Our airborne Maginot Line

is already the most colossal defense system in history. But while the planners draft massive additions, skeptics insist we're arming for the wrong war

BLAIR FRASER November 8 1958

Our airborne Maginot Line

is already the most colossal defense system in history. But while the planners draft massive additions, skeptics insist we're arming for the wrong war

BLAIR FRASER November 8 1958

Where do we stand in defense?


No.1: Our airborne Maginot Line

No problem facing the Canadian nation has so many sides as our military defense. In some ways the problem has been simplified by our geographical and political position under the wing of the mighty U. S. A. In other ways it has been complicated and confused by the very same factors.

Six months ago Maclean’s Ottawa editor, Blair Fraser, set out on a roving assignment that took him to military and diplomatic installations on three continents. His job was to do what a layman could to break the problem down into its component parts and try to make them recognizable to other laymen. He soon found himself seeking answers to two main sets of questions. One has to do with our national sovereignty. Has Canada any real freedom of choice left in its military affairs? Has Canada any effective voice in deciding whether, and when and how the “massive retaliation” of a thermonuclear bomb would be launched? Have we any real control over our own destiny, or are we just bound and blindfolded passengers in an American chariot?

The second set of questions deals with our safety and survival. How good are the costly shields we and our allies are building? They're designed to protect us against manned aircraft, but what protects us against missiles? What is the real danger, and what kind of war are we able to fight? What happens if the enemy wages an unexpected kind of war, in which our northward-looking aerial defenses have no role to play? Finally, there is the deepest and most sobering question of all: can we survive another war, win or lose?

No one, as Fraser says, has the final answers to these questions, or to any single one of them. In this, the first of three important and engrossing articles, he weighs the probabilities.

Our airborne Maginot Line

is already the most colossal defense system in history. But while the planners draft massive additions, skeptics insist we're arming for the wrong war

Where do we stand in defense: 1 By Blair Fraser

ten minutes to five one morning last autumn Air Marshal Roy Slemon was awakened by the bedside telephone at his home in Colorado Springs. Slemon is deputy commander of North American Air Defense (NORAD), and U. S. General Earle Partridge was away that day on an inspection tour; the Canadian air marshal was in charge, for both countries. His telephone call came from the officer who was on duty at NORAD combat operations centre;

"I think you’d better come down, sir. Things don’t look very good.”

Nine minutes later Slemon was there, looking at the big glass map on which every unidentified aircraft in flight over North America is marked in orange chalk. It always shows a few—among the two hundred thousand flights of an average day, a dozen will normally be off course or lor some other reason unaccounted for. Occasionally a Canadian or American fighter might be ordered up to take a look but even this would be no cause for alarm. What NORAD is watching for is a pattern —a lot of unknown aircraft all appearing at once, and all headed for North American target areas.

Slemon found himself looking at just such a pattern. The map showed half a dozen unidentified planes flying very high across the coast ot Labrador, bound south-

west. Four more were approaching New York from the Atlantic. Another group appeared off Florida. Over the Pacific coast, where a big U. S. bomber force had just completed an attack exercise, came another and unknown fleet of about the same size.

For a few more spine-chilling minutes, while NORAD’s network of communications crackled alerts in all directions, the map continued to look as if this were the Kremlin's choice for D-Day. Then, quite suddenly, it all cleared up. Four aircraft were identified as commercial airliners, off course because of bad weather. Four others were U. S. bombers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) whose flight plans had not been sent to NORAD as they should have been. The "attacking fleet” on the west coast turned out to be electronic "ghosts" set off by the American bomber exercise in the Pacific; designed as countermeasures to fool the Russian airdefense system, they had worked very well at fooling our own.

Against the day when this false alarm might become real, Canada and the U. S. have created the biggest, the most elaborate, the most expensive system of continental defense the world has ever seen. It has seven major elements, five of them purely defensive and two of them means

of counterattack:

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“Could a war start just by mistake? Could a flock of geese send planes up to drop H-bombs?”

