The DEW Line at 65: The Uncertain Future for Aging Northern Radar Sites

Strictly speaking, the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line – a 4,800 kilometer radar network stretching across Canada’s Northern Territories and Alaska – is a distant memory of the anxiety of the Cold War.

Many of the more than 60 radar sites, built on the northern tundra in the 1950s, have long since followed the path of so many other Cold War remnants around the world, abandoned and dismantled. Others were rebuilt to form part of the successor to the North Warning System.

This month of July will mark 65 years since the first phase of the DEW Line became operational. The concept behind it was simple: it would detect bombers if Soviet Russia launched a nuclear attack on North America by the shortest route, over the Arctic. It was to have a deterrent effect.

Within a few years, it was largely obsolete. Some of the radar sites were upgraded in the 1980s to become part of the North Warning System, now jointly operated by the United States and Canada.

But this system is also aging. And with renewed anxiety over Russian aggression and North American security and surveillance, one wonders if a series of decades-old radar sites still has much to offer.

Is the DEW Line – or what’s left of it – finally complete?

The DEW Line radar sites, indicated by black dots, stretched across North America from Baffin Island to Alaska. Some have been rebuilt to become part of the North Warning System, while others have been dismantled. (Christopher Johnson/Department of National Defence)

“I think the North Warning system as it exists today will be replaced rather than renovated,” said Adam Lajeunenesse, an Arctic security analyst at St. Francis Xavier University.

“And what it will be replaced by is the big question.”

Canada “doing its part”

The federal government has promised major investments to modernize NORAD, but has not yet offered details. Defense Minister Anita Anand recently told CBC The House that a plan was being prepared to increase defense capabilities in the Arctic and in North America.

Asked about a Ottawa Citizen’s Report claiming that Canada would spend $1 billion on a new radar system in southern Canada, Anand did not confirm.

“Canada is doing its part in terms of modernizing NORAD,” she said. “I will have more to say on this very soon.”

CBC News: The House11:40The government defends its defense commitments

Defense Minister Anita Anand details her discussions with close allies at two major meetings this week and how the billions of dollars in new defense spending will be used. 11:40

The construction of the DEW Line, designed by the US Air Force as a series of manned radar stations scattered in a line “twisting through arctic deserts” (in the language of the US military documents) started in 1954 with the agreement of Canada. The United States paid for most of it, while Canada worked hard to publicize it as a joint effort.

Its construction was no small feat, but given the harsh climate and the remoteness of the chosen sites along the 68th parallel, it was done in a remarkably short time.

In this it resembled the Alaska Highway, another feat of military engineering a decade earlier. And like the Alaska Highway, the DEW Line permanently altered the culture of the North as much as the landscape.

The DEW Line has a mixed heritage, says Natan Obed, president of the national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. It’s something he and many Inuit have given a lot of thought to, he says.

“I can think off the top of my head of a dozen different communities that have the infrastructure that they have only because of the militarization at this time,” he said.

“The aviation infrastructure that was built during this period continues to be the basic aviation infrastructure in our country, whether we are in Inuvik, Kuujjuaq, Iqaluit or Coral Harbour.

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, says the DEW Line legacy in northern communities is mixed. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

At the same time, says Obed, the northern development that came with the DEW Line was not designed with the specific needs of Inuit in mind.

“It wasn’t really community building,” he says.

Inuit were often hired to work on the sites, and for some it was their first introduction to wage labor. Housing for DEW Line workers would follow, and Inuit were encouraged to settle in the communities.

Speaking to the Inuit-led Qikiqtani Truth Commission several years later, Elder Joe Piallaq of Hall Beach, Nunavut, recalled working at the nearby DEW Line site when he was young. He told how he and his brother bought an engine, tents and ammunition with their wages.

“At the time, we were just happy with whatever we were paid with,” Piallaq said, in Inuktitut.

Today, the North Warning System is operated and maintained by the Inuit-controlled Nassituq Corporation, under contract to the federal government.

In a statement announcing the seven-year, $592 million contract earlier this year, the Department of Defense said it would “continue to invest in the operation and maintenance of the current [North Warning System] until a suitable replacement is in place.”

Built for another era

The construction and operation of the DEW Line may have permanently changed life in the North in the 1950s, but according to Lajeunesse, the warning system itself was virtually obsolete within a few years.

“It was built for an era of manned bombers,” he said.

“Within probably half a decade, certainly within a decade, after it was built, the Soviets were relying on ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] as their primary delivery mechanism for their strategic weapons.”

By the 1980s, the DEW Line—as a series of manned radar stations—was no more. A decades-long clean-up project would begin at some of the sites and the rest were incorporated into the North Warning System.

The North Warning System is made up of 47 long-range and short-range unmanned radar stations, which stretch across the North from Labrador to Alaska. The federal government says it’s time to invest in a modernized system. (Courtesy Nasittuq Corporation)

This system is now largely obsolete according to Rob Huebert, Arctic defense specialist at the University of Calgary.

“The thing is, we haven’t modernized it or done anything since 1985,” Huebert said.

“It’s marginally useful in being able to identify and detect ICBMs. So, in other words, the really big ones that will be the doomsday type missile – we can detect them, sort of…but that doesn’t tell you. will not allow to detect hypersonics.”

Hypersonic missiles can travel at more than five times the speed of sound and have vast ranges. The technology can float and weave through the atmosphere and avoid being intercepted en route to its target. Commander of NORAD, General Glen VanHerck warned senior Canadian government and military leaders last fall that the threat posed by hypersonic missile technology to North American security made it “very difficult” for him to accomplish his mission.

Huebert was alarmed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. He believes that Putin’s authoritarian regime wants to destabilize NATO and that Russia therefore represents “a growing existential threat to Canadian security”.

“The aerospace and maritime threat is real and growing,” Huebert said.

A former DEW Line site at Cape Dyer, Nunavut, overlooks the Davis Strait about 800 meters above sea level. It was the most easterly DEW Line in North America and was later upgraded as part of the current North Warning System. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

It does not suggest the likelihood of some sort of ground invasion in the Canadian Arctic. Instead, he imagines Putin targeting NATO bases in Eastern Europe, preceded by efforts to “neutralize” a North American response.

“So you could very easily conceive of using hypersonics to, for example, take out elements of the North Warning system, take out the American base at Thule [Greenland]exit Fort Elmendorf [Air Force Base, Alaska].”

Heubert agrees that NORAD needs a major update and that the North Warning system is no longer adequate.

“It’s not enough to look across the North Shore. You have to be able to look across all of North America,” Huebert said.

Lajeunesse also refers to a “broader set of dangers” and says a series of radar stations in the Arctic may no longer be the top priority.

“The next NORAD won’t just be a big building with a dome. It will be a very complex array of sensors linked to a larger network to monitor everything from hypersonic cruise missiles to Chinese fishing fleets,” Lejeunesse said.

“The future of the North Warning System may be very different from the past of the North Warning System.”