|(Sean M. Maloney/Macleans, 29 October 2007) -- The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming again ... to the Arctic. Whether it's mini-submarines conducting a flag-laying stunt at the North Pole, or resumed nuclear bomber flights, it's déjà vu all over again. But this time, with the chances that global warming is reducing ice cover, the resources of the Arctic are up for grabs. The possibility of an open Northwest Passage stands to be reactivated as a hot-button issue. If Canada cannot project power and does not engage, Canada cannot lay claim. And it's not a new problem. Canada has had to keep an eye on the Arctic neighbourhood before to prevent intrusion. As declassified material from 50 years ago shows, the Arctic was and has always been a battleground of sorts.
It was the 1950s and the Cold War was on. The Soviet Union deployed numerous drift-ice stations in the Arctic, ostensibly for scientific research. Drift-ice stations moved continuously across the Arctic, even entering into waters claimed by Canada. This was a sovereignty challenge, but there was concern these stations could be used to gather intelligence about NATO forces' activities and support an attack against North America.
The RCAF was photo-mapping the Canadian North by the 1930s, but since 1945, the project had accelerated after the Gouzenko affair helped change perceptions of the U.S.S.R. from wartime friend to foe. As well, American naval forces were operating in the North, and posed a potential threat to Arctic sovereignty, so it was imperative that Canada gather as much information as possible and occupy key areas so control could be exerted. Once Canada established weather and signal intelligence stations in the North, our government discovered that there was a great deal of Soviet radio traffic originating from the drift stations. RCAF missions, under the cover of "ice reconnaissance" flights, were sent to investigate. In time, this secret project came to involve a specially equipped squadron of long-range aircraft and a team of Russian-speaking RCAF crews. From 1954 to 1963, the crews of 408 Squadron secretly tracked and photographed Soviet activities in the Arctic region.
At the same time, their counterparts in 407 Squadron based in Comox, B.C., had their Lancasters modified, with special aerial collection filters, by the Defence Research Board (DRB). The Soviet Union was testing nuclear weapons and the radioactive debris drifted over the Arctic (it remains there today, embedded in the snow and ice). Experts could determine from this information the size and capabilities of these weapons, information impossible to get from any other source. Omond Solandt, the head of the DRB, recalled in his unpublished memoirs that "The RCAF was ready to fly on a moment's notice ... the greatest activity was contained in the filters from the North ... [the Americans] came to depend heavily on our filters for their investigations." RCAF crews monitored extensive Soviet Arctic nuclear weapons testing from 1953 to 1962. This amounted to over 50 atmospheric tests. On nearly every occasion, the fallout drifted onto Canadian territory.
Arctic intelligence flights were hazardous. Lancasters had to stage out of remote and rudimentary sites like Resolute Bay, Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit), and the U.S. base at Thule, Greenland. Deceptive flight plans were filed to mislead both the Soviets and the Americans. To get at the Soviet drift stations, the Lancasters had to refuel at the Alert signals intelligence station located on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island. One Lancaster crashed in 1950, killing the entire crew of nine, who were subsequently buried in situ.
The most dramatic find occurred in 1958. Canadian signals intelligence determined that the Russians had a serious problem on one drift station, North Pole 6. A Lancaster was dispatched to take a look—and was authorized to land if necessary. After a harrowing flight, the plane broke through the clouds over North Pole 6, now drifting in Canadian waters, to fi
nd a Soviet Tu-16 Badger nuclear bomber on an ice runway. The aircraft had suffered a mishap and was stranded. Low-level pass after low-level pass gave NATO the first detailed pictures of the TU-16, a state-of-the-art Soviet model not seen up close before, and not possessing intercontinental range. The Canadians believed it was a test to see whether the Badger could refuel on a drift station before an attack on North America. In theory, the Soviets could now take off from a drift station, fly under DEW Line radar and strike targets in the south. RCAF aircraft kept an eye on the station as the Soviets recovered the aircraft and dismantled the station's intelligence-gathering equipment that wasn't supposed to be there in the first place.