Navy eyes U.S.-style missile defence
Canadian version of shield would be controversial
The Canadian Navy is considering equipping its ships with theatre ballistic missile defences -- a small-scale version of the controversial U.S. national missile defence system, which has ignited fears of a new global arms race.
The idea is outlined in an internal Defence Department planning document called "Leadmark: The Navy's Strategy for 2020."
Although the paper is not yet policy, any Canadian entry into the politically sensitive area of ballistic missile defence is likely to be cheered by the U.S. government and opposed by nuclear powers such as China.
The national missile defence plan (NMD) is designed to protect the United States and its allies from nuclear attack by shooting down intercontinental missiles with satellite-guided missile interceptors.
Theatre missile defence (TMD) is a similar but less ambitious plan. TMD systems aim not to protect an entire continent, but to shield a theatre of war by shooting down incoming missiles aimed at an army, a naval fleet or even a city.
Both systems are still in development. But Navy planners in Ottawa say putting TMD technology on Canadian ships should be seriously considered in the coming years.
Despite pressure on Ottawa from outside the United States to oppose ballistic missile defence systems, Jean Chr�tien, the Prime Minister, has sent out mixed signals on the subject.
After meeting George W. Bush, the U.S. President, in early February he said "perhaps we are in a different era" of missile defence.
A week later, following discussions with Jiang Zemin, the Chinese President, he took a more neutral stance when he said Canada had no formal opinion on the NMD because the Americans "don't exactly know if the technology will work."
The Leadmark document, which examines a range of future roles for the Navy, lists acquiring TMD systems as a priority over non-military naval roles such as ice-breaking or humanitarian relief.
The costs of TMD technology are not clear.
"We will certainly be looking at theatre ballistic missile defence," said Commander Colin Plows of the Navy's Maritime Strategy office yesterday.
A TMD system would allow Canada to send ships to the Persian Gulf, for example, and protect a land or sea target from an Iraqi SCUD missile. It may also allow the Navy to shield peacekeeping troops from ballistic missile attack.
While Russia, China and NATO allies have expressed concerns about a U.S. national missile defence system, China has also denounced U.S. plans to develop the more localized TMD technology.
If the United States were to give TMD capability to Taiwan -- a country Beijing considers a rogue, breakaway province -- China may lose the ability to exert pressure on Taipei by pointing ballistic missiles at the island. Yesterday in Washington, Qian Qichen, China's Vice-Premier, asked Mr. Bush not to sell TMD technology to Taiwan.
Canada has been asked by several countries, including China and Britain, to pressure the United States not to develop missile defence systems.
Tariq Rauf, a Canadian arms control expert at the Monterey Institute, a California think-tank, says the Canadian Navy's consideration of TMD technology will upset both Russia and China. He says although Russia has agreed to limited testing of TMD systems in Europe, Russia fears the distinction between national and theatre missile defences will soon become blurred.
"[Canada's] TMD proposals will create problems for China," Mr. Rauf added. "But for the U.S., getting Canada on board any missile defence system at all would be a great victory. They would like to enlist us as a supporter of the strategy."
Cmdr. Plows said that as Canada's military budget shrinks, the Armed Forces need to find niche areas where they can fill small but effective roles alongside U.S. forces.
"We need to bring something that is useful to the table," he said. "We know the American Navy is looking at theatre missile defence. If we want to keep ourselves at the table as a real player, then we have to go there, too."
David Rudd, a defence analyst with the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, said he is surprised TMD systems are a high priority for the Navy. He said the cost of the technology will prevent the federal Cabinet from endorsing it.
Mr. Rudd said Canada's four ageing destroyers, the only ships in the Navy large enough to carry TMD arsenals, will need to be replaced in the coming decade. He favours spending money instead on boosting Canada's existing fleet of two logistics and supply ships, which provide important support around the world in naval, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.
"Politically the optics on ballistic missile defence spending might not look good," he says. "The Cabinet might prefer spending money on something positively benign, like a new fleet of logistics ships that has a constabulatory and a humanitarian aspect to it."