC, after Pyongyang’s latest test, he regrets not getting Canada signed on when he might have had the chance and laments the “allergic reaction” of many Canadians to any hint of joining the Americans in BMD operations.

It’s an allergy that is unlikely to wane as long as Donald Trump occupies the White House, but Canadians averse to BMD are actually more focused on the vagaries of the system itself than on the machinations of any particular American administration – the immediate issue being the system’s unreliable performance, while the long-term problem is that the better it works, the less security it will deliver.

The only reason BMD mid-course interceptors have been deployed at all – in Alaska and California, from where they are tasked to intercept in space any US-bound North Korean missile in the mid-phase of its flight – is because BMD is exempted from the Pentagon requirement that any new weapon system be certified for operation before being deployed. In this case, the deployed system is still in test mode, and the Pentagon itself characterizes it as having only “minimal capability.”

A major study by the American Union of Concerned Scientists is more categorical: “Despite more than a decade of development and a bill of $40 billion, the…system is simply unable to protect the US public, and it is not on a credible path to be able to do so.”

But both North Korea and the Pentagon are committed to trying harder. Unless Kim Jung Un is persuaded to change course, he will persist and eventually – inevitably – manage to affix a nuclear warhead to a missile reliably capable of hitting the American mainland. The threat is real. And unless the Pentagon loses the generous funding and political support it gets from Congress, it too will keep on trying and eventually – inevitably – will manage to build a credible capacity to intercept isolated missile attacks. And that’s when things get a lot more dangerous.

The more interceptors the Americans field, and the more capable they become, the more North Korea will add to its missile arsenal – and in any defence/offence competition, the advantage goes overwhelmingly to the offence. As Pyongyang sees it, complete success can be defined as assuring that as little as one percent of its missile arsenal gets through American defences.  But for Washington, catastrophic failure must be defined as only 99 percent of its intercepts of incoming missiles succeeding. Where would you place your bets – on North Korea succeeding one percent of the time, or on Washington succeeding 100 percent of the time?

But that’s only part of the BMD problem. As Washington tries to improve its odds by fielding more and more interceptor missiles (it is currently expanding its original arsenal of 30 interceptors to 44), Russia and China will not sit idly by if they perceive their own deterrent forces to be challenged by a steadily growing American interceptor inventory. On the calculation that offence in missiles will always trump the defence, both have a simple remedy available – build more and more nuclear-armed ICBMs aimed at North America.

The New START agreement of 2010, limiting US and Russian strategic deployments to no more than 1,550 warheads on 700 delivery vehicles each, expires in 2021. Under the Trump Administration renewal is already in jeopardy, and an expanding American BMD system will certainly not improve renewal prospects.

Add to that the implications of the American regional missile defence system (THAAD – Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) now installed in South Korea to protect it from the North’s shorter-range missiles. Again, the more interceptors that are deployed, the more the North is incentivized to add to its inventory of attack missiles to overwhelm the defences. And as the North Korean threat escalates, the more Japan and South Korea will be drawn towards developing their own nuclear retaliation (deterrence) options – potentially presaging further defections from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

At each escalating step along that way, security diminishes. Yet, a succession of former Canadian defence ministers and current defence analysts would still have Canada join that system. To its credit, the Government continues to resist these entreaties. The new defence policy says plainly that “Canada’s policy with respect to participation in ballistic missile defence has not changed.” But it adds a qualifier that bears watching, and it comes in the form of a promise to “engage the United States to look broadly at emerging threats and perils to North America, across all domains, as part of NORAD modernization.”

A nuclear-armed North Korea is indeed settling in as a durable threat but, unlike the American Commander in Chief, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has displayed moments of clarity. At an August 1 press briefing at the State Department he insisted: “We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel.” To the North he said, “we are not your enemy…but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond.” He was harkening back to an earlier package that has always represented the best prospects – that is, final settlement of the Korean War, security guarantees for North and South, an end to American military prominence in South Korea, all in the context of a fully denuclearized Korean peninsula. He was also echoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s commitment to a new round of dialogue.

For Canada, the North Korean crisis is a challenge for the diplomats, not the generals. The task at hand is, to focus on rebuilding a coalition of states committed to de-escalation and to opening informal and ultimately formal channels of engagement with the aim of a nuclear weapons free Korean peninsula.

 

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Hit a bullet, every time

The Globe and Mail, 03 June 2017

It’s a genuine feat to intercept a bullet with a bullet, which is what the Pentagon says it managed to do with this week’s successful missile defence test (Pentagon Successfully Tests ICBM Defence System For First Time, May 31).

Just don’t confuse that with protection from a North Korean missile attack.

The Pentagon still is not close to reliably intercepting missiles under anything approaching realistic conditions (for example, with active counter measures engaged). The problem is, any defence against nuclear attack with less than a 100-per-cent success rate amounts to catastrophic failure.

Even a missile defence system that reliably performed at a 90-per-cent success level would cede all the advantage to the attacker.

Once North Korea manages to mount a warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental U.S. (something that isn’t imminent but is likely in the absence of any agreement to end its nuclear program), it faces the relatively simpler challenge of building enough such missiles to stay just ahead of a necessarily less than perfect American missile defence system.

North Korea is already doing that in response to the regional missile defence system (THAAD) the U.S. has now deployed in South Korea, as Pyongyang practises regular and multiple firings of tried and true Scud missiles – of which it can build as many as it thinks it needs to overwhelm the defence.

The real accomplishment of missile defence is to create powerful incentives to accumulate ever larger inventories of offensive missiles.

