The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line was built during the Cold War to protect North America from Soviet aircraft that might invade the continent via the North Pole. An early warning system, the DEW Line was initiated on February 15, 1954, when US President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill approving its construction.
The concept of the DEW Line was based upon two fundamental principles: (i) that Arctic radar systems would be the primary detection system via data collected and processed at the main operating stations and (ii) that the system would not be able to intercept or destroy invading aircraft. The DEW Line was organized into a western sector with headquarters at Cambridge Bay on the southeast coast of Victoria Island, and an eastern sector with headquarters at Hall Beach on Melville Peninsula.
Engineers designed the DEW Line to detect aircraft at a maximum range of 300 km flying at a low altitude (15 m over water) using a dual-antenna system. The detection would occur with the identification of a Doppler frequency produced by the invading aircraft.
The construction of the 58 operating sites took place between 1955 and 1957, and the system was fully operational by July 31, 1957. The construction included six main stations, 23 auxiliary stations, and 28 intermediate stations, forming a line along the north coast of Arctic Alaska and Canada with overlapping radar coverage.
Mapping teams traveled over 1.6 million kilometers, reviewing over 80,000 aerial photos as part of the intricate siting and mapping process. During construction of the DEW Line, over 113,000 purchase orders were issued to 4700 supplier companies in the US and Canada at a total cost of approximately 350 million US dollars.
Supplies and equipment were transported to the Arctic from various US locations for the construction. The material included 127,000 tons by aircraft, 256,000 tons by naval convoy, 16,000 tons by cat train, and 18,000 tons by barge. In addition, 284 million liters of petroleum products were shipped. Environmental concerns over widespread contamination of sites and coastal waters by hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have recently been raised.
Three construction companies employed a total of more than 20,000 people in the two and a half years of the DEW Line's construction. The peak number of people actually employed in the Arctic at that time was about 7500. In support of the workforce, 20,000 tons of food was transported over a period of 32 months.
The DEW Line was the largest commercial airlift operation ever reported, with 45,000 commercial flights delivering 109,000 tons over a period of 32 months. Moreover, 100,000 copies of 600 different manuals that were prepared to outline operation and maintenance of the Line were transported to the Pole.
Between 1957 and 1959, the DEW Line was extended westward with six stations along the
Aleutian Islands. The DEW East project led to the establishment of four DEW Line sites in Greenland in 1957: one on the west coast, one on the east coast, and two on the Greenland icecap.
With the signing of the North American Air Defense Modernization agreement between Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and then-President Ronald Reagan on March 18, 1985, the DEW Line began its transition into the North Warning System.
Kenneth R. Johnson
Jockel, Joseph T., No Boundaries Upstairs, Canada, the United States and the Origins of North American Air Defence, 1945-1958, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987
Morenus, Richard, DEW Line: Distant Early Warning, the Miracle of America's First Line of Defense, New York: Rand McNally, 1957
Reimer, K.J., D.A. Bright, W.T. Dushenko, S.L. Grundy & J.S. Poland, The Environmental Impact of the DEW Line on the Canadian Arctic, Ottawa, Canada: Director General Environment, Department of National Defense, 1993
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