1 A triple chain of radar warning stations across Canada’s north but extending far into both oceans.

2 Two thousand manned fighters, some capable of twice the speed of sound.

3 About five thousand Bomarc guided missiles, now in the course of deployment in both countries. Fifteen launching sites are now being made ready, with more to come.

4 Sixty-one anti-aircraft battalions of the U. S. Army, armed with shorter-range missiles. These battalions, as well as the seventy fighter squadrons of both countries, are all under NORAD, in which Canada shares the command and which controls altogether about two hundred thousand men.

5 SAC—the Strategic Air Command of the U. S. Air Force, whose intercontinental bombers are the chief instrument of "massive retaliation” and therefore the main “deterrent” against a Soviet attack.

6 ICBM — the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the military weapon of the future. It is still in the development stage, but missile development has a higher priority than anything else in the U. S. military program. Like SAC it is a purely American affair and NORAD has nothing to do with it other than issue the warning.

7 BMWS—for Ballistic Missile Warning Stations, the first step in the anti-missile defense system which will be superimposed over the air defense we have now. It too is in the early development stage, but contracts were let a year ago for the first three stations of superradars.

Many of the weapon carriers in this arsenal, both manned and automatic, can deliver a nuclear warhead.

And all of them, like the electronic machines designed to alert them for and guide them to combat, relate only to the threat from overhead—from the air or from outer space. This, of course, is not the only threat that faces us; some of the others will be dealt with in later articles. The air threat is, in fact, the simplest of them all—even though, perhaps for that very reason, it is the one on which most of North America's money and care have been spent up to now. Most of the problems of air warfare, even in the missile age, are soluble at least in theory. Most of its big questions have been answered in some fashion.

Some of the answers are military secrets. Others will have to be proved by the event, and meanwhile are under hot debate among military experts. But some of the important ones are known and public enough to clear the ground and give us a fairly clear look at the plight we are in.

For example, Canadians often ask: "Could a war be started just by mis-

take? If a DEW-Line sentry in the Canadian Arctic sees a flock of geese on his radar screen and thinks they are Russian aircraft, could he send otf America's SAC planes to drop a hydrogen bomb on Moscow?”

The answer is no. The proof is the above-mentioned incident, and many others like it that have taken place at NORAD headquarters. NORAD and SAC are accustomed to dealing with false alarms.

In that case a year ago, the alarm lasted more than half an hour. SAC can put one third of its three thousand combat planes in the air, armed and ready to fly to and drop bombs anywhere in the world within fifteen minutes. Nevertheless SAC bombers did not take off, because there wasn’t enough proof that the threat was real.

Other false alarms have looked equally convincing. Once an electronic storm gave a perfect imitation, on the radar screens in northeastern Canada, of aircraft headed across Labrador toward the Niagara Peninsula at twice the speed of sound. But in the fifteen months since NORAD was set up only one such alert has led SAC to send its bombers aloft, and that was done more for exercise than in genuine alarm. They were called back again within minutes. They could have gone for two or three hours, and still have been recalled without danger to the peace.

Actually one of NORAD’s problems, not yet solved to anyone's satisfaction, is this problem of identification—how to be sure that the oncoming object is an enemy aircraft or missile. Another is the mechanics of decision; in spite of all the intergovernmental agreements it is not yet absolutely clear how a decision to act can be taken fast enough for modern emergency and still jointly enough to satisfy old-fashioned sovereignty. But at least it is clear, and amply clear, that SAC is not as trigger-happy as some of its own publicity agents sometimes make it look.

On the other hand all observers agree that SAC could not be knocked out by a surprise blow, not even the ICBM as it now exists. Obsessed with the memory of Pearl Harbor, where the Japanese destroyed U. S. aircraft on the ground and warships in harbor, the American armed forces are determined never again to be taken by surprise. SAC has seventy bases in five countries, all the way from the western Pacific to North Africa, and its combat-readiness has to be seen to be believed.

One of the first things to strike the visitor's eye at an SAC base is the fleet of blue-and-orange station wagons bearing the legend "Alert Crew.” Outside every building on the base is a special section of the parking lot for these vehicles. They must be backed into their spaces (nobody else is allowed to back in) and left with front wheels turned toward the control tower. For the seventytwo hours that a bomber crew is on “alert” duty its members (three for the medium B-47, six for the intercontinenfor

The Maginot Line had everything for World War I. SAC has everything for World War II

instant. They eat together, bunk together, play together; if one goes for a haircut the others have to go with him.

