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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