Our ships, but US hands on the weapons

"An extraordinary arrangement that regularly has Canadian ships sailing under US command"

HALIFAX (10 January 2004) -- American fingers on the trigger of Canadian missiles. That's the next phase of an extraordinary arrangement that regularly has Canadian ships sailing under US command. There is no other navy in the world that works as closely with the United States as Canada -- not Australia, not France, not even Great Britain. While Ottawa politicians debate the wisdom of joining a land-based ballistic missile defence system and whether to have a combined North American security perimeter, the Canadian navy has quietly developed a new level of integration with the United States that is unmatched on the planet -- or in history. In the parlance of military planners, Canada is the only country in the world with full "interoperability" with the United States navy. That means Canadian frigates are the only foreign vessels that sail with US battle carrier groups and Canadian destroyers are the only foreign vessels completely linked to the US satellite intelligence system.

Dan Middlemiss, a political science professor at Dalhousie University, is one of many experts in the field who believe the navy's commitment to interoperability is crucial to Canada-US relations. "It really means everything," he says. "It has us punching above the waist where it counts. The navy is the one satisfying our alliance dues right now."

Michael Byers, director of Canadian studies at Duke University in North Carolina, disagrees. He says interoperability is too expensive and endangers Canadian sovereignty. "National control over our military is an essential characteristic of a country," Byers says. "Inter-operability puts pressure on that."

Eric Lerhe is a hands-on expert in the science of interoperability. Lerhe commanded a Canadian task force sent to help the United States fight terrorism in Afghanistan. His group, augmented by ships from several other countries, spent six months guarding the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial shipping lane for oil tankers, smugglers and terrorists. The group was sailing under US command when Canadian crews seized four suspected members of Al Qaeda and turned them over to US authorities.

The way interoperability works, he says, is this: Any Canadian ship sailing under US command has two bosses: a Canadian officer who gives detailed orders about what the Canadian ship can and can't do while working with the Americans, and a US officer who tells the Canadians what military manoeuvres to perform. In Operation Apollo, Canada's contribution to the US-led war on terror, Ottawa gave Canadian ships almost completely open orders, and said they could do everything from boarding boats to detaining foreign prisoners if asked to by the US commander. Lerhe's group searched hundreds of small boats. The routine was to take pictures, which were digitally transmitted to US authorities in Tampa, Fla., to determine if any suspected terrorists were on board.

One night in July, 2002, a crew from HMCS Algonquin found four men whose photos were on the wanted list in Florida. Before handing the suspects to US authorities, Lerhe called Ottawa and he also asked US officials to reveal who the men were and what they were suspected of doing. That kind of calm give and take may be a luxury of history in the next phase of interoperability, when decision times will be measured in seconds, not minutes. The next phase is called co-operative engagement capability. The system is already installed and being tested on American destroyers. It allows the destroyers to turn over control of their weapon systems to another ship or plane, even if the ship is very far away. Canada's Department of National Defence Web site suggests that Canadian ships have also installed the new remote-control weapon system, that the MK41 vertical anti-aircraft missile on Canadian destroyers has a new Block IIIA missile that can be controlled from afar. According to the site, the Block IIIA missile can travel at speeds up to Mach 2 and has a range of 170 kilometres. But according to the men and women who actually buy the missiles and run the ships, the Block IIIA doesn't really exist -- yet. "I think the Web site was perhaps suggesting the direction we hope Ottawa will take," said one Navy source who asked not to be named. "It doesn't exist right now. We don't have any Block III A missiles." But few doubt they are coming.

The reason Canada wants to get them eventually, Lerhe says, is that co-operative engagement capability may be the only way to defend ships in the future. For instance, if a missile travelling at Mach 2 is headed toward a Canadian destroyer, the ship may not have the time to defend itself after it detects the missile. If a US radar plane sees the missile first, he says, it may need to launch the destroyer's anti-aircraft weapons remotely to protect the ship. "There may be no time to ask, to communicate at all," Lerhe says. "If you want to talk about it, you're going to be dead." The problem, he says, is that there are bound to be accidents eventually.

Before approving the weapon system, Ottawa will have to decide if it is willing to risk a scenario in which a Canadian missile guided by Americans kills innocent civilians.

It is that kind of scenario that has Byers worried most. "I would be very worried about having US commanders having direct control over weapon systems on Canadian ships," he says. "That goes beyond interoperability from a policy perspective."

The navy officially responded to Star questions about the new system late this week. Contrary to information provided by academics, its own Web site and several of its own officers, the navy has no intention of using co-operative engagement capability with the United States, says Major Tony White of navy public affairs. "We would never allow anybody else to fire our own weapons," he says. "We are not in the stage now, nor will we be in the future, to allow other forces to control our weapon systems."

Joseph Jockel, a professor of Canadian studies at Saint Lawrence University in New York, pays particular attention to the relationship of the two militaries. He too was under the impression that Canadian ships already carry the remote-control weapons, but he sees little difference between a Canadian firing a weapon at the request of a US commander and a US official setting off the Canadian weapon himself. The weapon system wouldn't be turned over to US control unless everybody agreed about the mission and its rules, he says. "The military spends endless time working out these details," he says.

The most important aspect of interoperability, he says, is not military might, it is political goodwill. The significance of interoperability is that it allows Canada to show political support for the US quickly in difficult times by showing up immediately, Jockel says. "Even if it's only one ship, that allows the United States to check off (the) box, to show the rest of the world it isn't acting alone and that it has friends," he says. "The box gets checked and gets checked in a significant way."

Lerhe disagrees that interoperability will lead to a loss of sovereignty. He cites the war in Iraq as an example of how Canada's foreign policy and international goals can remain distinct while serving under US command. Last year, Canada was accused of fudging its decision not to join the war because Canadian sailors were screening people in the Arabian Sea through a US intelligence system that lumped together suspected Al Qaeda terrorists and Iraqi officials. However, the Canadian commander told the news media he wouldn't arrest Iraqis if he found any. "The argument that interoperability will cause you to be led by the nose to the American war machine has just been proven dramatically incorrect," Lerhe says. "The most contentious issue will always be that one of independence. Some believe that if you become too involved with the Americans, you lose your sovereignty. But the opposite is also true: If you don't become involved with the Americans, there goes your sovereignty."

*Kelly Toughill is chief, Atlantic Canada Bureau, Toronto Star

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