Little Bits of History

DEWy Eyes

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 15, 2014
DEW Line

DEW Line and strategic defense

February 15, 1954: The US and Canada agree to build the Distant Early Warning Line. The DEW Line was a series of radar stations in the far northern Arctic region of Canada and along the North Coast and Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Also included were the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Iceland. Constructed during the Cold War, it was hoped this line of radar stations would give early warning if the Soviets sent up bombers to attack the West. It was hoped that the line of stations could give an early enough warning in the event of any sea-and-land invasion for defensive action.

This was one of three lines with the Pinetree Line and the Mid-Canada Line being the other two. Pinetree planning began in 1946 and the line ran from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. The Mid-Canada Line was begun soon after the Pinetree Line’s construction and cut across the middle of Canada. The DEW line was both the most northern and the most capable. The earlier stations were better suited to detect incoming bomber planes and the impetus of the Cold War shifted from plane delivery system to ICBMs.

The DEW Line initiative stemmed from a detailed study made by some of the leading scientists of 1952. The Summer Study Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found the US and Canada were vulnerable to aerial bombing attacks and concluded the best defense against this was an early warning system. The system’s timeliness would depend on the location of the radar tracking stations as well as more local ability to track the gathered data. SAGE (Semi Automatic Ground Environment) computer system allowed for this to take place. It operated from the Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado command hub of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command).

The first two lines to be built had served their purpose but as Russian technology advanced, a newer and more precise detection system was needed. The line would run along the 69th parallel north or about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Initially, the US Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force provided the design and built an experimental system. Improvements were made which allowed state-of-the-art systems to withstand weather conditions up north and much of the actual construction was subcontracted out to others with military supervision on the project. About 25,000 skilled laborers were hired to complete the project. Getting the supplies up to the construction zone was also a problem as it was hampered by the climate, too. The Line stood active until the 1990s. Today, the sites are still undergoing clean up from toxic materials, mostly PCBs, which were used during construction.

History is a vast early warning system. – Norman Cousins

I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it. – Marshall McLuhan

A man’s conscience, like a warning line on the highway, tells him what he shouldn’t do – but it does not keep him from doing it. – Frank A. Clark

The warning message we sent the Russians was a calculated ambiguity that would be clearly understood. – Alexander Haig

Also on this day: Teddy Bear – In 1903, the first official teddy bear was introduced.
Oh, Canada! – In 1965, Canada adopted a new flag.
Hemlock – In 399 BC, Socrates drank hemlock.
Video – In 2005, You Tube went online.

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2 Responses

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  1. jonkilkade said, on February 15, 2014 at 10:08 am

    That’s why the threat of installation of missiles in Cuba caused such consternation, isn’t it? Because missiles there would have rendered the DEW Line irrelevant.

    • patriciahysell said, on February 16, 2014 at 8:24 pm

      Perhaps it was the distance between the US and Cuba and distance between the US (contiguous states anyway) and the North Pole.


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