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COLIN PERKEL

Friday, February 24, 2006

TORONTO — A former top Pentagon official is warning Canada not to join Washington's missile defence program, calling it a colossal waste of money that would make the country more vulnerable to attack, not less.

In fact, Canada should be leading international talks to prevent the weaponization of space, said Phil Coyle, who was assistant secretary of defence and senior weapons tester at the U.S. Department of Defence from 1994 to 2001.

"The concept of missile defence is quite seductive," Coyle said Thursday in an interview with The Canadian Press.

But, he added, "it's destabilizing, it's incredibly expensive, and it doesn't work."

A year ago, former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin pulled the plug on Canadian participation in developing and deploying a system that would, in theory, shoot incoming missiles out of the sky before they strike North American targets.

The decision drew pointed scorn from the American ambassador at the time, Paul Cellucci, who called it a "perplexing, astounding" and "disappointing" decision that amounted to Canada wimping out and hiding behind the skirts of the U.S. military.

"If there's a missile incoming, and it's heading toward Canada, you are going to leave it up to the United States to determine what to do about that missile," Cellucci said during a speech in Toronto last year.

"We don't think that is in Canada's sovereign interest."

The new Tory government under Stephen Harper has been musing about revisiting the decision; Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor said Thursday he's willing to reopen the debate.

"In principle, I don't have difficulty, personally, with ballistic missile defence," O'Connor said.

Coyle, who is in Canada for a seminar on missile defence Friday at the National Press Club in Ottawa, warned against going that route.

"You don't get anything for your investment," he said. "All you get is a scarecrow defence."

Currently, Washington is spending about $10-billion US a year on the missile-defence system; two weeks ago, President George W. Bush asked Congress for $11.1-billion US for the program in 2007 — close to Canada's entire defence budget.

Despite the mammoth infusion of cash, Coyle said the system will never work.

Trying to hit an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile is like trying to score a hole-in-one on a green that's not only moving at 15,000 miles per hour, but also covered with holes identical to the one you're aiming at, he said.

He also said the threats the Pentagon cites as its justification for the program are bogus, warning that the system would inevitably spark a new arms race and lead to the weaponization of space.

"That's where Canada has drawn the line and it's a practical place to draw the line," Coyle said.

Taking part would increase the likelihood that friendly countries such as China would regard Canada with increased hostility, while refusing to get involved would not hurt our relations with the U.S., he added.

"Canada's place in the hearts of Americans is secure," he said.

"There's no country in the world that is as well regarded, admired and engenders as much affection in Americans as Canada does. Nothing is going to change there."

That affection also makes Canada ideally situated to persuade the Americans to rethink their plans, Coyle added.

© The Globe and Mail