Tempers are flaring over Washington’s plans to pursue a new missile-defence system
By Andrew Phillips in Washington
One morning in late June, if everything goes as planned, the United States air force will launch a missile from a base in California and send it streaking west across the Pacific Ocean. Twenty minutes later, another American missile will head east from an island in the remote Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific. Two-and-a-half minutes after that, a 54-kg device known as a “kill vehicle” will separate from the second rocket and home in on the missile speeding from California. If the experts’ calculations are correct, the kill ve-
hicle and the missile will collide at a combined speed of 24,000 km/h—vaporizing both 225 km above the ocean.
That will be the third—and most crucial—test of a system that Washington hopes will eventually shield Americans from a nuclear-tipped missile fired by a hostile state like North Korea or Iraq. The idea is to show that the United States can accomplish the remarkable technical feat of using one missile to knock another out of the sky. To its supporters, developing a so-called national missile defence is essential to U.S. security in a post-Cold War age of unpredictable and shifting threats. To its many critics, including U.S. allies in Europe and Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, it is a dangerous and destabilizing step towards a new global arms race—the sequel to the much-mocked Reagan-era “Star Wars” plan. With key decisions fast approaching, the long-simmering debate is taking off with the speed of a ballistic missile. Within weeks of the June test, President Bill Clinton must decide whether to green-light the project—if it is to be in place by the target date of2005.
For Canada, the looming deadline is fuelling a controversy that is a variation on the perennial question: how closely should Ottawa follow Washingtons lead in military matters? For weeks, U.S. officials have been putting subtle, and sometimes not-so-subde, pressure on Canada to back the new missile scheme— or at least to mute its public criticism. Senior Americans have travelled to Ottawa to reassure Canada that, in the words of former deputy defence secretary John Flamre, “this is not Star Wars II.” And last week, the deputy commander of U.S. Space Command, Vice-Admiral Herbert Browne, made the farfetched suggestion that Washington might stand by if a missile was fired at Canada. If Ottawa doesn’t sign up for NMD, Browne asked, then “why take our missiles and protect this non-participant nation? That makes absolutely no sense.”
It was Browne’s suggestion, of course, that makes no sense. “The U.S. isn’t going to stand by and watch something fly by on its way to Canada be-
cause it’s piqued with Ottawa,” notes Anthony Cordesman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s ridiculous.”
But idle threats aside, the Americans are decidedly ticked at their allies for failing to back missile defence as they head into a testy summit meeting with Moscow on the issue. The Russians are strongly opposed to Washington’s plans—and the Americans feel that open criticism from Ottawa undermines them at a crucial moment and emboldens other critics in Europe. “It would be a mistake to analyze this as a debate over just another defence system,” U.S. Ambassador Gordon Giffin told Macleans last week. “It is bigger than that. It will mark a significant evolution in the historic defence relationship between us. And if that defence relationship erodes in a meaningful way, it
could affect the fabric of the whole relationship.”
In fact, Ottawa is already moving quiedy to accommodate the Americans. Even as Axworthy continues his public criticism of NMD, Defence Minister Art Eggleton is leading a behind-thescenes campaign by his department to lay the groundwork for some kind of Canadian participation. American officials say it would be “logical” for the command-and-control centre of the new system to be run by Norad, the 42-year-old joint continental air defence structure headquartered in Cheyenne Mountain, Colo. Even though the current Norad agreement does not expire until next year, the federal cabinet in Ottawa has already agreed to renew it for another five years. The early agreement ensures that renewal of an alliance that Canada’s military sees as crucial to its future cooperation with the United States will not become direcdy tangled with the missile debate.
Critics have a host of problems with NMD. It will cost U.S. taxpayers a bundle (estimates range from $26 billion (U.S.) to $60 billion (U.S.) over 15 years); probably won’t work as planned; and is designed to counter a danger that critics say is tiny at best while providing no protection against such threats as chemical attacks or nuclear bombs smuggled into the United States. But the biggest issue for U.S. allies is that NMD threatens the global balance of nuclear terror, as codified in existing armscontrol treaties—particularly Washington’s 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia.
