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The Missile Menace: Don’t count on Uncle Sam to save us

Canada has been short of political courage in recent years, and it is not a condition easily remedied. But responsible citizens should draw the line at allowing this deficiency to compromise the state’s most solemn obligation to protect the people. At issue is the politically-driven deterioration in the capabilities of the Canadian Armed Forces. Most immediately, Canada’s inability to defend itself against ballistic missiles or to have any say over how the United States might do so. Canada stands exposed to a danger which has been growing for two decades and is now clear and present. Yet all it can do is plan for the mass burials and the nuclear clean-up afterwards.

The political class has offered up no end of spurious rationales for why Canada shouldn’t have a defence against ballistic missiles: Canada is not actually threatened; the problem of missiles has been exaggerated; building defences against them would fuel an arms race; in any case they don’t work; and Canada can’t afford them. Not one of these hoary old arguments can withstand serious scrutiny, but opponents of ballistic missile defence (BMD) continue to dust them off and governments to hide behind them, corrupting public discussion of what is a vital security matter.

The arguments were on display again last month when the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence held a day of hearings on September 14 devoted to “Canada’s Abilities to Defend Itself and our Allies in the Event of an Attack by North Korea on the North American Continent”. It was a welcome development, and an MP from the government side, Mark Gerretsen from Kingston, ensured the issue would not be talked out that day by securing the Committee’s agreement to conduct a follow-up study.


The hearings were instructive on several counts. Most importantly, they knocked down the hoariest of all the arguments against why Canada need not bother with missile defence: the United States would protect us.

No question there’s a threat to North America

A senior official from the Department of Global Affairs said the government was “gravely concerned by North Korea’s reckless and provocative actions in pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them”.

This concern is not hypothetical. North Korea has now demonstrated a capacity to deliver missiles intercontinentally, with a range that could reach most of North America. In this sense, the threat from North Korea is real, strategic, and global in nature.

Another official, from the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command, said that:

Pyongyang has expressly indicated that it wants to be able to target North America with nuclear-armed missiles. To that end, North Korea has now performed six underground nuclear device tests … While we do not currently have proof of a fully functional nuclear ICBM, given the progress they have made so far, we believe it’s only a matter of time before North Korea develops a reliable nuclear-armed ballistic missile.

But there’s no threat to Canada

In the questioning, Gerretsen asked “Do you feel that North Korea is a threat to Canada? Put a different way, are there circumstances in which North Korea would want to attack Canada?” To which the Global Affairs official responded:

There has been no direct threat to Canada. In fact, on the contrary, in recent contacts with the North Korean government, including in August when our national security adviser was in Pyongyang, the indications were that they perceived Canada as a peaceful and indeed a friendly country. So on the contrary, we don’t sense a direct threat; we sense that, for the time being at least, they perceive us as not an enemy and therefore potentially a friend.

It’s hypothetical

The Hon. Erin O’Toole, the shadow foreign minister, asked “If there’s an ICBM threat to the United States and not to Canada, per se, the partial polar route of that ICBM and a mistake in the targeting systems or trajectory could mean that parts of Canada would be exposed, whether or not we are the target. Would that be fair to say?” To which the National Defence official replied:

I think in that kind of hypothetical scenario you can spin it in a number of different directions. I would go back to the fact that the regime in North Korea is primarily motivated by its desire to survive itself and sustain its rule. While their rhetoric is colourful and their behaviour occasionally strikes us as peculiar, they’re no fools. They understand the consequences of that kind of an action.

Earlier, the official had pointed out that tracking capabilities is “usually possible within a reasonable margin of error (but) gauging current and evolving intent is more complicated, and predicting future intent and staking one’s security on that prediction is highly risky”.

Diplomacy is best

In response to questions about the effectiveness of diplomacy, the Global Affairs official replied that:

In terms of whether we have reached our ultimate destination, we have not yet succeeded there. Diplomacy requires a great deal of patience. I would just highlight, as an example, that the efforts that resulted in the nuclear agreement with Iran took more than a decade of painstaking diplomatic negotiation to try to change the threat perception (of) Iran from the West and make it understand that it could achieve its goals through a diplomatic solution and not through armament. I think we’re engaged in a similar process with the DPRK. We have not yet seen the players return to the negotiating table. We hope that comes sometime soon.

Economic pressure is also good

Asked about the effectiveness of economic sanctions, the same official said:

The short answer to your question is that it’s very difficult to ascertain how much impact sanctions are having in terms of the thinking in Pyongyang, but certainly we do know it has raised the stakes. It has hurt them and their ability to acquire certain materials. The rest is up to diplomats to try to convince them to alter their threat perceptions.

We will know if we’re being attacked

Getting to the heart of the matter, Liberal MP Leona Alleslev asked the Deputy Commander of NORAD, Canadian LGen Pierre St-Amand, for “some idea—break it down for us—of what would happen if a missile were launched”. St-Amand replied as follows:

We have Canadians manning consoles alongside our U.S. partners at our operations centre, fully participant and with full view and full situational awareness of what’s happening and what’s coming our way. We’d have this warning. While the warning’s being worked within the staff in the NORAD headquarters, this warning would also be shared with our partners here in Canada … The Canadian government, through the CDS (Chief of the Defence Staff), will be informed very quickly of something that’s coming our way, coming toward North America.

