Distant Early Warning Line

From Academic Kids

Missing image
A rough map of the three warning lines

The Distant Early Warning Line, also known as the DEW Line or Early Warning Line, was a system of radar stations in the far northern Arctic region of Canada, with additional stations along the North Coast and Aleutian Islands of Alaska, in addition to Greenland and Iceland. It was set up to detect incoming Soviet bombers and missiles during the Cold War, a task which quickly became outdated when intercontinental ballistic missiles became the main delivery system for nuclear weapons.

The DEW Line was the northernmost and most capable of three radar lines in Canada; the joint Canada/US Pinetree Line ran from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island, and the Mid-Canada Line ran somewhat north of this.

Improvements in Soviet technology made these two lines inadequate and on February 15, 1954, the Canadian and American governments agreed to jointly build a third line of radar stations, this time running across the high Arctic. The line would run roughly along the 69th parallel, 320 km north of the Arctic Circle. The Americans agreed to pay for the line using Canadian labour. The majority of Canadian DEW Line stations were the responsibility of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Canadian Armed Forces after 1968) although some manned facilities were jointly staffed with the U.S. Air Force.

The massive construction project employed over 25,000 people. The line consisted of sixty-three stations stretching from Alaska to Baffin Island, covering almost 10,000 km. The project was finished in 1957 and was considered an engineering marvel. The next year, the line became a cornerstone of the new NORAD organization of joint continental air defence.

There were three types of stations: small unmanned ones that were checked by aircrews only every few months during the summer; intermediate stations with only a chief, a chef, and a mechanic; and larger stations that had a variable number of employees and may have had libraries, movie projectors, and other distractions.

Quite quickly after its completion, the line lost much of its purpose. It was useless against ICBMs and submarine-launched attacks. A number of stations were decommissioned, but the bulk were retained to monitor potential Soviet air activities and to assert Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic.

In 1985, the more capable DEW Line stations were upgraded and merged with newly-built stations into the North Warning System. Automation was increased and a number of additional stations were closed. In 1990, with the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, the Americans withdrew all their personnel and turned full operation of the Canadian stations over to Canada, while retaining responsibility for NWS stations located in Alaska and Greenland.

A controversy also developed between the United States and Canada over the cleanup of deactivated DEW Line sites. The stations had produced large amounts of hazardous waste that had been abandoned in the high Arctic. Especially damaging were the large quantities of PCBs. The United States insisted that it was Canada's responsibility to pay the hundreds of millions in dollars of necessary cleanup, the Canadian government disagreed. In 1996, an agreement was reached that saw the Americans contribute $100 million to the estimated $300 million cleanup effort.

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