Know comment: Missile defence shields

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McGill Reporter
March 22, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 13
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > March 22, 2001 > Know comment: Missile defence shields

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Missile Defence Shields


Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has been the target of some high-level lobbying efforts in recent months and the reason behind that has much to do with the United States' renewed commitment to an ambitious missile defence shield. Bush's support for a hi-tech defence network that would protect the U.S. and its allies from nuclear missile attacks has sparked much concern in Moscow and Beijing. Russia and China are wary of how the Americans would use such a system.

Chrétien has been cagey about where he stands, but the leaders of the U.S., Britain, Russia and China have all recently raised the subject with him in meetings. We asked political science professor T.V. Paul, an expert on nuclear weapons and international security issues and the author of Power Versus Prudence: Why Nations Forgo Nuclear Weapons, for his thoughts.

What's the history behind America's plans for a missile defence shield?

The idea had its origins with Ronald Reagan and his "Star Wars" plan. Reagan was honestly quite upset that the U.S. faced these threats from nuclear weapons and he challenged the scientific community to come up with ways to protect the country. It didn't succeed.

With the end of the Cold War, the talk behind missile defence systems changed. It wasn't the Russians the U.S. worried about anymore, it was "rogue nations" such as Iraq or North Korea that might launch an attack one day.

Bill Clinton wasn't that keen about the [shield]; his administration studied it but decided that the technology just wasn't there. But George W. Bush is very keen.


There are different opinions about why. One school of thought is that [the new U.S. administration] is genuinely concerned about possible attacks. In military circles there are many who support the idea, but that's part of their mindset, they plan for worst case scenarios.

Another view is that the U.S. is determined to push its technological superiority as far as it can. The U.S. is the only remaining superpower in the world, but nuclear weapons are the great equalizer. The U.S. doesn't want to be confined by MAD (mutually assured destruction) anymore. They want to be the global power with few restraints on their behaviour.

Can the missile defence shield actually work?

That's very difficult to predict. So far, no. They haven't managed to be very accurate. But things can change very quickly in science. Still, no defence is perfect. I don't think they'll ever achieve a 100% success rate.

What are some of the possible threats of this new emphasis on a missile defence system?

Mikhail Gorbachev talked about simply increasing the number of Russian missiles as a strategy for overcoming [a defence shield]. China has already warned of a 10-fold increase in its ICBM force [if the U.S. pursues the shield]. If China starts building up, the impact on India could be tremendous. And if India starts building up, of course Pakistan will respond. The fear is that this could lead to a new arms race. The Russians and the Chinese might mine space with anti-communication satellite devices [to try to disrupt the American system]. I think the biggest danger is that this could lead to the militarization of space.

What should Canada do?

Canada has to be part of a technological shield for North America. I can't see Canada saying "no." We will be under intense pressure from the Americans. Canada can try to cushion the effect of all this, but it has to work with other NATO allies; it can't do it alone. We can try to get China and Russia on board, possibly by sharing some of the technology. The U.S., despite being the "winner" of the Cold War, is too insecure in its position. They could be playing the leading role in making the world a safer place. There is a window of opportunity and they're missing it.

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