Mixed signals on Star Wars

Roy MacGregor April 8 1985

Mixed signals on Star Wars

Roy MacGregor April 8 1985

Mixed signals on Star Wars


Roy MacGregor

A few minutes before Question Period began last Thursday, Defence Minister Erik Nielsen slumped into a green leather chair behind the curtains in the House of Commons. Late the previous night he had flown back to Ottawa from a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization defence ministers in Luxembourg, and that morning he had chaired a meeting of the cabinet’s planning and priorities committee. If Nielsen’s fatigue was understandable, the appearance of External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, who hurried past Nielsen toward his own seat in the Commons looking red-faced and nervous, was less so. Indeed, Clark appeared not to have slept well himself, as though he, too, had been doing a lot of travelling —if mostly in circles.

Nielsen had returned home bearing a formal invitation from the United States for Canada to participate in the $26-billion (U.S.) “Star Wars” military

research projects, formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). It is intended eventually to provide the United States and its allies with an outer-space umbrella employing satellite-based lasers and particle beams capable of shooting down Soviet missiles. That Canada was wel_

come to join in the reNielsen: space search had been made clear by U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in Luxembourg Tuesday morning, well before Clark rose in the Commons to deny that any such invitation existed. Nielsen had joined with other NATO ministers in urging the United States to move ahead with the plan, but he neglected to notify Clark, later explaining—somewhat lamely —in the Commons that no “telephone security” was

available in Luxembourg. But word of the U.S. overture was already being spread on news agency circuits before Clark rose to scold an American government official in Washington for being “wrong” in suggesting that an invitation had already been extended.

That embarrassing example of poor communications—and Clark’s resulting discomfiture—was repeated later in the week as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government continued to give contradictory and confusing signals about its intentions over Star Wars. After earlier enthusiastic remarks about the jobs that Star Wars research might bring to Canada, the Prime Minister appeared to have second thoughts.

On a visit to his Quebec riding of Manicouagan, the Prime Minister admitted that there had been a problem in communication between his two ministers. Then he told reporters that it is one thing to offer support for the research, but “it is another—quite another—to be invited to participate actively in a proj -ect where you are not the big player, where you don’t set the thrust and where you have no control over the parameters.” Unhappily, Mulroney made his statement just as Clark—who left later in the week for a nine-day visit to the Soviet Union—was repeating in the Commons Mulroney’s earlier thoughts on the potential economic benefits of Star Wars research.

Other U.S. allies—including 12 NATO nations, as well as Israel and Ja-

pan—that received similar invitations to participate in Star Wars appeared to have less difficulty in making up their minds. In Luxembourg, British Defence

_ Secretary Michael Heselumbrella tine immediately announced that his country would join in the re-

search. But Australia and Denmark just as

promptly rejected the invitation.

While Ottawa appeared to dither on the issue—the government has 60 days in which to reply formally to Washington’s invitation—critics questioned whether Canada would really be allowed to have any significant role in the research project. Moreover, Paul Stares, a

specialist on outer-space defence with the Washington-based Brookings Institute, suggested that the United States was offering SDI research to its allies only as a means of “co-opting them into supporting the whole program. But you are going to be given scraps. Congressmen and senators are not going to allow contracts to be let out to foreigners at the expense of their own constituents.” Dr. Danford Middlemiss, a specialist in U.S.-Canadian defence economics at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, noted that while Canada could gain “substantial contractual benefits” from SDI research, he doubted that “those benefits are going to be as large as some of the more enthusiastic industry supporters imagine.” Added Middlemiss: “I do not see numbers of people increasing dramatically. What I see are lucrative highquality, high-technology jobs being preserved.”

If Ottawa said yes to the U.S. invitation, the beneficiaries would likely include some of the leading firms in Canada’s small but aggressive high-tech business sector. Among them: Spar Aerospace Ltd. of Toronto, which built the remote-manipulation arm for the U.S. space shuttle and which is experienced in the development of infrared sensing equipment; U.S.-owned Litton Systems Canada Ltd., which helped develop guidance systems for the United States’ cruise missiles; and MacDonaldDettwiler and Associates of Richmond, B.C., which has experience in the development of communications links between satellites and ground stations. As well, aerospace industries in Ottawa’s “Silicon Valley North” and in other parts of the country might be called upon to develop significantly lucrative quantities of communications and surveillance equipment for the Star Wars program.

In the meantime, critics of the government were convinced that Canada has already entered too far into the U.S. military embrace by agreeing last month to pay 40 per cent of the $1.2-billion cost of transforming the antiquated DEW Line into a sophisticated new North Warning System and by lending its support to Star Wars research. In the Commons last week Opposition Liberal Leader John Turner asked Mulroney how he could assume that “there is some burning desire among Canadians to make a living off the escalation of the nuclear arms race,” while Liberal external affairs critic Jean Chrétien accused Ottawa of trying to go only halfway, eager for the jobs but hardly for the stigma of promoting a new escalation in the arms race. “You are in or you are out,” noted Chrétien. “You can’t be half virgin and half pregnant.”

With Ian Austen in Washington.

Ian Austen