Continental Defence - Mid-Canada Warning Line

Canadian External Relations - 1954


Volume #20 - 466.









Extract from Minutes of Meeting
of Cabinet Defence Committee

Top Secret

[Ottawa], June 25th, 1954


1. The Minister of National Defence said that at its 96th meeting the Cabinet Defence Committee had authorized the planning and construction by Canada of an aircraft early warning line in the vicinity of the 55th parallel without prejudice to a later decision on the division of costs between Canada and the United States. The decision had been communicated to the United States and concurred in by the U.S. Chiefs of Staff. As a result, the R.C.A.F. and the U.S.A.F. had been instructed to undertake a study to develop the military characteristics, specifications for types of equipment to be used, cost estimates and manpower requirements for this line, and to report not later than June 1, 1954. The study had not yet been completed in all details and planning was continuing, but enough work had been done to determine the general order of cost, manpower requirements and timing for construction of the line. The cost of that portion running from Hopedale on the Labrador Coast to the mountains west of Edmonton would be of the order of $120 million. Broken down by fiscal years the expenditure might amount to: 1954-55, $5 million; 1955-56, $40 million; 1956-57, $50 million; 1957-58, $25 million. There were uncertainties as to the location of the remainder of the system in British Columbia to the Pacific Coast, but its cost might be about $20 million. Manpower requirements were estimated to be 600 men on the line with a further 300 - 600 necessary for support. If authority were given now for the building, excluding the part in British Columbia, the line could be in operation by the end of 1957. Its construction as a Canadian project would mean that there would be only one authority making decisions, there would be fewer delays, a better possibility of controlling costs and a better chance of avoiding suggestions that Canada should take part in the provision of sea wings for the possible North American overall warning system which was now being given serious consideration in the United States.

An explanatory memorandum had been circulated.

(Memorandum, Minister of National Defence, June 18, 1954 - Document D9-54).

2. The Acting Chief of the Air Staff briefed the Committee on the existing warning system and on probable future requirements. He indicated where the radars of the "Pinetree" line were situated, where the warning devices in Greenland were located, and where the proposed mid-continent line would be. The line at present under consideration would consist mainly of equipment of the McGill Fence type, supplemented by scanning radars. It would provide high and low cover; that is, as low as 300 feet and up to 60,000 feet. It would detect inbound and outbound aircraft but could not identify them. Through further developments in the future, it might be possible to improve the type of equipment contemplated to help meet the identification difficulties. The approximate distance between the mid-Canada line and the "Pinetree" line ran from 300 to 400 miles. The primary purpose of the mid-Canada line was to provide a warning to enable fighters to get into the air in sufficient time to meet attacking bombers. It was assumed that the primary targets of Soviet bombers would be the U.S. Strategic Air Command bases. The existence of a line along the 55th parallel would therefore provide an additional hour's warning for take off and dispersal of this Command's aircraft.

It would be recalled that as a result of reports emanating from the Lincoln Laboratories, Canada had also been asked to agree to the establishment of a test line further north straddling the Alaska-Yukon boundary. Canada had signified its agreement to this request and the experiment, known as Operation "Corrode", was taking place. As part of the operation, a joint Canada-U.S. reconnaissance had been made of a possible distant early warning system stretching generally along the line Aklavik-Cambridge Bay-Frobisher Bay.

With the new developments in Russian long-range aircraft, the U.S. authorities were becoming increasingly anxious to have a full continental warning system in operation as soon as possible. Part of the system would include a distant early warning line, and it appeared likely that the United States would soon press for its establishment on the northern coast of the continent. The line by itself would, however, be of little value because attacking aircraft could fly around the ends, mainly towards targets on the U.S. seaboards. The U.S. Chiefs of Staff had therefore agreed in principle to the establishment of sea wings, stretching from Kodiak Island to Hawaii in the Pacific, and from Cape Race to the Azores in the Atlantic. There would, however, still be a gap south of Greenland and the matter was being studied further to see whether or not it would be advisable to have a line running from Cape Race to Bluie West in Greenland. The most desirable wing in the Atlantic would run from a suitable location on the East Coast to the United Kingdom via Greenland and Iceland. The present estimate of cost for the sea wings as contemplated was of the order of $5 to $6 billion. The Canadian Chiefs of Staff considered it advisable to proceed first with the mid-continent line because the Aklavik-Cambridge Bay-Frobisher Bay line was too far forward, and did not work outwards from existing defences. On the other hand, the shortest distances from Soviet bases to the important targets in North America were across Canada, and for civil defence purposes and for safety of SAC aircraft and bases, sea wings were considered essential.

3. In the course of discussion the following points emerged:

(a) The third interim report of the Canada-U.S. Military Study Group, which had been set up to examine the general requirements for early warning, recommended that Canada and the United States agree in principle to the need for establishing a distant early warning line across the most northerly part of North America. This line had become known as the DEW line. The report had just been received and the Canadian Chiefs of Staff had not yet had an opportunity to study the recommendation fully, but they would do so soon. The U.S. Chiefs of Staff had likewise not studied the proposal, but they had indicated that they did not propose to be stampeded into building such a line without a thorough examination of its implications. It could be assumed, however, that a proposal to establish it would soon be forthcoming from the United States. Canadian service authorities had not in the past been put under great pressure by the United States to do anything which they had not been prepared to do or which they had thought inadvisable. As far as the DEW line was concerned, it could be inferred that we would be asked to participate in its establishment jointly with the United States.

