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The high price of getting too cozy by Michael Byers, Academic Director
The high price of getting too cozy by Michael Byers, Academic Director

December 7, 2004
Where's an MP when you need one to solve a maritime defence dilemma? asks Michael Byers. Apparently lost at sea

Canadians should be aware that their navy is in imminent danger of becoming an extension of the U.S. Navy, with significant consequences for both our foreign and defence policy -- including missile defence.

In the early 1970s, Canada built four Iroquois-class destroyers for anti-submarine operations in the North Atlantic. When the Cold War ended, they were converted to an "area air defence" role.

Each destroyer is now equipped with 29 U.S.-made "vertical launch standard missiles." These anti-aircraft missiles are the most technologically advanced weapons in the Canadian armoury. The particular model acquired, the SM-2MR, has a maximum range of 170 kilometres and travels at Mach 2.5. The missiles are so advanced that the radar on Canada's destroyers is incapable of guiding them to the full extent of their range. The missiles, in fact, are designed for use with the more powerful Aegis radar system, now standard on U.S. destroyers and cruisers.

Equipping Canada's destroyers with Aegis radar systems could cost as much as $1-billion, an expense that would be difficult to justify even if the ships were not three decades old. So far, Japan (with four Aegis-equipped destroyers) and Spain (with two Aegis-equipped frigates) are the only U.S. allies to have made this technological leap.

But Canada's missiles could be used to their full capability if our destroyers were plugged in to another vessel's Aegis radar system -- as part of a U.S. battle group, for instance. The U.S. Navy is developing a "co-operative engagement capability" (CEC) whereby the information-gathering and target-engagement components of different ships are linked electronically. Before long, incoming targets detected by one ship could be shot down by missiles from another, with a single commander controlling all of the interconnected radar and weapon systems.

During times of heightened threat, modern targeting systems can already be placed on automatic, thereby eliminating the delay inherent in human decision-making. Once CEC is in place, computers could control the detection, tracking, firing and weapon-control functions of an entire battle group.

Canada's destroyers (and its 12 frigates) are sufficiently advanced to operate as integral parts of U.S. battle groups. The Canadian Forces have identified "interoperability" with their U.S. counterparts as the "cornerstone to Canadian military operations"; in September, Defence Minister Bill Graham reaffirmed the need to maintain "seamless co-operation." From a simple operational perspective, Canada's cash-strapped forces must co-operate closely with the U.S. military if they are to retain an ability to conduct combat missions overseas. Our navy, therefore, will want to acquire an electronic plug-in capability as soon as the United States deploys CEC. Without the new technology, Canadian ships would lose much of their interoperability.

Yet plugging into a CEC system would mean that Canadian missiles could be launched and guided by a U.S. commander or even, in times of crisis, by a U.S. computer alone. This raises sovereignty concerns. Canada would retain the option of withdrawing its vessels from some missions or certain aspects of missions -- it was on this basis that one of our frigates was able to remain on station in the Arabian Sea last year without participating directly in the Iraq war. But there would be no time for such niceties if a battle group containing Canadian ships was unexpectedly attacked. Even more problematic is the ongoing extension of the Aegis and CEC systems to serve in ballistic missile defence (BMD). The U.S. Missile Defence Agency expects that the U.S. Navy will soon be able to "detect, track, intercept and destroy short, medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles in the midcourse phase of flight. . . . In future, Aegis BMD capability will evolve to defeat longer-range ballistic missiles."

Central to these developments is a new generation of sea-launched missiles: the SM-3 LEAP ("light exo-atmospheric projectile"). This weapon, designed solely for missile defence, has a range that extends into space. Canada's Department of National Defence has already determined that our destroyers could easily be adapted to house these missiles and that, if integrated into a CEC system, they would then provide "theatre" missile defence with regard to mid-range ballistic missiles, as well as some "terminal phase" capability with regard to intercontinental ballistic missiles.

These developments are occurring rapidly. In 2001, U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld integrated his country's theatre and continental missile-defence programs; the Pentagon is now developing a single, multifaceted system directed at all phases of a missile's flight. In defence-procurement terms, theatre and continental missile defence are now part of a single "major defence-acquisition program."

At the same time, the Canadian navy issued a 237-page planning document in which it noted that an ability to contribute to theatre ballistic-missile defence, including "the potential to engage targets," will be "especially important when conducting expeditionary operations with joint and combined forces." The U.S. Navy will have three missile-defence-capable Aegis cruisers by 2006, and 15 similarly equipped destroyers by 2007. Japan is planning to equip its Aegis destroyers with SM-3 missiles within the next three years.

Our navy will undoubtedly start lobbying for its own SM-3 missiles as soon as Ottawa signs on to missile defence. Indeed, the Department of National Defence began pressing hard for Canadian participation in continental missile defence at about the same time that the United States decided to incorporate the sea-based technologies into that program. In other words, naval interoperability, missile defence, and the push for Canada's participation in missile defence are closely linked, though not inextricably. (Canada could choose to join CEC and maintain interoperability without purchasing SM-3s.)

The Canadian navy cannot be faulted for seeking interoperability with the United States. It naturally wants to maximize its operational capability, including by co-operating with technologically advanced allies. It is not the navy's obligation to weigh the implications of missile defence for nuclear non-proliferation, relations with China, or Canada's standing as an independent diplomatic actor. The determination and assessment of the implications for foreign and defence policy properly fall to elected officials.

Although Canadians have been promised a foreign and defence policy review this winter, the all-important issue of our destroyers, missiles and the direction of naval interoperability remains unaddressed. Similarly, the important maritime component of missile defence has been left out of the debate about Canada's role in that program. When it comes to these hidden pressures, our elected representatives -- and the autonomy of our foreign and defence policy -- seem lost at sea.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is also Academic Director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues.

 
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