At any moment they may be called to the runways where their bombers sit with fuel tanks and bomb bays full, and a practice alert takes place almost every day. The first crew will be airborne in four minutes, the last in no more than fifteen. Each knows his target, which might be a city or a military base anywhere in the world. Each is able to carry a thermo-nuclear (hydrogen) bomb, as much firepower as the total of all bombs dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II.

SAC is responsible to nobody but its own commanders, its own chief of air staff and its commander-in-chief, President Eisenhower. It is independent even of the rest of the U. S. Air Force, let alone any alien command. SAC's overseas bases own no foreign authority and no entangling alliances. SAC’s two fueling stations in Newfoundland are not part of NORAD. and the SAC bases in Britain are not part of NATO. When I asked a Canadian military man in Ottawa whether the Allies would have any part in a decision to send SAC away with its nuclear bomb-loads, he replied:

“We have to trust the good judgment of the president of the United States.”

This fact worries a good many people, as well it might. But perhaps even more are worried by the other type of question:

Can SAC get through to its targets, if the need does arise for "massive retaliation”? These are air-breathing, manned bombers able to fly just below the speed of sound, six hundred to six hundred and fifty miles an hour. Can such obsolescent craft still function, at a time when supersonic missiles have already been flown on both sides of the Iron Curtain?

Some experts say no, they can’t. General James Gavin, former U. S. army chief of research and development, who resigned in order to speak his mind freely, says in his book: “The manned bomber's date of obsolescence (is) when effective nuclear surface-to-air missiles can be employed against it, not when either side has intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to replace it.”

Gavin makes it quite clear that he thinks this “date of obsolescence” has already arrived. He admits that "we could not afford to ignore the bomber threat entirely," but he obviously thinks it is negligible both to us and to the Russians. In his view, the dominant military thinkers in Washington have been getting ready for the last war instead of the next one—or perhaps for a war in between the two, that never took place.

Looking at SAC headquarters near Omaha, Nebraska, the ignorant civilian is inclined to agree with Gavin because the place reminds him of the Maginot Line. This is not as much of a sneer as it may sound. The Maginot Line, if it had been completed all the way to the coast, had the solution to every problem of trench warfare, and some of its solutions were very ingenious. It had everything, in 1939, that a field commander could have wished in 1918. SAC in its turn fulfills every dream of Bomber Command 1945.

From its control room forty-five feet below ground, five digits on a brightred telephone will rouse any SAC base in the world. Doors more than a foot thick, weighing two and a half tons each, can shut off a blasted and radio-

active outer world if need be. Thirty days’ rations are stored for the thousandodd men and dozen women (the exact number is secret) who would staff SAC headquarters in wartime. They also have their own bomb-proof water supply, and air filtered clean of radioactive dust.

Panels twenty-one feet high on the long wall of the big room give the commander the information he needs at a glance—the disposition of forces, the weather anywhere in the world, the enemy's order of battle as far as Intelligence knows it. Closed-circuit color TV shows him anything that isn’t directly before him, and connects him with the various branches of SAC and with the Pentagon Building in Washington.

Right in front of where the visitor sits, a curtained panel sets forth SAC's own war plans. If "the day" ever comes, that curtain will be drawn and, as the taperecorded briefing tells the visitor in solemn tones, "the war would be fought from this room." Anything a manned bomber can do could be ordered done from here.

And what can a manned bomber do, on the threshold of the age of missiles?

The underwater menace

Actually, it can still do things that no other weapon-carrier can do. This fact is not disputed, even by the most advanced of the missile men. An aggressor's first problem will be to knock out the enemy’s bases and so destroy his power to retaliate—otherwise, the aerial duel would be suicidal. The manned bomber is the only weapon-carrier that is accurate enough for this important task. Not for some years will the ballistic missile be capable of picking off all the SAC bases around the world, from any of which a "massive retaliation” could be launched.