Ernie Regehr, senior fellow, Simons Foundation; research fellow, Centre for Peace Advancement, Conrad Grebel University College

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What a U.S. missile defence system and a new president mean for South Korea

South Koreans within the firing range of Kim Jong-un’s brandished missiles and nuclear warheads might be expected to welcome protection wherever it can be found, but they remain far from united on the question of hosting American missile defence batteries on their soil.

Indeed, in Moon Jae-in, they’ve elected this week the presidential candidate most critical of the rushed deployment of the United States’ anti-ballistic missile system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).

Continue reading at OpenCanada.

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Ballistic Missile Defence, Diplomacy, and North Korea

To South Koreans well within the firing range of a regime and leader of dubious stability and demeanour, it might seem eminently sensible to pursue protection from Kim Jong-un’s brandished missiles and nuclear warheads, but those same South Koreans are far from united on hosting American missile defence batteries on their soil. Indeed, they’ve just elected the presidential candidate most critical of the rushed THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) deployment. Whether the new Government revives an all-out “Sunshine Policy” of re-engagement with the North, it should find missile defence a poor substitute for diplomacy.

Continue reading at The Simons Foundation.

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Recalling the Trudeau “strategy of suffocation”

Paul Meyer (a former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament, he currently teaches international security at Simon Fraser University and is a Senior Fellow at The Simons Foundation, Vancouver) has done the arms control/disarmament community an important service by leading us through a detailed recounting of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s “strategy of suffocation” – an insufficiently recognized Canadian effort in Cold-War disarmament diplomacy (see: Paul Meyer, “Pierre Trudeau and the ‘Suffocation’ of the Nuclear Arms Race.” International Journal 71:3, 2016: pp. 393-408). The following, published at H-Diplo, reviews Meyer’s essay and recounts civil society engagements (notably by Canadian church leaders) with Trudeau subsequent to the “suffocation” initiative and leading up to the “peace initiative” he launched at the conclusion of his political service. Continue reading here.

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Canada is among top military spenders in NATO: look at the actual numbers

Yet another news headline declares “Canadian defence spending among lowest in NATO despite small increase last year.” The Canadian Press/CBC story then opens with a reference to the NATO Secretary-General’s annual report for 2016 which is said to show “Canada lagging behind most of its allies.” In reality, Canada’s defence spending is well ahead of most of its allies – check the 2017 edition of The Military Balance (International Institute for Strategic Studies) and you will find Canada listed as the sixth highest military spender in NATO and the 16th highest globally. That is, in actual dollars spent, only five NATO countries spend more on defence than does Canada (US, UK, France, Germany, Italy), and globally only 15 countries have larger defence budgets than does Canada. NATO, however, prefers to ignore actual expenditures and to focus instead on defence spending as a proportion of national wealth or gross domestic product (GDP). The following challenges the relevance of linking defence spending to national wealth (a version of this article appeared last year in OpenCanada). Continue reading

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Could Trump Close the Door on Canada and BMD?

For Canadians keen on joining the American strategic-range ballistic missile defence system, the Administration of Barack Obama seemed to present the perfect opportunity. Under a president much-admired by Canadians, opposition to signing on to a huge, expensive, and highly controversial Pentagon program would arguably have been considerably muted. Added to that, North Korea’s apparently inexorable progress towards mating a credible intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead might have been expected to spark more intense Canadian interest in protection efforts. But there has never been a groundswell of public support for Canadian involvement in ballistic missile defence, so the issue only got as far as the new Liberal Government asking Canadians, in the context of the Defence Policy Review, whether this might be the time for Canada to pursue a direct role in North American missile defence. And Canadians seem to have responded with continuing ambivalence, an ambivalence likely to turn into outright rejection with Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House. And if that is not enough to close the door on Canada and BMD, last year’s report by the American Union of Concerned Scientists on the still unproven strategic missile defence system should do it.

Read further at The Simons Foundation.

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Hawks & Doves: mixed signals on military engagement

All three mainstream political parties see Canada’s security as heavily dependent on a stable and prosperous world order, guided by rules applying equally to all and that respect Canadian sovereignty and territorial integrity. That in turn predisposes Canada to help shape that kind of world. As usual, the devil is in the details — what policies, mechanisms, and partnerships are needed to achieve this?

Read further at Canadian Dimension (Volume 51, Issue 1: Winter 2017).

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A modest NATO line in Eastern Europe? Defending the Baltics

NATO is now establishing what the Globe and Mail called “a modest NATO force to draw a line in Eastern Europe”1 and what NATO itself calls its “biggest reinforcement of collective defence since the end of the Cold War.”2 Either way, it hasn’t erased doubts about the willingness, or wisdom, of the alliance’s threat to take direct military action against Russia and thereby raise the spectre of nuclear weapons use. Indeed, these eminently rational doubts could sensibly be elevated to the level of firm policy – not only because any military confrontation in serious danger of descending to nuclear use ought never to be regarded an option, but also because redressing Baltic vulnerability to Russian interference has more to do with strong governance than heightened military firepower.

Read further at The Simons Foundation.

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The Arctic and the Seaborne Nuclear Arms Race

Headlines tell of a burgeoning Russian/American naval nuclear arms race and already tens of billions of dollars are being promised and spent in both countries on “modernizing” seaborne strategic nuclear weapons systems. While tactical nuclear weapons have been kept off their attack and general purpose submarines for at least a generation, there are indications they may be finding their way back. In the meantime, there is not yet any international regime or treaty or political will in place or contemplated for the exercise of seaborne nuclear restraint.

Continue reading at The Simons Foundation.

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