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Yukonomist: A DEW line for the 21st century

Last month’s announcement of federal plans to spend $38.6 billion over twenty years modernizing Canada’s air and space defenses attracted a lot of attention in the Yukon.

Last month’s announcement of federal plans to spend $38.6 billion over twenty years modernizing Canada’s air and space defenses attracted a lot of attention in the Yukon.

Foreign policy wonks got out their globes to show that a nuclear missile flying from North Korea to Chicago would go right over Whitehorse. Environmentalists googled the PCB clean-up operation around northern military radar sites in the 1990s. Business people tried to figure out how much of that $38.6 billion will end up in the Yukon. And constitutional lawyers pondered how Section 6.5 on Military Access in the Umbrella Final Agreement would make things play out differently this time for Yukon First Nations.

Back in the 1950s during the construction of the original Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, the US and Canadian air forces did not spend a lot of time consulting indigenous peoples or involving them in economic opportunities.

Five years after the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon, the US and Canadian governments launched what was at the time a bold and unprecedented effort to build a chain of more than 60 radar stations along the Arctic coast from Alaska to Greenland.

A stunning 25,000 workers set out to build the roads, airfields, logistics centres and radar stations. In 1957, three Yukon DEW Line sites opened at Komakuk Beach, Stokes Point and Shingle Point.

It was one of those epic nation-building projects beloved by 1950s documentary film-makers.

Here’s how a 1957 film produced by the Western Electric Company’s Defense Projects Division put it: “This is the roof of the world. The vast desolate stretch of polar wasteland called the Arctic. Until the year 1955, few human feet had trod those expanses … if modern bombers carrying modern bombs over the polar ice cap were to cross the Arctic circle at midnight, they could destroy virtually any Canadian or American city before dawn.”

Starting in the late 1980s, the DEW Line was replaced by the newer North Warning System. The three Yukon sites are still active. This system is now more than three decades old, a long time considering most people upgrade the electronics in their pockets every one or two years. In the meantime, China and Russia developed challenging new hypersonic and cruise missile technologies and North Korea entered the nuclear arms race.

The Canadian spending announcement also got some attention from the United States, our partner in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Our American allies are irked by what they see as Canada’s multi-decade underinvestment in northern defense, and its decision in 2005 not to participate in North American missile defense. Just last month Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan said this: “”We still have NATO allies, Canada one, who just freeload. And it’s getting a little tiring.”

Remember that American senators have real power. Sullivan sits on the Senate commerce committee, a body for which the Canadian embassy in Washington has a long wish list.

As the global geopolitical outlook has grown more worrying, the Americans have spent heavily on defensive systems in Alaska. Both the Obama and Trump administrations added new interceptor missiles to the Fort Greely missile-defense base near Fairbanks. Last year, the Space Force Base at Clear, also near Fairbanks, finished building a state-of-the-art Long Range Discrimination Radar.

The radar station’s apartment building sized interlocking cube shapes would not look out of place in a science fiction movie. When operational next year, it and its massive computers will sense and track objects small and large at very long ranges. It is designed to discriminate between debris, decoys and incoming warheads.

On the Canadian side of the border, government documents point out that the upgrade just announced will take some time: a “multi-decade time horizon” in military bureaucratese.

Full details are to be released later, but Canadian defense officials told the Ottawa Citizen they hope to have the first new Canadian radar facilities operational by 2028. This will be the Arctic Over-the-Horizon Radar project. It will be located in Southern Canada and will cover the northern part of the country at a cost of around $1 billion.

A future phase called Polar Over-the-Horizon Radar will extend coverage over the Canadian Arctic islands and beyond. New air-to-air missiles, new F-35 fighter jets, upgraded Northern satellite surveillance, a mysterious new sensor network called Crossbow with “classified capabilities” and other upgrades will also be rolled out over time.

Federal officials said they plan to continue Canada’s non-participation in the US missile defense program. But they signaled flexibility, adding they would “continue to look at this policy going forward.”

It’s good that Canada is spending some money on Northern defense. These capabilities take so long to build that you need to spend money on them years before you need them. As the Ukraine conflict has shown, crises can sneak up on you. And when they do, you have to deal with them using the gear you were wise enough to order years before.

As for the economic side benefits, it remains unclear how much of all this defense infrastructure will end up in the Yukon.

It may be less than local companies and First Nations development corporations hope.

The Yukon is currently one of the least militarized zones on the planet. Canada does not have a major base like Fairbanks or Anchorage in the North and is unlikely to build one. The air force’s “forward operating locations” in Inuvik, Yellowknife and Iqaluit may get upgrades, but a quick look at where Fairbanks and Inuvik sit on the map suggests little reason to add aerospace capabilities in Whitehorse.

We’ll have to wait and see what Polar Over-the-Horizon radar, Crossbow and other future plans mean for the Yukon. We may end up with just a few contracts upgrading and servicing automated radar stations, as is the case today. If so, it will be a rounding error compared to what the Americans just spent on the F-35 fighters and their 3500 support personnel in Fairbanks.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.