Letter to Bill Graham: Say No to US Ballistic Missile Defence

The Government of Canada has been negotiating with the United States Government towards Canadian participation in the planned US Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) deployment. I wrote the following letter to Minister of Defence William Graham and the Members of Parliament (I've also posted a list of all the email addresses of the Members of Parliament and the Prime Minister's Office) arguing that BMD will violate international law, make the world less secure, and move America closer to the weaponization of space.

And that's assuming it works, which almost nobody believes will happen.

To The Honourable William Graham, Minister of National Defence,

Earlier this year, I exchanged some correspondence with you and with the Honourable David Pratt, former Minister of National Defence, regarding the possibility that Canada will participate in the United States' proposed Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) program. Unfortunately, Mr. Pratt was defeated in the federal election before I could reply to his last letter.

In your reply to me on June 6, you wrote, "Canada-U.S. talks on BMD should be understood within the context of the Government’s commitment to the security of Canada and Canadians, a responsibility that the Government takes seriously." If you do take this responsibility seriously, an open appraisal of the relevant issues will make your choice clear.

I urge you to keep Canada out of the BMD program on the overwhelming grounds that it will accomplish exactly the opposite of what its few proponents claim: namely, that it will precipitate a new arms race and make North America less secure.

In defence of Canada's planned participation in a BMD, we're told that it would:

  1. Conceivably work;
  2. Deter other nations from developing ICBMs;
  3. Protect North America from likely threats; and
  4. Not advance the weaponization of space.

The evidence is abundantly clear that all of these claims are false.

BMD Simply Won't Work

A strong, broad consensus among scientists, engineers, and analysts worldwide - including in America - concludes that a BMD simply cannot defend North America against ballistic missile attacks. The technology that might do this hasn't even been conceived, let alone developed.

BMD is based on a seductively simple premise: use radar to track incoming missiles and launch "kill vehicles" to intercept those missiles before they strike American targets. Unfortunately, the real world is much more complex than the concept.

First, a real BMD system would have to identify an incoming ICBM travelling at super- or hyper-sonic speed on an unpredictable flight path in any kind of weather condition, and deploy an interceptor in time to stop it. Second, the system would have to track and intercept multiple incoming targets simultaneously, matching a kill vehicle to each target. (Instead of the usual "hit a bullet with a bullet" analogy, imagine knocking every bullet out of the air during a gangland shootout.) Third, the system would have to distinguish between real missiles and decoys. Since decoys are much easier to make than missiles and can be designed to look identical to a missile on radar, any attack against a country with BMD would likely contain many more decoys than missiles, forcing the system to squander kill vehicles on dummy targets while real targets slip through.

So far, the BMD has been tested in optimal weather against a single target that is equipped with a GPS device and broadcasts its position (we can only hope enemies would be this accomodating). Realistic decoys have not been used. Even under these ideal conditions, about half the tests conducted so far have failed. Further testing has actually been postponed until after deployment. Almost no one claims BMD can actually work, except for the weapons manufacturers that have enjoyed multibillion dollar development contracts.

BMD Will Prokoke, Not Deter, Nuclear Rivals

It is either naive or disingenuous to suggest, as you and the Honourable Mr. Pratt have suggested, that a BMD program would deter potential rivals instead of propagating a new arms race. Since America has adopted an official policy of pre-emptive war and has also reserved the right to strike first with nuclear weapons, no major power will tolerate a strategic environment where the United States has the ability to project power globally but is itself insulated from attack or retaliation.

The very existence of a BMD is likely to make the world less safe and secure. That is why the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty severely constrained a signatory's ability to develop missile defense: the vicious circle of defense and counteroffense would all but guarantee an escalating arms race.

Since the United States withdrew from the ABM treaty and announced its plans to deploy a BMD, Russia and China have responded with plans to expand their own ballistic missile programs to penetrate the BMD. The means to do this - confusing the system with decoys and overwhelming point defences with too many targets - are terrifying in their implications.

Russia's standing policy is to possess an offensive capability adequate to strike its target with overwhelming force, including enough force to penetrate a BMD. Russia is already developing new ICBMs that feature hypersonic speeds and multiple independently targeted warheads. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that "their combat potential, including penetrating through any anti-missile defense systems, is without peers." [1] As Russian Colonel-General Yuri Baluyevsky recently stated, "I absolutely disagree with the claim that the missile defense is not a threat to Russia." [2]

China used to follow a "minimum deterrence" policy for its ICBM stocks, maintaining just enough weapons to retaliate after a first strike (China is the only nuclear power that an explicit policy of not striking first with nuclear weapons [3]), but has since announced that it will be tripling its ICBM stocks by 2010. Sha Zukang, a senior policymaker in China, explains China's opposition to an American BMD this way:

Once the United States believes it has both a strong spear and a strong shield, it could lead them to conclude that nobody can harm the United States and they can harm any they like anywhere in the world. ... It could lead to the development of a tendency of the use or threat of use of force, more often than is necessary by the United States, in the conduct of international relations. [4]

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhang Qiyue makes the point more bluntly, insisting that a BMD "would upset the world's strategic balance" and "shatter the basis of nuclear non-proliferation" by undermining the 1972 Non-Proliferation Treaty [5], from which the United States withdrew in order to deploy BMD.

In his letter to me, the Honourable Mr. Pratt suggested that a BMD would "deter potential missile proliferators by making it clear to them that expending their scarce resources on missiles will not buy them any real advantage." This completely denies the history of military technology, a history of new developments that confer only temporary advantage, prompting adversaries to respond with competing developments. Mr. Pratt's argument can just as easily be turned around: Canada expending its scarce resources on BMD will not buy it any real protection.

