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Nuclear spectre still here

By: Stu Salkeld

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Jan 22, 2014 06:00 am

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When I was a boy there was a military base near my hometown of Oyen, about two hours east of Drumheller.

Kids, myself included, used to get excited when we passed the base on the highway. The base was located at Alsask, just over the Saskatchewan border. Now, the base itself is not what was so exciting. It was the golf balls.

“The golf balls” is what the kids called the base’s radar array – three huge radar domes that looked exactly like massive golf balls bigger than a house, bigger than several houses, actually.

An eight-year-old doesn’t think about why such a base is there. A kid just looks at it and says, “Wow.”

When I became an adult, I learned more about what those golf balls were and, frighteningly, why they were there.

In the early 1950s, as the western world came to terms with the Red threat and the fact the Soviets had stolen the atomic secret from the west, tensions ran high. Military commanders in the U.S., Great Britain and other western nations were rather concerned the Soviets could and would start a thermonuclear war, either by jet bomber, initially, or intercontinental ballistic missile, later. So several lines of radar detection stations were developed by the North American Air Defense Command across Canada. That included CFS Alsask, part of the Pinetree Line of stations.

The entire system was part of what war theorists at the time called “MAD,” or mutually assured destruction. It was assumed the Soviet Union would be the aggressor in an atomic or nuclear war. The quickest and easiest way for them to destroy the rival United States would be deployment of bomber fleets or ICBMs over the Arctic Circle.

MAD philosophy called for an effective early warning system, so the U.S., Britain, France and other NATO allies could launch their own strikeforce of bombers or missiles, in retaliation. Although a Soviet attack couldn’t be stopped, a quick counterattack guaranteed the aggressor would also be destroyed. Since both sides knew they couldn’t “win,” no nuclear war would ever occur.

As a child of the Cold War, I was scared to death by the premise of nuclear war. I recall once in 1977, when I was in Grade 1, we had a nuclear war air-raid drill (likely because CFS Alsask would be a Soviet target). We kids were taught to hide under our desks, as if that would protect us from a 20-megaton blast.

In 1989, when the Cold War ended, I assumed the nuclear threat was over. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Federation of American Scientists estimates there are 17,300 nuclear warheads in the world, compared to about 30,000 at the height of the Cold War in 1962.

What frightens me now is that, as a kid, I knew who had those weapons. Now, those nuclear weapons could be in the hands of anyone.

Stu Salkeld is the editor of the St. Albert Gazette.


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