This cold comfort also applies to the other new threat, the missile-launching submarine. It’s perfectly true that one of Russia's five hundred submarines could fire a missile from mid-Atlantic that would wipe out Washington or New York or Montreal. If we ever get into a fullscale nuclear war this will probably happen at some stage, and there is nothing

(yet) that we can do to prevent it. But no such attack could succeed as an opening knockout blow, because it could not destroy our power to retaliate. SAC would still be there, ready with a counterblow at Moscow.

As for General Gavin’s belief that the manned bomber cannot penetrate a modern defense of ground-to-air nuclear missiles, the spokesmen of the air forces say he s wrong, that’s all. Canada's military advisers, no less than those of the United States, believe SAC can still reach any target in the world—not all targets at once, because they know SAC losses would be heavy, but enough targets to make it as stern a “deterrent” as ever.

"Even if Russian air defenses are twice as good as ours,” said an RCA F officer of high rank, “I’m sure that SAC would still get through.”

Air defenses twice as good as ours would be very good indeed. NORAD’s array of devices to detect, identify and intercept an airborne foe is quite impressive.

Canadians are familiar with the radar chains that stretch three deep across our own northland—the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line along the Arctic coast, the Mid-Canada Line in the latitude of Churchill, Man., and the Pinetree Line of fighter-guiding radars running from Baffin Island down through Quebec and Ontario and all the way west to British Columbia. We are less familiar with the rest of the North American warning system — the outposts at Guam and the Azores, the picket ships and U. S. Navy planes that patrol both oceans, the three "Texas Towers" a hundred miles off the Atlantic Coast, at intervals from Cape Cod to Florida. Nor do most of us realize that the Pinetree Line is just the top layer of a radar net that covers all North America from the settled parts of Canada to Mexico.

There is only one chink through which an air-breathing bomber could penetrate today, and that is near the ground. At two thousand feet or less, an attacker could slip between the radar beams and catch us unaware. That gap is now being plugged with auxiliary radars, fifty in Canada and over two hundred in the

United States. When they are complete no airborne bomber, manned or unmanned. will be able to reach the inhabited parts of North America undetected.

Detection alone is not much help unless we can also meet and destroy the attacker. For this job. subsonic fighters such as the Sabre and the CF-100 are no longer good enough. They fly no faster and no higher than the bombers they would have to intercept, and their electronic gear is obsolete in these days of semi-automatic combat.

The backbone of North American defense at the moment is the U. S. fighter F-102. that flies a little faster than sound. It does not carry nuclear weapons. For those we have to wait for the F-104. an even faster aircraft (1,400 mph) that is just now coming into production. In about two more years the U. S. will also have the F-106, flying a much longer range at a much higher altitude—and still later the F-108, a very-long-range supersonic fighter that surpasses anything now in production.

A modern fighter is more than an airplane, its a weapons system. It is no more like the Spitfire of World War II, nor even the Sabre and CF-100 of day before yesterday, than an automatic washing machine is like grandmother's tub. It carries a great box of electronic wizardry by which the new fighter is controlled, directed and even fired from the ground. The pilot goes along as a kind of on-the-spot supervisor.

To calculate the course of supersonic invaders, and also the course of the fighters or missiles that are sent up to knock them down, is now too big a job for human brains. Henceforth it will be done by an enormous electronic computer called SAGE (for Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) which is capable of tracking and intercepting four hundred attackers at once.

North America has been divided into thirty SAGE sectors, for which thirty-six computers are required. Canada would have either one or two of these computers, depending on what distribution is finally agreed upon. They would cost about a hundred million dollars each, but the cost-sharing of the whole SAGE program is a matter for negotiation between Ottawa and Washington.

SAGE controls not only fighters like the F-104, but also ground-to-air missiles like BOMARC, which Canada is now about to buy. Ottawa hasn’t announced how much we are spending on BOMARC, but the whole BOMARC system for the continent will cost about six billion dollars, by Washington's estimate.

BOMARC is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. So are the air-to-air missiles with which the new supersonic fighters are manned. This raises a new question: what good will it do to shoot down the invader, if we have to do it with nuclear explosions that poison the atmosphere? Won't we just be committing slow suicide, instead of suffering quick murder?

