Anyone familiar with NORAD and ballistic missile defence issues will remember the media hype that surrounded the period leading up to then-Prime Minister Martin’s 2005 decision not to participate in the American development and fielding of a defensive system. There were many specious arguments used to defeat the case for Canadian participation. Opponents maintained that there was no threat, that BMD would accelerate nuclear proliferation, that a system would lead to the deployment of weapons in space, that it would be too expensive, that it would destabilize the strategic power balance, and so on.

The fact that these points prevailed was quite remarkable. In truth, the system being developed and tested did not involve nuclear weapons, interceptors deployed into space, or any identified expense beyond the involvement of NORAD personnel and possibly the use of a Canadian site to base a radar. Moreover, there was a strong case to be made that its deployment would actually contribute to stability, without any real perturbation of the nuclear strategic balance. It is important to recognize that a limited BMD capability should cause no concern for the major nuclear powers of China and Russia; rather, its purpose is to defend against a small attack of a handful of missiles from other sources, like North Korea and Iran.

Now, almost 10 years later, the United States has continued with the deployment of a ground-based BMD system to defend North America. Interestingly, over the past few years NATO nations, including Canada, have endorsed the need to provide BMD for Europe and a modest capability is being put in place for that purpose. When it comes to collective defence with our NATO partners, we have accepted the majority view that BMD is important to protect alliance territory. A gap has opened in our strategic logic, therefore, where Canada is a signatory to the need to protect Europe from an evolving BMD threat, but we have still not addressed how we might be involved in protecting North America.

There is little doubt that the need for BMD continues to exist. The threat of a ‘rogue’ missile attack from North Korea or Iran has evolved over the past 10 years as predicted and cannot be ignored. The North American BMD system does work, although not as well as the U.S. would like it to, and they are putting resources into expansion and improvement.

The role of defending Canada and the United States against ballistic missile attack is a natural for our bilateral partnership. Just as Canada participates with the U.S. in NORAD for aerospace warning and aerospace defence, it makes sense that Canada’s current participation in ballistic missile warning should evolve to engagement in ballistic missile defence. Without the BMD mission, NORAD is not as complete an alliance as it could be. We Canadians subscribe to the necessity of cooperating to defend North America and yet we have abrogated our responsibility to the partnership with regard to the BMD mission. We have left it to the American side of NORAD to perform using their territory, their resources, and their rules.

Committees in both the House of Commons and the Senate are currently reviewing issues related to Canada’s international alliances, including where we are at with regard to BMD. Given the evolution of the threat, advancements in the technology, and the international consensus regarding the benefits of a BMD system, it seems eminently reasonable that we should be rethinking the 2005 decision and Canada’s part in protecting our sovereign territory.

At the same time, many Canadians feel we should simply count on the U.S. to defend Canada against any ballistic missile threat. After all, our economies and supporting infrastructure are so inextricably linked that the U.S. would be directly affected by any successful attack on Canada. It is clearly in their interests to avoid such an occurrence. But what of our own sovereignty? Do we not feel that we should be involved in, and responsible for, what happens in and over Canada? What about our obligations to participate with the U.S. in the defence of North America?

It is time for Canadians to reassess North American BMD, and our participation in NORAD is the obvious vehicle to re-open discussion. We should engage with the U.S. to determine their receptiveness to our participation and to assess how we can be involved. Let’s take advantage of our close relationship to explore meaningful ballistic missile defence options to our mutual advantage. It is the responsible course of action for Canada.


LGen (Ret’d) George Macdonald is a consultant in Ottawa. He was the Deputy Commander of NORAD from 1998 to 2001, during a time of intense BMD development in the U.S.