10 August 2015

Canada's Nuclear Strike Force: 1st Air Division 1964-1972

Canada's CF-104s wore bare metal with white wings in the nuclear strike role.
For eight years, Canada maintained a small, but potent, nuclear strike force in Europe equipped with license-built Lockheed F-104 Starfighters under the auspices of the 1st Air Division. The 1st Air Division was established in 1952 in France as part of Canada's NATO air defense commitment. Four wings made up the 1st Air Division and each wing had three squadrons. For most of the 1950s, the Air Division was flew F-86 Sabres which were then replaced by CF-100 Canucks to provide all-weather/night air defense capability. In the late 1950s, Canada embarked on a search for a supersonic replacement for the CF-100 fleet. At the time, air defense was on Canada's mind but the political winds of the Cold War were such that as one of the charter members of NATO, considerable pressure was brought on Canada to contribute to the nuclear deterrent forces in Europe. With a generous industrial offset, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was chosen as the replacement aircraft for the 1st Air Division with the aircraft being license built by Canadair in Montreal as the CF-104. Originally the designation was to be the CF-111, but it was quickly decided to adopt the CF-104 designation to simplify administrative matters as some of Canadair's production would also be for NATO partners to augment European license production of the Starfighter. Coinciding with the selection of the Starfighter, on 2 July 1959, Canadian Defence Minister George Pearkes announced that the 1st Air Division (which became 1 Canadian Air Division in due time) would transition from the air defense role to the strike/reconnaissance role but little mention was made about the adaptation of nuclear strike as one of the Division's primary tasks. 

Reorganization of the Division's assets as part of NATO's 4th Allied Tactical Air Force would put two squadrons assigned to each of 1 Canadian Air Division's four wings- 1 Wing based at Marville AB in France would have 439 and 441 Squadrons, 2 Wing based at Groestenquin AB in France would have 421 and 430 Squadrons, 3 Wing based at Zweibrucken in West Germany would have 427 and 434 Squadron and 4 Wing based at Baden-Soellingen also in West Germany would have 422 and 444 Squadron. Following France's withdrawal from NATO military command in 1967, 1 Canadian Air Division was reorganized again with just three wings all based in West Germany- 1 Wing at Lahr, 3 Wing at Zweibrucken, and 4 Wing at Baden-Soellingen. 

The acquisition of nuclear weapons by the 1 Canadian Air Division was part of a broader umbrella agreement signed with the United States by the government of Prime Minister Lester Pearson. Interestingly the acquisition of nuclear-capable platforms like the Starfighter was made by the previous administration, that of Prime Minster John Diefenbaker. Pearson and the Liberal Party had scored political points attacking Diefenbaker for shifting Canada towards a nuclear-capable defense policy, but after defeating the Conservative Party in the 1963 elections, one of Pearson's first acts was to reverse the Liberal Party's course and actually acquire nuclear weapons. His change of heart occurred during the run up to the national elections and as an interesting historical side note, future Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau temporarily left the Liberal Party in disgust during this period of policy upheaval for the Liberal party. On 16 August 1963, an agreement was finalized and signed with the United States that provided for nuclear weapons for four weapons systems- the CF-104 Starfighters in Europe along with Honest John short range ballistic missiles for the Canadian Army in Europe as well as BOMARC missiles and Genie nuclear-tipped rockets for the CF-101 Voodoo force for the air defense of Canada. While a full analysis of the change in position by Prime Minister Pearson and the Cabinet is beyond the scope of this article, it primarily hinged upon improving the bilateral relationship with the United States, raising Canada's military posture within NATO, and a desire for a more effective defense policy. Given that the agreement was signed in the wake of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the Canadian government did much to minimize the military's new nuclear role- for the Starfighter force, it wasn't until 1990 that the true extent of the 1 Canadian Air Division's nuclear capability was known. Some military officials went as far as to publicly point out to the Canadian press that the CF-104 was "too small" to carry a "large" nuclear weapon and it was a fighter, not a strike aircraft. 

Canadian officials inspect a CF-104. Note the faired over gunport.
In fact, the CF-104s were optimized for the nuclear strike mission- unlike most other nations' Starfighters, the Canadians didn't have the M61 Vulcan cannon installed and added an additional fuel cell in its place to extend its combat radius. The skill set and tactics for nuclear strike in Europe were also applicable to low level reconnaissance, so the CF-104s also could carry a centerline VICON camera pod that had 70mm cameras that photographed targets of interest on each side of the aircraft, straight down, and ahead. In the nuclear strike role, the wingtip fuel tanks were augmented by under wing fuel drop tanks with the nuclear weapon mounted on the centerline station. Three different nuclear stores were used by the CF-104 fleet and each had its own unique Canadian designation. The most common weapon was the B28 which came in two versions- the B28EX (which the Canadians referred to as "Weapon #1) which was a free fall weapon and the B28RE ("Weapon #2) which was a parachute retarded version of the B28EX. The B28 warhead was capable of different yields ranging from 70 kilotons to 1.45 Megatons,  but in practice only the 70 kt and 350 kt yields were used by the 1 Canadian Air Division.  A four digit code was required for the permissive action link (PAL) to arm the weapon. The B28EX was delivered in an over the shoulder toss while the B28RE was delivered at low altitudes, the parachute allowed the CF-104 pilot to make his escape before detonation. 

