The Cruise Threat to Canadian-U.S. relations

By John Lamb

While common security interests will continue to dominate Canadian-American defence relations, divergences in perceived security interests between our two countries could create friction over the coming years. It will be an outgrowth of changes that have been occurring in military technology and nuclear arms control -- changes which threaten to affect Canadian security interests adversely.

Paradoxically, one particularly critical source of tension in Canadian-American defence relations will be Soviet cruise missiles targetted against North America and the need to defend against them. The Canadian government, the academic policy community, and the peace movement all appear to have overlooked the possibility of addressing this problem through arms control.

For the past thirty years, Canada's air defence requirements have been predicated on only a modest Soviet bomber force and no serious threat from Soviet air- or sea-launched cruise missiles. Air defence under NORAD has been confined, accordingly, to early warning and the maintenance of very limited interception capabilities against Soviet bombers. Now, however, American defence and arms control policies may push Moscow into a significant expansion of its cruise missile force. Were that to occur, the threat posed to Canada, and the burden of defending North American airspace, would grow enormously.

I'd like to make three points in this connection. First, the renewed American effort to develop an effective strategic defence against ballistic missiles -- through "Star Wars" -- could convince Soviet leaders to emphasize the production and deployment of cruise missiles capable of skimming in beneath a "Star Wars" shield. Reflecting the seriousness of this danger, U.S. military planners have already begun studying how "Star Wars" defences against ballistic missiles can be combined with enhanced active defences against Soviet bombers and cruise missiles.

Second, recognizing the United States's lead in cruise missiles and the Soviet advantage in the number of large ballistic missiles, U.S. administrations have, through their arms control policies, sought deep cuts in strategic ballistic missiles, while minimizing any constraints on air-launched cruise missiles, and avoiding altogether the limitation of sea-launched cruise missiles.

Third, in Reykjavik, President Reagan proposed that each side reduce its strategic nuclear warheads by half, to a total of 6000. The American proposal also contained sub-limits on ballistic missiles. These sub-limits, however, create an incentive for each side to increase the proportion in its strategic warhead total. Under this framework, each side could deploy at least 1200 and possibly more air-launched cruise missiles. In addition, the Americans proposed that no limits whatever be placed on sea-launched cruise missiles. In this connection, the threat to Canada could come in the form of a significant expansion in the number of long-range, nuclear-tipped, sea-launched cruise missiles. The Soviet Union now has only about two dozen of these missiles. Recent estimates, though, suggest that the Soviets could deploy up to 1500 of them by 1995. Not all of these new Soviet air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, of course, would be targeted against Canada or fly over Canadian territory.

Nevertheless, those posing a threat to Canada could grow considerably, increasing the requirement for extensive new air defence and anti-submarine warfare capabilities. We would all agree, I am sure, that balanced verifiable reductions in ballistic missiles are an important objective. With their short flight times, increasing accuracy and multiple warheads, strategic ballistic missiles pose a growing threat to stability and peace. At the same time, if cruise missile numbers are permitted to multiply as ballistic numbers decline, stability will clearly not be enhanced. The American proposal would, in effect, simply divert the arms race into a track where the U.S. has a technological advantage. That is a dead end.

Of course, some would argue that, although accurate, cruise missiles are too slow-flying to be surprise attack, first-strike weapons. Such complacency is misplaced.

Within just a few years, the next generation of air- and sea-launched cruise missiles will be deployed. More accurate than current models, these will be able to fly at supersonic speeds, and be equipped with "stealth" technology designed to help evade enemy air defences. Such advanced cruise missiles could be just as dangerous as today's ballistic missiles. The controversy over cruise missile testing has raised Canadian consciousness about the nuclear arms race. It is time that Canadians also became aware of the larger significance of cruise missiles for Canada, that is, the danger that widespread deployments of air- and sea-launched cruise missiles by the superpowers will involve this country in a massive air-defence buildup.

Were that to occur -- and it surely will if current trends continue -- Canada would face an unpalatable choice. On one hand, we could join with the United States in developing the huge complex of radars, communications links, interceptors and so on for an active air defence system. We would also have to dramatically increase our anti-submarine warfare capabilities for hunting potential cruise missile-carrying submarines in or near our coastal waters. Such participation, however expensive, would at least help to ensure Canada's importance in the defence of North America. On the other hand, we could just let the United States do the job for us. That would be much cheaper, but would cost us dearly in terms of sovereignty.

There is another way -- a way that would enhance Canadian and global security and avoid the necessity (and expense) of building large-scale active air defence systems or enhanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities. This would mean strictly limiting cruise missiles through arms control, a route that, thus far, has apparently been ignored by Canadians. The Special Joint Committee on Canada's International Relations stated in its final report that Canadian "arms control and disarmament policy, on the one hand, and [Canadian] defence policy, on the other, should move in tandem." That wise counsel should be heeded in the present context. The question is how.

Cruise missiles could pose a serious threat to Canadian security. We can do either of two things to address this threat. We can wait for this threat to materialize and then engage in an expensive defence build-up, or we can address it now through arms control Canada's European allies have not shrank from assessing the implications of superpower military deployments for their own national security; nor have they hesitated to press the United States to account for their interests in U.S. arms control policies. Canadians, though, have somehow failed to appreciate that strategic arms control can affect Canada's own national security interests in very immediate and specific ways.

Viewing the benefits of arms control as remote, we have paid little heed to the capacity of arms control to help solve our national defence problems. This was clearly reflected in the failure of two recent reports by parliamentary committees studying Canada's air defence and NORAD commitments to even consider seeking an arms control solution to the problem of Soviet cruise missiles. Both simply accepted the inevitability of a cruise missiles build-up by the superpowers and the necessity of expanding our air defence effort. Nor is there any evidence that the government has ever asked the United States to address the cruise missile problem through its arms control proposals. This Canadian silence on cruise missiles can be attributed to our belief that nuclear arms control is a superpower responsibility. Unfortunately, this belief has led us to defer to our Alliance leaders.

Can Canada afford such an approach when current American strategic preferences run counter to Canadian security interests? If we are to avoid an expensive air defence build-up or abdicate our sovereign responsibility for the defence of Canada, we must convince the United States to negotiate with the Soviet Union for strict limits on air-launched cruise missiles and a mutual ban on the production and deployment of long range sea-launched cruise missiles.

For their part, the Soviets have proposed a complete ban on all long-range cruise missiles. It's time to see if Moscow is willing to seriously negotiate this issue. Granted, significant verification problems remain to be worked out, but these should not be permitted to impede negotiations on cruise missile limits. Recent studies suggest that these verification problems may not be as insoluble as had been thought.

Current government arms control policy includes among its six priority areas the negotiation of radical reductions in nuclear forces consistent with the enhancement of strategic stability. To date, however, the government has not made clear what kinds of cuts it wants achieved by the superpowers. In the interest of elevating Canada's national security debate, the government should move to put some meat on the bare bones of its policy on nuclear force reductions. It should explore the arms control options pertaining to Canada's cruise missile problem. This does not imply that cruise missile limitations should be approached in isolation. If both ballistic and cruise missiles were being significantly reduced, there would be a need to rectify conventional force imbalances as well, especially in Europe. The government is ready to issue a White Paper on Defence. It should stand up for the incorporation of cruise missile limitations in the West's arms control proposals.

John Lamb is Director of the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament. This paper was delivered as an address to the Edmonton conference, "The True North Strong and Free."

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1987

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1987, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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