Participation in the ballistic missile defence program would be costly, but, amid nuclear threats, it appears Canada is no longer under the protective umbrella of the U.S.
Politicians approach most subjects with open mouths, but they are rarely at a loss for words.
That’s why the testimony at a House of Commons defence committee, specially convened to consider the thorny problem that is North Korea, was so memorable.
Honourable members were stumped by the testimony of Lt. Gen. Pierre St-Amand, the Canadian who serves as deputy commander of North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs.
Conservative MP James Bezan asked St-Amand whether he agreed with the common Canadian perception that the Americans would shoot down an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile heading for a Canadian city, even though Canada is not a participant in the U.S.’s ballistic missile defence program. His response jolted the committee members from their late-summer stupor.
“I’m being told in Colorado Springs that U.S. policy is not to defend Canada. That’s fact I can bring to the table,” he said.
St-Amand conceded that in the “heat of the moment,” American commanders might act contrary to their stated policy, “but that would be entirely a U.S. decision.”
The news was greeted with stunned silence.
In light of Justin Trudeau’s refusal to commit to participation in BMD Canada is, and looks destined to remain, defenceless from ballistic missile attack.
New Democratic MP Randall Garrison said our best defence is diplomacy - and on that front, there was at least some good news. Apparently, the North Koreans quite like us.
In earlier testimony, Stephen Burt, assistant chief of defence intelligence at the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command, told MPs that there appears to be no direct threat to Canada from the Hermit Kingdom.
“On the contrary when the National Security Adviser (Daniel Jean) was in Pyongyang, he was told the North Koreans perceive Canada as a peaceful and friendly country. … They perceive us not as an enemy, and even as a potential friend,” he said.
Mark Gwozdecky, assistant deputy minister for International Security at Global Affairs, said that North Korea is not immune to the international community’s persistent pressure that it abandon its aggressive posture.
Kim Jong-un has refused to take part in talks with any preconditions but Gwozdecky said Canada might have a part to play in the “pre-negotiating phase.” He pointed out it took more than a decade to strike a deal on nuclear proliferation with Iran.
Nonetheless, the diplomats, soldiers and intelligence operatives testifying Thursday agreed that while Kim Jong-un’s intentions remain murky he probably already has the capability to reach North America with a missile.
Burt said Kim feels ICBM capability is critical to the survival of his regime. “He wants to be able to target North America.”
He said the regime is motivated by a desire for survival. “Their rhetoric is colourful and their behaviour peculiar. But they’re no fools and they understand the consequences.” Indeed, on Thursday a North Korean state news agency threatened to use nuclear weapons to “sink” Japan and reduce the U.S. to “ashes and darkness.”
Still, even if Kim is not as irrational as he appears, he is erratic and apparently has the capability to obliterate major North American cities.
A question mark has been raised about the U.S. system’s ability to intercept incoming missiles. St-Amand was asked by reporters whether, in his professional opinion, BMD would do what it says on the box. He pointed to testimony given recently by Gen. Lori Robinson, commander of U.S. Northern Command, to the Senate’s Armed Services committee.
“She testified she has confidence in her ability to defend against BMD threats,” he said.
It was noticeable that in the transcript of her testimony, Robinson refers to NORAD’s remit to defend the U.S. and Canada, yet in her reference to the BMD system, she talked only about defending the U.S.
To sum up then, a volatile dictator has assembled weapons of mass destruction that could take out this country’s major centres of population — either by design or by accident, were missiles to fall short of their intended American targets. Our only hope is that “King Fatty the Third,” as he’s known in China, is merely capricious and not certifiable.
Meanwhile, there is a missile defence system that one of this country’s most senior military commanders is confident would intercept incoming missiles. We are not part of it, for reasons that have not been explained by the government.
Maybe it’s a sense that we would somehow lose our foreign-policy independence. Yet we’ve already fully embraced continental defence and even multinational cooperation on missile defence. Ludicrously, we are helping to a pay for Europe’s missile-defence system through our NATO contributions, even as we sit exposed.
Maybe BMD is cost prohibitive - St-Amand said he has no idea what the price tag for Canadian participation would be, and no one from the Trudeau government has outlined the fiscal impact.
But it was just three months ago that global affairs minister Chrystia Freeland told the House of Commons that to rely solely on the U.S. protective umbrella would make Canada a client state. “Such a dependence would not be in Canada’s interests,” she said.
Participation in BMD would be costly but it appears we are no longer under the protective umbrella.
There have been many, many occasions when the government has justified spending because “we can’t afford not to.”
This would appear to be one of the few times when that statement has the virtue of being true.