At the same time, money that goes into a BMD cannot be spent on other government expenditures that may actually be effective against terrorist activities, or else otherwise help Canadians to be safer and healthier. A recent Congressional audit of the BMD development project has already noted that its price tag is double the original estimate, and technical problems continue to drive costs up. In total, the United States has spent over $100 billion on a system which, when deployed, will simply not work.

BMD Does Not Protect Against Likely Threats

Most experts agree that even if a BMD is workable, it will not protect America from the kinds of asymmetric attacks that are likely to characterize the "War on Terror". No state government would dare to attack America, because it would only guarantee its own destruction in retaliation.

Terrorist groups, acting extra-nationally, do not suffer the same strategic constraints, but neither do they possess the weapons or the long-range delivery systems that a BMD would counter. Terrorists seek weaknesses in the existing frameworks of their enemies and exploit those weaknesses by using the enemy's strength against it. Recall that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were committed using technology no more sophisticated than bolt cutters, relying on the United States to provide the "missiles" - in that tragic case, commercial airliners.

At best, BMD represents a massively expensive, publicly funded white elephant that will only benefit defence contractors. At the same time, it will make other nuclear powers very nervous.

BMD Will Advance the Weaponization of Space

It is utter hogwash to pretend that Canada can participate in a BMD program without becoming entangled in America's plans to weaponize space.

General Lance W. Lord, US Air Force Space Command Commander, explains that the Space-Based Infrared System he oversees will provide warning for "technical intelligence, missile defense, and battle-space characterization", explaining that the Air Force has to "integrate our space systems with other manned and unmanned systems." As General Lord explains,

The warfighter doesn’t care if the information displayed in an F-22 cockpit or on a planning computer at the Air and Space Operations Center came from space, or a UAV, or a manned aircraft. Their only concerns are that they have the information when they need it! [6]

In its "Master Plan FY 06 And Beyond" [7], US Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) bluntly asserts the strategic value of military space command, calling it the "ultimate high ground of US military positions." The purpose of the Master Plan is to develop "a viable, prompt global strike capability" towards "instant engagement anywhere in the world."

Military control of space will "greatly enhance modern military operations across the spectrum of conflict." In case there is any doubt as to America's intentions, the Master Plan's explicit purpose is to "target resources toward fielding and deploying space and missile combat forces in depth, allowing us to take the fight to any adversary in, from, and through space, on-demand" - in clear violation of international law.

Lest you try to argue that this is irrelevant to BMD, the Master Plan also seeks to integrate command-and-control "capabilities for all the current and projected NORAD mission and USSTRATCOM space operations and missile defense missions into a single functional system rather than the current mission-unique, 'stove-piped,' collection of systems." This is also consistent with the US National Security Strategy [8], which calls for "key capabilities — detection, active and passive defenses, and counterforce capabilities — [to be] integrated into our defense transformation and our homeland security systems." (General Lord also oversees the missile defence interceptors being deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.)

So much for keeping ballistic missile defense separate from the militarization of space; BMD simply cannot be extricated from the integrated military framework in which it resides.

How will the Government of Canada continue to oppose the weaponization of space in anything but words when we have already been integrated into the American space command-and-control structure? Mr. Pratt's letter noted that the land-based system is an "initial" deployment. At what point will BMD 'cross the line' as it evolves from a land-based defensive system into a land- and space-based offensive system? At that point, will it even be possible for Canada to bow out?


I confess that I do not understand why you are so eager to participate in the American BMD. The case against BMD is overwhelming, and no amount of spin will neutralize either the dangers or the violation of Canada's historic peacekeeping role that will accompany our participation.

Please make the right choice to protect Canadians - and the world - from a new, devastating round of nuclear proliferation.


Ryan McGreal November 8, 2004


  1. Vladimir Putin, "Concluding Remarks by President Vladimir Putin at a Meeting with Russian Armed Forces Commanders, Moscow", October 2, 2003 http://www.ln.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/cea07f4e233429a2c3256ec9001c9310

  2. Vladimir Isachenkov, "Russia Proposes Plan on Missile Defense", Center for Defense Information, January 9, 2003 http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/7011-17.cfm

  3. See China's National Defence white paper: "From the first day it possessed nuclear weapons, China has solemnly declared its determination not to be the first to use such weapons at any time and in any circumstances, and later undertook unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones" http://cns.miis.edu/research/china/coxrep/doctrine.htm. By contrast, the United States Nuclear Posture Review reserves the right to us nuclear weapons under three circumstances: in response to a nuclear attack, in response to a non-nuclear biological or chemical attack, and in response to "surprising military developments." http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/policy/dod/npr.htm

  4. Dr. Nicholas Berry, "For China And Russia, Missile Defense Is About Who Is Boss", Center for Defense Information, May 2, 2001 http://www.cdi.org/asia/fa050201.html

  5. Dr. Nicholas Berry, "U.S. National Missile Defense: Views from Asia", Center for Defense Information, April 11, 2002 http://www.cdi.org/hotspots/issuebrief/ch7/

  6. Gen Lance W. Lord, Commander, Air Force Space Command, "Transformation: The Warfighter’s Perspective", Remarks Prepared for the John R. Quetsch Memorial Lecture to the annual American Society of Military Comptrollers Professional Development Institute, Colorado Convention Center, Denver, Colo. May 30, 2002 http://www.peterson.af.mil/hqafspc/Library/Speeches/Speeches.asp?YearList=&SpeechChoice=28

  7. "US Air Force Space Command Master Plan FY06 And Beyond" http://www.peterson.af.mil/hqafspc/library/AFSPCPAOffice/Final%2004%20SMP--Signed!.pdf

  8. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2002 http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html

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