That treaty, driven by the old Cold War logic of “mutual assured destruction” or MAD, forbids either side from developing large-scale missile defences. The thinking was that attempts to defend against missiles would just prompt the other side to build more and more weapons to overwhelm the shield. Axworthy, at a recent United Nations arms-control conference, raised that spectre while attacking Washington’s plan: “It does involve precipitating an arms race that could result in the expansion of nuclear weapons.”
www.macleans.ca for links
Clinton will try to assuage Russia in early June, before he must decide whether to go ahead with NMD. At a summit in Moscow set for June 4, Clinton will try to work out a deal with Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin, to amend the ABM treaty to allow for the new system. Documents prepared by the Pentagon, and made public in late April by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, show that Washington is eager to show Moscow that it need not fear NMD. The new system would be so modest, they say, that Russia’s nuclear arsenal could easily overwhelm it—even if the two countries reduce their warheads to about 2,000 each from current levels of about three times that number under arms-control talks known as START III. “Forces of this size can easily penetrate a limited system of the type that the United States is now developing,” Washington said in the documents presented to Moscow.
One point Clinton is sure to make is that his plan falls far short of the ambitious Strategic Defence Initiative, or Star Wars program, launched by Ronald Reagan in 1983. SDI involved elaborate plans for space-based laser weapons designed to shield the United States from hundreds of incoming Soviet missiles. American scientists could never make it work—but they went through some $50 billion (U.S.) in taxpayers’ money before Clinton officially cancelled SDI in 1993.
The whole idea seemed dead— until 1998. But in July of that year, a congressional committee warned that several so-called rogue states (North Korea, Iraq and Iran) were developing weapons that could threaten the United States by the middle of this decade. The next month, with exquisite timing, North Korea fired a missile over Japan into the Pacific Ocean, and U.S. intelligence agencies reported that it was developing a more powerful rocket
U.S. officials acknowledge the new system is a technical challenge on par with the Apollo moon-landing program
that could hit the continental United States. Clinton, pushed by the Republican Congress, gave the go-ahead to test a slimmed-down missile defence—designed to defend against a handful of missiles launched by a hostile state.
So far the system’s track record is decidedly mixed. In its first test over the Pacific last October, a kill vehicle successfully intercepted and destroyed a dummy missile. A second test in January failed when sensors in the interceptor shut down in the last few seconds of its flight and it missed its target by 135 m. That makes the June test crucial, especially since it comes right before Clinton’s decision deadline.
The system the Americans want to develop would be nowhere near as ambitious as Star Wars. It would involve installing a new radar system and 20 ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska by 2005. Eighty more interceptors would be installed there by 2007—all designed to shoot down missiles headed from North Korea to the United States. (At the same time, critics note, their location means they might well
neutralize the threat posed by Chinese missiles to Taiwan.) Later, Washington hopes to build a second site in North Dakota, outfitted with 100 more interceptors. Missile-tracking radar stations in the United States, Greenland and northern England would be upgraded, and satellites equipped with special tracking sensors would be put in orbit. Even with all that, NMD officials acknowledge that the system is “high-risk”—a technical challenge of the same complexity as the Apollo moon-landing program.
In briefings with Canadian officials, U.S. experts have made it clear their plans do not call for radar stations (let alone interceptor missiles) to be based in Canada—although Canadian cities would effectively be defended by a continental shield. But the most obvious place to put the command centre for the new system would be at Norad, where Canadian officers sit alongside their U.S. counterparts to defend North American airspace.
If Canada signs on to missile defence, it might well get a seat at that table. If it doesn’t, the United States could simply co-ordinate it out of other offices at Cheyenne Mountain— which is also headquarters of U.S. Space Command. “If we opt out of missile defence, it makes the future of Norad very doubtful,” worries Douglas Fraser, executive director of the Canadian Council for International Peace and Security.
That’s why Canadas defence department is so annoyed at Axworthy for keeping up his public drumbeat against Washington’s missile plans. Led by Jim Judd, one of Ottawa’s most capable deputy ministers, the department has taken an aggressive stance, which holds that issues bearing on CanadaU.S. relations should not be run exclusively by Foreign Affairs. Defence felt shoved aside in 1997 when Axworthy spearheaded Canada’s efforts for a global treaty banning land mines, and in 1998 when he headed efforts to set up a world criminal court—initiatives that angered Washington. “We have decided that there is a slew of issues where we should not wait for Foreign Affairs to define the Canadian interest,” says a senior Defence official. “And they are not used to it.”
Aside from the squabbles between departments, how the issue is handled in Ottawa will say a lot about Canada’s relationship with the United States. Certainly, the Americans are watching closely. “This is a test in the eyes of Americans as to whether Canadians treat North American security with real concern,” says David Rudd, executive director of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies. “They ask themselves: are the Canadians really reliable?” They’ll get their answer soon.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.