Canada's Minister of National Defense Anita Anand speaks during a news conference with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin following their meeting at the Pentagon, Thursday, April 28, 2022, in Washington. Defence Minister Anita Anand says the federal government is weighing whether Canada should join the U.S. in actively defending against intercontinental ballistic missiles. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Ottawa weighing ballistic missile defence as part of North American defence upgrades

Ottawa weighing ballistic missile defence as part of North American defence upgrades

OTTAWA — Canada is weighing whether to reverse course and finally join the U.S. in defending against long-range ballistic missiles, Defence Minister Anita Anand said Tuesday, while declining to provide specific plans for upgrading North America’s aging defensive systems.

Anand was speaking at a conference hosted by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, where she offered hints at a promised review of Canada’s defence policy while underscoring the need to recruit and retain more members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Canada famously opted out of the U.S. ballistic missile defence program following a heated national debate in 2005, deciding not to invest in the network of land- and sea-based radars and interceptor missiles designed to stop an attack on North America.

Then-prime minister Paul Martin’s decision was seen by many as an attempt to bolster his minority Liberal government. The NDP, and many Canadians, opposed missile defence, in part because of its links to U.S. president George W. Bush’s administration.

Yet the question of whether it should reconsider has repeatedly reared its head in the intervening years, and Anand left the door wide open when asked Tuesday whether it was time for Canada to rethink its previous decision.

“We are certainly taking a full and comprehensive look at that question, as well as what it takes to defend the continent across the board,” she said. “We are leaving no stone unturned in this major review of continental defence.”

The review in question involves upgrading Norad, the early-warning system that Canada shares with the U.S. The system is badly showing its age at a time when concerns about an attack on the continent are at their highest point since the Cold War.

The Conservatives as well as several parliamentary committees have previously called for Canada to embrace ballistic missile defence, particularly after North Korea conducted a number of long-range missile tests in 2017.

The system itself is not designed to stop an all-out attack from a country like Russia or China, and its actual effectiveness has been questioned against what the Congressional Budget Office has estimated as a US$176-billion price tag over the next decade.

Supporters of Canada’s involvement have nonetheless said any defence is better than nothing.

Conservative defence critic Kerry-Lynne Findlay noted Norad’s deputy commander at the time told a parliamentary committee in 2017 that U.S. policy directed American military officials not to defend Canada if it was targeted in a ballistic missile attack.

New missile tests by North Korea in recent months along with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and growing concerns about China have all “amplified” the need to ensure Canada is properly protected, Findlay added.

“We have to understand that we would or could be defenceless in the event of a missile attack,” she said.

“Given that evolving threat, we’re very much in favour of Norad modernization, and we feel that Canada has to actively engage with the U.S. regarding that and joining the missile defence program.”

Anand did confirm that some of the $6 billion in new money earmarked for the military in last month’s budget will be spent on updating Norad, including the string of 1980s-era radars in Canada’s Arctic known as the North Warning System.

Yet the minister would not provide any timelines or other specifics, and instead promised announcements “in the short term,” echoing comments she made after meeting U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Washington last month.

Military officials have warned for years that the system is obsolete and in desperate need of replacement. Yet both governments have been slow to act, even in the face of new Russian aggression.

Anand defended the lack of details in an interview after the conference, saying the government is taking the appropriate amount of time given the scope and scale of work and money needed to update the system.

“It’s a major investment,” she said. “It’s going to be fully comprehensive. … We are taking the time to get it right. And that’s the way I do business, and that’s the way our government does business.”

The government is also working to nail down the details on a planned review of Canada’s five-year-old defence policy, the minister said. The Liberals promised that review in last month’s budget, saying an update is necessary given recent changes to global security.

“We are answering all of those questions right now ourselves,” Anand said when asked about the review’s timing and who will lead it. “We are deeply engaged in setting the parameters of the review and the timeline and the substantive aspects.”

The minister did indicate that one of the areas in which the review will focus is on recruiting and retaining more Canadians to the Armed Forces, which is short thousands of members at a time when the military is busier than ever.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2022.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Military