09/20/2013 08:17 EDT | Updated 11/20/2013 05:12 EST

Canada Must Strengthen Its Missile Defence

We Canadians have big neighbours, the Americans, with whom we share most of a continent. We help them defend it -- just look at the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), guarding both Americans and Canadians against manned bombing raids for more than half a century.

But we're not Washington's slaves; we're their independent partners. Look how Jean Chrétien told George W. Bush we weren't going to join his folly in Iraq. Look how Paul Martin told George W. that we weren't going to join the U.S. ballistic missile defence program, designed to defend against unmanned missiles that rogue states like North Korea or Iran may decide to fire at western countries.

So are we shirkers or independent thinkers? Turning down Iraq was independent thinking, and good thinking at that. But refusing to share in ballistic missile defence smacks is starting to look more and more like shirking.

What the Americans did was invite Canada to join a lot of other countries in Europe and Asia as supporters of the missile defence shield that the U.S. has ramped up to fend off rogue missiles. We declined.

The shield the Americans have built without us will never be capable of defending against massive missile attacks from muscular countries like Russia or China. Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" never got off the ground, so for the big boys we have to depend on nuclear deterrence to keep things sane. On a smaller scale, however, there is an increasing likelihood that squirts like North Korea or Iran will try something loony.

Unlikely? Perhaps. But, in the 21st-century, it's probably more likely than manned bombers coming at us over the North Pole from Russia -- the reason we invest in NORAD.

Washington doesn't appear to be counting on Canada to contribute a lot of resources to shielding against wild card attacks. Their primary interest seems to be wanting us to climb on board to broaden a network that already includes many like-minded nations, including Britain, Australia, Japan, Germany, Italy, Israel, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Romania and Turkey. Some of these countries have simply agreed to host radar facilities. A few others have acquired ships capable of launching defensive missiles.

Most facilities needed to defend North America are already in place. The U.S. already has anti-missile launching bases at Clear Air Force Base in Alaska and Beale Air Force Base in California, with plans in the works for another somewhere in the northeast part of the country -- probably Maine. Massive radar facilities are in place in Alaska and Thule, Greenland and Fylingdales in the U.K.

The Americans already have 28 Aegis missile-launching cruisers and destroyers on the waters, the Australians three, the Japanese six, Spain five, Norway five and South Korea three. So it is unlikely that Washington will be calling on Canada for support in this area.

Suffice it to say that the U.S. has put a system in place that will protect our sovereignty and theirs. But we shouldn't be leaving our sovereignty in somebody else's hands. We need to be at the table, involved in the decision making.

We're certainly at the table in NORAD. We have more than a hundred military personnel deployed to its headquarters at Colorado Springs and we staff and operate the backup facility at North Bay. Canadian military officers have traditionally occupied the second-highest NORAD command position -- currently that is LGen. Alain Parent.

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Parent acts in concert with U.S. General Charles Jacoby Jr., who is the Commander of NORAD and NORTHCOM, which includes ballistic missile defence among it responsibilities. If a hostile force sends bombers at North America, Canada has input into the NORAD response. If it's a missile attack that may well involve potential damage to Canadian territory, we're out of the picture. General Jacoby and his American team are on their own.

In essence, we're guessing that the Americans are covering our backs, but with limited knowledge, and no input into how our backs might be covered.

It is difficult to say why that is the case today. Seven years ago there were arguments against participating that were at least coated with a thin veneer of reason. One argument was that missile defence would inevitably lead to nuclear weapons in space, but that isn't at all the direction the program has taken. The shield isn't based in space. Its installations are on land and at sea.

Another argument was that the initiative would incite the Russians to bulk up their nuclear arsenal. But the Russians haven't murmured anything more than mild unpleasantries about the program, and certainly haven't gone on a military spending spree to upgrade attack capabilities.

My guess why we didn't sign on is this: seven years ago it was smart politics in Canada -- especially in Quebec -- to say no to George W. Bush on anything involving the military, because Bush seemed to be on some wacky world mission. So Paul Martin said "no."

However, Martin's Conservative successors have promoted themselves as much more concerned than their Liberal predecessors about beefing up Canada's defences. They have also expressed their willingness to work with the United States on matters of mutual military concern.

Which makes you wonder. Why hasn't Stephen Harper gone to Barack Obama and said "We've changed our minds."

Beats me.

When then public safety minister Vic Toews was queried last April as to whether Canada needs missiles in its arsenal to achieve its most essential duty -- the physical security of its citizens -- Toews replied:

"I think we need to have a broader discussion about that and I'm not prepared to venture an opinion at this time. What I can say is cooperation with our allies, especially in relation to a terrorism-related threat, is absolutely essential to keeping Canadians safe."

Of course it is. Time to come out of the shadows. Time to act like a sovereign nation willing to defend its interests with the assistance of its No. 1 friend.

[Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.]

*This oped originally appeared in the National Post, September 16, 2013