I grew up in a small farm community called Oyen, located out in the Special Areas east of Drumheller.
At the time, a nearby town called Alsask, which was located immediately on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, hence the name, was home to a Canadian forces base, CFB Alsask, which closed down in 1987. When I was a kid, all of us thought of the base as the place where “the golf balls were.”
“The golf balls” were actually high-powered radar arrays topped by a large fiberglass globe to protect the delicate radar arrays from weather, although when I was nine years old, I didn’t really know that, nor did I understand why a high-powered radar station was located near Oyen, nor why the radars pointed north. If I’d spent more time thinking about it, the fact that there is nothing north of Canada surely would have presented itself.
Later in life, I did some reading about one of my favourites periods of history, the Cold War. The radar base at Alsask was actually part of a string of such bases located in a band which stretched across Canada called the ‘Pine Tree Line.” Northwards, there were two more such radar lines, the mid-Canada and DEW (distant early warning) lines.
When these radar lines were conceived, the Cold War was in its infancy after World War 2. At that time, politicians and military officials felt our enemy, the U.S.S.R., was poised to send fleets of long-range bombers over the arctic with the intent of raining down nuclear destruction on American, and Canadian, cities.
The radar stations, it was assumed, would be able to emit very long range detection waves which would bounce off the Soviet bombers fleets coming over the arctic circle, giving American air forces plenty of time to intercept and destroy them. At this time there was a bit of an arms race between East and West to develop not only the largest, fastest bomber that could carry the most nuclear bombs, but also a race to develop the sleekest, fastest, deadliest interceptor that, with only a few minutes warning, could streak into the skies and shoot down every Soviet bomber before it had a chance to drop its payload.
With the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, air defense theory like the Pine Tree Line became obsolete; ICBMs could fly so fast, some as fast as four times the speed of sound, no radar warning was sufficient nor interceptor fast enough to stop the missiles. Instead, the most practical of strategists instead developed the MAD doctrine: Mutually Assured Destruction. If the Soviets launched a first strike of nuclear missiles, America and its allies would retaliate by launching their own strike against the U.S.S.R. No one could stop the missiles, hence everyone would be destroyed.
I found out a few years ago there’s a movement underway to protect the one remaining golf ball at Alsask (there were once three golf balls there), and perhaps turn it into a museum. I think it’s a great idea, as the further away we get from the Cold War, the less younger generations know about it.
For someone to visit the radar museum and learn about how people lived and coped under the threat of nuclear war would be an eye-opening experience, I’m sure.
Stu Salkeld is editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the paper.