The next phase will be an assessment, again under our aerospace warning mission, where we will be making a determination of whether or not this missile is an attack or something else. It could be a research and development shot. It could be something that in fact is not an attack. That’s a fairly important assessment, because the chain of events that follows will be determined by that assessment.

What to do will be entirely up to the Americans

At which point, according to the Canadian Deputy Commander of NORAD,

Canadians in the NORAD enterprise will go back into watch mode for further shots, for something else coming in … In terms of the engagement, it will be totally and entirely a U.S. decision to engage that missile or not. We are not a part of that discussion. We are in the room, however.

From that point of view, we will have the warning, we will know where it’s going, and then the U.S. will decide whether they defend against that missile or not.

US policy is not to defend Canada 

Following up, Conservative MP James Bezan asked St-Amand:

If there were an attack and a missile were coming over, I think a lot of Canadians just assume the United States would shoot it down, and they take comfort in that. Maybe it’s a false comfort. I think Canadians have more confidence now in the capability of BMD, but they’re under the assumption that the United States would protect Canada. If a missile’s coming in, and they don’t know if it’s going to hit Vancouver or Seattle, it’ll come down. Do you feel that if we’re not part of this program, and with our relationship in NORAD, USNORTHCOM would make the decision to protect Canada?

To which the Deputy Commander of NORAD replied:

We’re being told in Colorado Springs that the extant U.S. policy is not to defend Canada. That’s the policy that’s stated to us, so that’s the fact that I can bring to the table.

Picking up on this, NDP MP Randall Garrison asked: “If the scenario we’re talking about is that North Korea had bad aim and shot a missile toward North America, are you saying that if that missile was directed toward Canada, current U.S. policy would be not to respond to that?”

“It is entirely a US decision”, LGen St-Amand replied.

I can’t comment on whether in the heat of the moment there would be a discussion at the highest level to decide to go contrary to policy or not, but what I’m saying is that it would be entirely a U.S. discussion and a U.S. decision.

When Garrison asked what defence capability Canada itself had, St-Amand responded: “You mean against ballistic missiles? We don’t.”

To underscore the point, O’Toole asked: “Before, you said that we have no organic defensive capability against this threat from North Korea or anyone else. Therefore, we’re completely reliant on the U.S. and their decision in that ‘heat of the moment’, as you’ve said. Is that correct?” “Yes, sir” replied LGen St-Amand.


St-Amand’s explanation of US policy received some news coverage, then dropped from public discussion almost immediately. The most likely explanation is that the media just didn’t get it or believe it — another illustration of Canadians’ longstanding schizophrenia about Uncle Sam. We don’t like him, but we’re sure he’ll save us.

With a little imagination, it is not hard to conjure up several scenarios in which the United States could not or would not defend Canada. A ballistic missile attack is one of them. Since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2012, North Korea has conducted 78 missile tests of which 61 appear to have been successful. Given these numbers, it’s logical to assume a North Korean attack on the United States would involve multiple ICBMs perhaps in multiple stages. How many would make it to North America would depend in part on how many were destroyed before launch or shot down in the boost phase using Aegis. Those which ran this gauntlet successfully would then be targeted in mid-course employing US ground-based interceptors (GBI) at Fort Greeley in Alaska and Vandenberg AFB in southern California. THAAD and Patriot systems would be used in the descent/terminal phase of flight.

But there are not many GBIs: 32 in Alaska and 4 (four) in California. Production was suspended at the start of the Obama administration, then resumed in 2013 with the goal of 44 interceptors by the end of 2017.  With nine out of 18 tests hitting their targets to date, a success rate of 50 percent carried over into a real battle suggests the current arsenal of 36 interceptors might succeed in shooting down 18 incoming missiles before the arsenal was depleted. Analysts who believe this may be sufficient to deal with a North Korean attack nonetheless consider having only two interceptors to stop one incoming missile “ugly math”.  By what logic, then, should Canadians assume that USNORTHCOM commanders, faced with a flight of ICBMs approaching at 15,000 miles per hour with more likely to follow, would employ any of their scarce interceptors to defend any target other than an American one?


With North Korea having dramatically escalated matters recently, there has been speculation the government may be coming around to accepting the need for Canada to be able to defend itself against ballistic missiles. A month ago, the Prime Minister said that Liberal opposition to Canadian participation in BMD would not change “any time soon”. Last week, Trudeau elaborated a bit: “We have not changed our position at this point, but we continue to engage in thoughtful ways to ensure we’re doing everything we can and we must do to keep Canadians safe”. This doesn’t sound like a change of policy is imminent, more like pixie dust being sprinkled over an irredeemably obtuse media.

Somebody should have asked: What on earth are you taking about? What “thoughtful ways”? If your position is not to defend against ballistic missiles, there’s no way you’re doing everything you “can and must” to keep Canadians safe.

Feature illustration: A test shot of a THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) interceptor in 2010 (Missile Defense Agency, US Department of Defense).



Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. He was formerly director-general for international security at Foreign Affairs and Canada’s lead negotiator in the Canada-US talks on Canadian participation in BMD and revision of the NORAD agreement. He can be reached at

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