As the Hittite with the iron sword said to the Egyptian with the bronze sword: it's the technology, dude.

Saying No to Missile Defence

The Canadian Government has now officially declined to participate in President Bush's Ballistic Missile Defence program. The stated basis for this decision, and the reactions to it on both sides of the border, go some way to reveal the state of politics on both sides of the border. Among the many silly things both American and Canadian politicians have said, a few analysts have identified the actual political calculations that led to the decision. However, we have heard remarkably little about the technical problems of making the system work, and the overriding moral issue of whether political leaders ought to spend money or justify dangerous policies based on a dubious technical program.

While many Canadian political leaders, particularly those on the left, would like to paint the decision not to participate in the missile defence program as a principled decision, the actual choices the Canadian government has made trace the contours of Canada's self interest quite closely. The Canadian government has declined to provide a political endorsement for the missile defence program. This means Canadian taxpayers will not have to foot the bill for part of the missile defence program. In a country which has made federal deficit spending into a “third rail” issue, this avoids a potentially difficult budget issue. It also means that we do not end up endorsing a project that may lead to efforts to establish military “control” over areas of space. Canadian communications and resource management depend, to a considerable degree, on satellite technology; therefore we have an interest in keeping military use of space to a minimum, and preventing battles there entirely. Many countries use space for military purposes, but most countries have both commercial and political reasons to want to avoid conflict in space, since firing off weapons into the valuable real estate just above the atmosphere could lead to the destruction of satellites we need for survey purposes, and even for search and rescue. In contrast, the neo-conservatives who advocate for a “new American Century” through military power claim that the American forces must retain “full spectrum dominance”. This dominance usually includes the ability to wage actual combat in space, as opposed to the use of space to help achieve terrestrial military objectives. Seen in that light, our government's refusal to provide political support to the program makes a lot of practical sense.

At the same time, the Canadian government has accepted agreements which allow the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) to pass information about possible threats to the American space command that will actually attempt to parry a ballistic missile attack. Here again, the Canadian position follows our interests almost exactly: Canada derives considerable practical benefits from sharing the work of surveillance with the United States. In this sense, the decision by the Canadian government not to throw a roadblock into the way of missile defence, but not to encourage it either, looks like a fairly artful compromise. Given the stolid, even clumsy impression our current government gives, they have actually done a good job at walking a fine line on this issue.

The local representative a George Bush's administration gave no indication that he appreciated the finesse. He pronounced himself “puzzled” over Canada's refusal to endorse missile defence, and commented that Canadians had given up a voice in the decisions that the American government would make in the event that a missile headed for North America. Paul Martin, Canada's Prime Minister, asserted that Canadians reserve the right to control our airspace regardless of what the American forces deploy, while the Minister of Foreign Affairs made the more practical observation that the American military would do what they thought necessary to protect American cities, regardless of what Canada said, and regardless of whether or not we signed off on the program. Reporters and commentators covered these political twist and turns without much analysis of some of the important issues this program raises: can the technology achieve what its supporters claim? If it works, what costs and long range effects will it have? And, in the end, what moral implications does this involve?

Considering that no nation makes a full disclosure of its ballistic missile and warhead capabilities, no technology can provide any really certain ability to intercept a hostile warhead. However, certain technical principles probably do apply to a ballistic missile defence program. Given what we know about the failures in this particular program (both the long range interceptor tests failed completely) , the decision to deploy the system seems, at the very least, premature. It makes little sense to attempt to deploy a system that must always work the first time before it routinely passes its operational tests.

An answer to the technical question of the reliability of the system merely raises another more important question: what does it mean to say the system will work? What does a ballistic missile defence system actually do?

The shift from deterrence to missile defence shifts the approach to a conflict in a fundamental way. The approach to conflict implied by deterrence accepts the impossibility of defence and the unlikelihood of survival. It evokes a willingness to suffer and endure, a conviction that chooses unlimited suffering or even death over dishonour or indignity. E. Pauline Johnson, the Mohawk poet, wrote of a warrior who danced to his death on hot coals rather than submit to his captors; his choice captures the fatalism which accepts both the impossibility of winning, and the vital importance of not capitulating. In the same way, our society for many years accepted that we could never win a nuclear war, but we must not, at any cost, capitulate to nuclear blackmail. The introduction of missile defence changes the paradigm to one of combat, in which a person or nation can not merely endure, but can survive through prowess. It gives a sense of control, that the image of stubborn, brave endurance does not. It also makes a nuclear conflict seem possible to win.

This raises the moral argument. Considering the slim possibility that an enemy with nuclear warheads would ever consider using missiles to deliver them, and considering the poor performance of the system to date, selling the public on a system to combat nuclear missiles does not seem very moral. At best, it will only waste money. At worst, it will lead the government and the public into some very imprudent policies, based on illusions about the power of their weapons to protect them. Conservatives often cite the courage of Ronald Reagan in confronting the Soviet “evil empire”, but Reagan never told the American people that he preferred the devastation of a nuclear war to the indignity of leaving millions of people without freedom. Instead, he claimed to have a technical solution to the problem: a vast array of computers and lasers that would fight a nuclear war and protect the United States. That reluctance to face the reality of what an attack with nuclear weapons would really mean reduced the moral confrontation with the USSR, at least partly, to an exercise in self deception.

John Spragge is president of Dancing Cat Software of Toronto Ontario and Ann Arbor Michigan. His Medicine Line columns appear from time to time in the Ethical Spectacle.