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Norad: Lives on the 'Line'

One of the most terrifying visions of the Cold War was the spectre of Soviet bombers and nuclear missiles crossing the Arctic toward North America. To protect the continent, Canada and the United States created Norad, the North American Aerospace Defense Command: a vast array of electronic eyes forever sweeping over the continent. But the world changed since the 1950s, and Norad shifted focus to monitor drug trafficking and terrorism. Yet critics call the organization an expensive monument to the Cold War, and a first step on the slippery slope to weapons in space.

Norad's radar defence system is in trouble. Advances in Soviet missile technology have shattered the illusion that North America can be protected from airborne attack. The best hope now is early detection, and that means manned stations in the high arctic. But working and living at a Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line station is a heck of an assignment. As mechanic Bob Bird describes in this clip, you don't go outside much when your office is 320 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.
. When Canada and the United States began coordinating radar defences, two radar lines crossed Canada. The Pinetree Line, which was planned as early as 1946, ran from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. The more northerly and more advanced Mid-Canada Line (or McGill Fence) ran across the middle of Canada.

. Missile technology quickly rendered these lines all but obsolete. In February 1954, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower approved paying for the construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line across the high Arctic.
. This northernmost line of radar stations crossed the Canadian Arctic, Alaska, Greenland and Iceland, approximately along the 69th parallel. Construction of the 63 DEW Line stations was paid for by the Americans, using some 25,000 Canadian labourers.

. The massive project used an estimated half a million tons of construction material, including enough gravel to make a road from Vancouver to Halifax.
. The DEW Line came online in 1957 and became the cornerstone of Norad's detection capabilities. Most of the stations were run by the Royal Canadian Air Force, though some were jointly operated with U.S. Air Force staff.

. Eventually, missile technology - including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched missiles - rendered the DEW Line ineffective. In 1985, Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan signed the North American Air Defence Modernization agreement at the "Shamrock Summit" (see the clip Sealing the friendship with a song in the topic Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement).

. Some of the remaining DEW Line stations were upgraded and integrated with the new North Warning System, a 4,800-kilometre electronic "trip wire" of 52 radar stations across the north, many of which operate unattended. The DEW Line was officially shut down in 1993.
Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio Special
Broadcast Date: June 18, 1959
Guest(s): Bob Bird
Host: Peter Stursberg
Duration: 7:51

Last updated: May 23, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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