(b) The northern line would be of little value without the sea wings. If these were not found to be practical, the request to construct it would not likely be made. The mid-continent line, however, stood on its own feet because it made air defence more effective, and gave an earlier warning to SAC and to civil defence authorities than "Pinetree" did.

(c) There was increasing pressure in the United States, particularly from certain Congressional quarters, to speed up the preparations for continental defence. If Canada indicated now that it would construct the line running along the 55th parallel, accusations could not be made that we were not doing our share in protecting the continent. If we held up on the mid-continent line, we might find ourselves engaged eventually in a joint operation with the United States at a greater cost and with less control than we otherwise would have had. There would also be the added delays involved in consultation over the type of equipment to be used, plans, specifications, and the like. On the other hand, if it were to be a Canadian project, the U.S. authorities should be kept fully informed of the technical details and of the construction processes, in order to ensure that the early warning line met the operational requirements of both U.S. and Canadian Air Forces.

(d) It would be desirable to put the responsibility for construction on one prime contractor. This might be done through the Trans-Canada Telephone Association, an organization of telephone companies with the Bell Telephone Company in the dominant position. Civilian engineers and technicians had already been brought in on the surveys and on the planning.

(e) It would be possible to construct the line on a crash programme basis in a much shorter time, but it was considered essential to ensure that the equipment to be used worked properly and that experience be gained before attempting to build the whole line. For this reason, it was proposed to establish in 1955 a test section in the Flin Flon area, to permit machinery and apparatus to be checked and difficulties to be ironed out. The remaining sections of the line could then be built in later seasons. If the whole project were attempted at once, serious problems might be encountered, involving higher expenditures than presently envisaged. The major elements in the cost of the project as presently planned would be those for construction and power facilities; the detecting devices themselves would be relatively inexpensive. While it appeared likely that improvements would be added over the years, these too would be relatively inexpensive, since their installation would not require additional construction or power facilities.

(f) Experience gained in Operation "Corrode" indicated that there would probably be disagreement in American quarters over the type of equipment which should be used on the DEW line. There was in fact no one technical view there on this point. However, this would be sorted out by the U.S. Air Force in due course. The views of the civilian contractor on the project were almost identical with those of the Canadian Defence Research Board in support of the McGill fence as against the scheme proposed by the Lincoln Laboratories. The latter, if accepted, would be more expensive and involve more manpower.

(g) No satisfactory system of identification of aircraft existed at the present time. In the United States, the number of passing aircraft was taken from scanning radars. If this particular number went above a certain arbitrary figure, a warning was given. The scientists were still confronted with the problem of evaluating the McGill fence as against the scanning radar. The mid-continent line involved stations of the McGill fence type about every 35 miles, with every tenth station being a reporting centre to which the signals from the unmanned equipment came in, at which evaluations were made, and from which repair and maintenance crews went out to check the other stations.

(h) The mid-continent line was programmed over a four-year period and its financing could be carried out through a re-arrangement of priorities in the Department of National Defence, if necessary, but within the existing defence appropriations which were now contemplated for the next few years.

(i) If Canada accepted full responsibility for the construction and the cost of the mid-continent line, it might be found that all available resources were committed, with nothing left over for use on the far northern line if it were to be built. At that point, pressure from the United States might be so great that we could not resist allowing them to construct it alone. The political consequences, if this were the case, would be most undesirable.

(j) Even if Canada built the mid-continent line alone, efforts should be made to agree on division of costs and work on the DEW line as was done in the "Pinetree" operation. Present American thinking envisaged it being constructed in one season as a task force operation and, regardless of how the cost might ultimately be shared, it seemed quite likely that the United States would have to play a major part in the transportation of the necessary equipment, simply because Canada did not have enough ships or aircraft. For the same reason, the United States would have a significant role to play in the supply and maintenance of the line. Some estimates of cost had been given for the project but these appeared to be quite inaccurate and it was not possible at this stage to say what amount of money would be involved.

(k) The U.S. Chiefs of Staff had been informed that the Canadian Chiefs of Staff would let them know by the end of June whether Canada would construct the mid-continent line alone, or whether other arrangements should be made.

4. The Committee, after further discussion:

(a) agreed to recommend that an aircraft warning line in the vicinity of the 55th parallel of latitude from Hopedale in Labrador to the mountains on the B.C.-Alberta border be constructed by Canada at a cost estimated to be of the order of $120 million, the money to be provided from current appropriations for the Department of National Defence and the appropriations now contemplated for the next few years; it being understood that the construction of the section of the line from the B.C.-Alberta border to the Pacific Ocean would be considered at a later meeting following further studies;

(b) noted that a proposal to construct a distant early warning line running along the northern coast of the continent would likely be made in the near future and that it would be desirable that this line be built as a joint Canada-United States project;

(c) agreed that once the final decision had been taken by the Cabinet with respect to (a) above, the Permanent Joint Board on Defence should be so informed.

27 Approuvé par le Cabinet le 30 juin 1954.
    Approved by Cabinet, June 30, 1954.