Nobody can say for sure, but the answer seems to be no as far as defensive missiles are concerned. Last July, five American volunteers stood directly underneath the explosion of an air-to-air nuclear missile at the testing ground in Nevada. They wore no special clothing or other protection, but they were unhurt and so far have suffered no after-effects.

Strange as it may seem, there is more danger of radioactive fallout if the invader is shot down by a non-nuclear weapon. The invading aircraft would be carrying a hydrogen bomb, with mechan-

ism set to explode it at a certain altitude, say two thousand feet. If the bomber is merely crippled by a conventional weapon, “shot down" in World War li style, the firing mechanism would still be intact and the hydrogen bomb would still go off — perhaps over Montreal or North Bay instead of New York. But if the bomber is itself destroyed by a nuclear explosion, the bomb and its mechanism would be “cooked.” Whatever remained of it would fall to earth inert.

All these defenses — nuclear and conventional weapons, manned fighters or ground-to-air missiles—are directed only against the airborne bomber. The BOMARC itself is a missile, but it is not an anti-missile missile; its target is the airbreathing bomber, manned or unmanned. Its range is about three hundred miles, its altitude capability no greater than that of a high-flying aircraft, its speed about two and a half times the speed of sound. In effect the BOMARC is a fighter which is fully automatic instead of semiautomatic. It would he no use against a ballistic missile, and neither would any other part of Canada’s defense system as it now exists.

To meet the intercontinental ballistic missile, we are already building an entirely new anti additional defense system. Contracts were let eleven months ago for the first three stations of an “early” warning line which, if it works perfectly, should give us at least fifteen minutes’ notice that the ICBM is about to hit us.

This will be the Ballistic Missile Warning System — BMWS, appropriately pro-

nounced “BEMUSE.” One station being built in Alaska, one at Thule northern Greenland, one in Scotland. The radar beams here will have to tremendously powerful. To generate enough electric power for the Thule beam alone would take a hundred tank cars fuel oil every week — which means, course, that nuclear fuel will have to used instead, at all three stations.

BEMUSE radars will have two beams, to give two looks at an approaching object in space. Within the next five years it’s expected that there will be anywhere up to fifty thousand objects floating around in orbit, scraps of old Sputniks and things like that, so BEMUSE will have to be able to distinguish between them. Computations will have to be made, first, to see if the approaching object is a missile; and second, to determine where it is aimed. These computations will have to be made in about six tenths of a second, and relayed back to NORAD. '1 hus NORAD might have as much as fifteen minutes’ warning that missile is headed for the North American heartland.

However, BEMUSE will he only warning line, like the DEW and MidCanada lines. Behind it we shall need not one but two lines of "acquisition radars,” whose job it will be to track the invading missile accurately and guide our antimissile missile against it. This latter has yet to be developed, but it will be something like the U. S. army’s NIKE-ZEUS, a ground-to-outer-space missile with two-hundred-mile range. ZEUS is still in

the design stage, but might be ready for production in about seven years.

This new anti-missile defense system, according to estimates given to the U. S. Senate armed-services committee, will cost about two billion dollars a year to install and about the same amount to operate. This of course will be additional to existing costs of defense—the billions for BOMARC and SAGE, the billions for NORAD, the billions for SAC, the billions for naval patrol and research for a shield against the submarine, not to mention the rapidly expanding billions for development of intercontinental Atlas and Titan missiles, and the intermediaterange THOR, on which we will have to depend in the meantime for offensive strength.

This colossal investment of money, men and brain-power is wholly directed toward one kind of war—aerial attack and counterattack, probably across the Arctic. The question that is put most insistently, and most rudely, by the critics of American strategy is, “What happens if we have a different kind of war altogether? What happens if we are faced with a war on the ground, and our own continent is never attacked at all?”

There is considerable evidence that this is exactly what the Russians have in mind, rather than aerial assault of any kind. If so, western forces are in rather poor shape to meet the threat, it

Part two of Blair Fraser’s report, Where Do We Stand In Defense, will appear in the next issue.