The B43 nuclear bomb (referred to by the Canadians as "Weapon #3") was only used by 4 Wing and it had a massive 1 Mt warhead and had the option of being parachute retarded and like the B28s, also had a PAL for arming. The fourth nuclear store used by the CF-104 force was the B57 and was a low-yield weapon with an explosive force of 5-20 kilotons. The B57 ("Weapon #4) was much lighter than the other stores as it was developed for the US Navy who wanted a lightweight tactical nuclear weapon. Like the other weapons, the B57 had an option for parachute delivery and also had a four-digit PAL code to arm the warhead. 

Kit box art showing the four tank configuration of the CF-104.
The B28 weapons were delivered first, starting in May 1964. The B57 was next to arrive in 1966 and the B43 was the last to arrive at Canadian bases in 1968. Because the weapons remained in US custody even on Canadian bases, it gave the Pearson government political cover that it wasn't contributing to proliferation. At each base the weapon storage area was manned by USAF personnel and the PAL codes were kept in a safe at the quick-reaction area (QRA) which was accessible only by the USAF alert duty officer. Release of weapons was under dual-key authority in which both US and Canadian command authorities had to provide authorization. Loading of a live weapon took about 30 minutes, so each Canadian base had a QRA area where fully-armed Starfighters stood nuclear alert. Double barrier fencing surrounded each QRA area and no individual could work on the alert aircraft alone- two personnel had to be present for even the most minor of tasks to be done to the QRA Starfighters. 

CF-104 in flight showing the white wings and large roundels.
The targets of the 1 Canadian Air Division consisted primarily of the logistical depots and airfields of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG). Major bridges that would be used in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe were also on the Canadians' target list. The exact targets to be hit were provided by Supreme Allied Command Europe (SACEUR) HQ, but it was up to each squadron and its pilots to plan the inbound and outbound routes to the targets and any particular tactics to be used during the mission. Each squadron had a target evaluation board which would review each mission plan for acceptance. Once accepted, it was forward to the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command in Omaha, Nebraska, where it was included in the Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP), which was the US military's nuclear war plan. This way Canadian missions (and any other mission planned by NATO allies or other US military branches) could be deconflicted. This meant a high degree of timing precision was needed, typically inside of a 30 second window to hit each navigational waypoint to avoid flying into someone else's thermonuclear detonation. In practice missions, the Canadian pilots proved to be highly skilled, usually hitting each navigational waypoint within 10 seconds of the plan. Once fully operational in the nuclear strike role, the 1 Canadian Air Division was responsible for 20% of the 4th Allied Tactical Air Force's nuclear muscle- 4ATAF covered central and southern West Germany and included two Luftwaffe divisions, the USAF's Seventeenth Air Force, and a large number of Army air defense units. The squadrons of the 1 Canadian Air Division were subject to each and everyone of the nuclear inspection and readiness drills that any nuclear-capable USAF unit had to not just endure, but pass with near perfect scores. 

Prime Minister Lester Pearson's 1968 announcement that he planned to step down (and would be succeeded by Pierre Trudeau) coincided with a drawdown of Canada's NATO nuclear commitment. The social changes going in both Canada and the United States in the late 1960s required more focus on domestic issues in Canada and nuclear alert duty in Europe was quite expensive. Despite some of 1 Canadian Air Division's squadrons being operational with nuclear weapons for a short period of time (1 Wing only started nuclear alert duties in 1969), the drawdown began in 1970 with the last nuclear alert being stood on 31 December 1971 by 4 Wing. The last of the weapons were removed from the Canadian bases in 1972 as the Starfighter force was re-tasked with tactical air support- not only did the CF-104's get the M61 Vulcan cannon installed, they also were given a two tone dark gray/dark green camouflage as part of their new conventional tasking. 

The following message was sent from Canadian Forces HQ in Canada to the head of the 1st Canadian Air Division on 17 January 1972: 

"Final phase out of special weapons on 12 January marked the end of an era which started in 1964. Thank you for the great credit which you have brought to the Canadian Armed Forces in Europe."

Sources: Canadian Nuclear Weapons: The Untold Story of Canada's Cold War Arsenal by John Clearwater. Dandurn Press, 1998, pp38-61, 130-219. Additional information from Starfighter CF-104 by Anthony L. Stachiw and Andrew Tattersall. In Canadian Service Aircraft Series #4, Vanwell Publishing, 2007. Photos: Wikipedia, Aircraft Resource Center forums, RCAF Starfighter Association.

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