42 radar & historic site

42 Radar Site, 1956, looking northwest




The 42 Radar site was an important facet of Canada’s involvement in the early Cold War, and continued to serve Canada’s Department of Defense through Détente until the closure of the site in 1992. The role of Canada in the Cold War is inextricably linked to both the foreign policy of the United States and that of the Soviet Union. Canada was aligning itself with the U.S.a. as early as 1947 when a bilateral defence agreement was signed asserting that Canadian forces would use American arms, equipment, tactics and facilities in case of emergency. This relationship was further solidified in 1949 with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty between Canada, the United States and a number of Western European nations. This treaty was the genesis of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). NATO was effectively a military coalition committed to the mutual defence of all signatories from the Soviets and their Eastern European allies.


An enduring legacy of the Cold War is that of the nuclear arms race. Nuclear weapons were appealing to many military strategists, not only for their awesome power, but because after the initial investment in research and infrastructure, nuclear weapons were very inexpensive. After World War II, this technology gave the United States the edge in global power politics, and they used it as a successful deterrent to Eastern Bloc countries from invading their democratic neighbours to the West. However, thanks both to international espionage (some of which occurred in Canada) and their own scientists, in 1949 the Soviet Union had developed and tested their first nuclear bomb. At this point in time Canadians were not overly worried about the Soviet Union – while the Canadian military had no nuclear weapons of its own, it had supplied America with nearly all the uranium it took to create its arsenal. Adding to this sense of safety was the fact that the Soviets did not have the logistical ability to reach North America with one of their new bombs. All of this soon changed.


In the mid-1950s the Soviet Union developed a long distance bomber capable of flying from Siberia, across the polar icecap to a target in North America, with enough fuel to make the return flight. Canada and the United States were now susceptible to nuclear attack. A worried Canadian public demanded to know how they were to be safeguarded against Soviet attack. The solution was to build lines of radar stations east to west across Canada’s sparsely populated Northern regions to monitor Canada’s airspace against threats.


If an attack were launched from the Soviets, it would take several hours for the bombers to reach North America. When detected, it would hopefully give NATO enough time to prepare for the attack and mount a response. This defence strategy first took shape in 1954 with the construction of the Pinetree Line along the latitude of Kenora, Ontario. This first line of defence was paid for by the Canadian government, as was the Mid-Canada Line, also known as the McGill Fence, established in 1957 along the 55th parallel. Also erected in 1957 was the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) along the Arctic Coast from Alaska to Baffin Island, though this project was so massive that its cost was shared with the United Sates.


These lines of Radar stations were primarily for detecting threats. Other initiatives, such as the “Diefenbunker” – a large bunker near Ottawa that would protect and support key government members in case of a nuclear attack – and the system of almost fifty smaller such bunkers across the country, were carried out with an eye to preservation and surviving a nuclear threat in what became known as the Continuity of Government Program.


The 42 Radar Site provided a monitoring function, but also provided training for pilots and operators in simulated military offensives.  Construction of the 42 Radar Site at Cold Lake began in June of 1954, and operations began November 5th of that year. The installation served to train crews in ground controlled interception. In earlier military aviation, jets were not equipped with the sophisticated radar equipment that they are today. Instead, personnel on the ground would use the radar and then direct the planes to their targets – hence ground controlled interception.

  • Training was a large component of the activities at the 42 Radar Site.
  • Beginning in June of 1955, the Operational Training Unit was responsible for training crews in operating procedure of the CF-100.
  • In 1961, when the CF-100 was being phased out, crews needed to be trained for its replacement, the CF-104.
  • In 1956 the Controller Proficiency Unit (CPU) was created at CFB Cold Lake to provide advanced training of ground intercept controllers.
  • Two years later it was combined into the AC & W (Aerospace Control and Warning) at 42 Radar. This added a controller-training function to the 42 Radar Site.
  • Between 1956 and 1961, the 42 Radar Site also provided contact training for No. 2403 AC&W Squadron, situated in Calgary.
  • In 1970, No.1 Canadian Forces Flying Training School started arriving from Gimli, becoming No. 419 Tactical Fighter (Training) Squadron in 1975.
  • In 1982 a detachment of the Air Weapons Control and Countermeasures School (AWC&CS) was created at CFB Cold Lake. It was tasked with controlling the Air Combat Manoeuvring Range.
  • In 1985 this detachment was moved to the 42 Radar Site, adding yet another training department, one which would provide radar data and equipment for the training of pilots, air weapons controllers and air defence technicians. When in operation, over twenty exercises a year were performed.
  • This does not include the special events such as the ground controlled interception meets held between 1957 and 1961, and the better known Maple Flag exercise, which began in 1978.
  • The 42 Radar Site was selected due to the vast expanse of land surrounding it, as well as the fact that the land closely resembles that found in Europe. When operations for the 42 Radar Site were moved to CFB Cold Lake in 1992, Maple Flag went with it. It continues today as a prestigious, international training event, and brings considerable numbers of people, as well as economic benefits, to the area.


Another function of the 42 Radar site was radar coverage for the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD). Beginning in 1963 the 42 Radar site was given responsibility for controlling the airspace over a portion of NORAD’s 28th region using long-range radar.


Research was another important aspect of the 42 Radar Site. In 1955, 433 Squadron began flying trials of the new Canuck Mark IVB. Personnel from the 42 Radar Site were responsible for developing and improving new intercept tactics and controlling the airspace above Primrose Lake Evaluation Range, the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment’s (AETE) primary test range at Cold Lake. In April of 1963, 42 Radar was the first Canadian unit to utilize the new Semi-Automated Ground Environment (SAGE). Other research conducted was of a civilian nature. In the late 1960s through to the 1970s 42 Radar helped the University of Alberta track weather balloons, and tracked migratory birds for reasons of RCAF safety.


By the late 1980s operations at the 42 Radar Site began to slow. The buildings were old and the technology antiquated. In 1988 the responsibilities of long-range radar for NORAD were dropped. The 42 Radar Site was now primarily responsible for training Air Weapons Controllers, Air Defence Technicians and aircrew. At this time, the twenty-four hour, seven day a week operating schedule was reduced to a sixteen hour day, five day a week schedule. In 1991 the TPS-70 (a small, mobile radar unit) arrived, and operations were moved to CFB Cold Lake the following year.