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Canadian Forces Station Alert

CFS Alert, located on the north coast of Ellesmere Island in the Northwest Territories, is the "most northern permanently inhabited settlement in the world."[1] Established on an experimental basis by the RCAF in 1956, it was taken over by the RCCS in September 1958. In 1958, the station complement was only 29 personnel, but by 1959 it had grown to 92, by 1970 it had grown to "about 200," and by the late 1980s it had grown to "approximately 220" personnel. The station's current complement is reported to be "approximately 180 military positions," of which as many as 110 are members of the Communicator Research trade (intercept operators).[2] In February 1994, it was announced that Alert will be converted to remote operations by 1997-98, reducing its complement by about 90%.[3]

Alert is the Supplementary Radio System's "hardship" post. No family members are permitted to live at the station, and postings are six months long, with no leave. Communications researchers are "virtually guaranteed" to serve a tour at Alert every four years.[4]

As of February 1980, a special Alert allowance is paid to personnel doing second or subsequent tours. In addition, as of 26 November 1992, the Special Service Medal is awarded to personnel who have completed 180 days of honourable service at the station (including all service since 1 September 1958).[5]

Until 1980, only men were permitted to be posted to Alert; as a result of this policy, no women were allowed in the Communications Research trade. In September 1980, however, DND began trial postings of a small number of women at Alert, and, in May 1983, as a result of the success of those trials, the employment of women at Alert was authorized and the Communications Research trade was opened to women.[6]

Equipment and capabilities

Alert is Canada's most important intercept station for monitoring the former Soviet Union. During the Cold War, it was responsible for collecting the intercepts that probably constituted the most important Canadian contribution to the UKUSA community. Little has been said about Alert's monitoring responsibilities, but it is likely that the Soviet air force and air defence forces were among its most important targets, and that the Russian successors of these forces remain major targets. According to one newspaper account, Canadian personnel at Alert also "intercept and record radio transmissions from... China and other countries."[7]

The intercept antennae at the station include a variety of high frequency (HF) and very high frequency (VHF) antennae, and one large high frequency direction finding (HF-DF) circularly-disposed antenna array (CDAA). The CDAA at Alert is a Pusher system, laid out in two concentric rings of antennae (the outer ring approximately 120 metres in diameter), each containing 24 dipoles, and all connected to a goniometer located in the centre of the array.[8] This system can monitor the entire HF radio frequency band, from 1.5 MHz to 30 MHz.

Work is continuing to improve the capabilities of this system. Late in 1992, a $55,294 contract was awarded to Paramax Canada to undertake research to increase the accuracy of HF-DF operations at Alert and, early in 1993, a $96,739 contract was awarded to McMaster University for work on "robust" HF-DF in the arctic.[9]

The station's communications researchers work in the operations building, Polaris Hall, which has been described as "the heart and pulsebeat of Station Alert... Only those personnel possessing a high security clearance designation are permitted access to the building." Completed in 1980, Polaris Hall cost approximately $2.6 million to build.[10]

The High Arctic Data Communications System (HADCS), also known as the Hurricane Data Link, is the station's primary communications link with the south. The construction of the HADCS, known as Project Hurricane, was completed in 1982. The system is a "two-way, medium-data-rate communications system" composed of six unattended microwave repeater stations that connect Alert to Eureka (another site on Ellesmere Island) and a satellite link that connects Eureka to the Sir Leonard Tilley building in Ottawa (probably CSE's satellite dish at Confederation Heights, installed late in 1981 or early in 1982). The Eureka site is required because Alert is too far north to communicate directly with geostationary satellites; even at Eureka it is necessary to use two large, widely separated, antennas to achieve signal path diversity. Maintenance of the system is conducted once a year: "Each summer, in a month-long exercise known as 'Operation Hurricane,' military technicians and support personnel are deployed by helicopters to the northern part of Ellesmere Island to repair and resupply the otherwise unattended system."[11]

Preliminary work is currently underway on a replacement system, the HADCS II project.

Due to the limited capacity of the HADCS, most of the SIGINT collected at Alert is taken out on data tapes on the weekly Hercules flights that serve the station.[12] This, in fact, may be the reason that the flights are so frequent. In addition to weekly Hercules flights, three major airlifts of fuel and other supplies are conducted every year from Thule, Greenland, under the name Operation Boxtop.[13]


[1] CFS Alert introductory booklet (no title), National Defence, ca. 1988, p. 1, released under the Access to Information Act.

[2] Description of Alert, no date, Canadian Forces Communications and Electronics Museum collection; "Alert on top of the world," Sentinel, November-December 1970, p. 20; CFS Alert introductory booklet, p. 4; Maj John Fedoruk, "They are heroes too," Sentinel, 1992/4, p. 28; "Canadian Forces Station Alert, N.W.T.," Backgrounder, National Defence, February 1994. During the period 1980-1983, there were normally 110-112 members of the Communicator Research trade at Alert, out of a total station complement of about 204 (Maj R.E. Park, Final Report of the Social/Behavioural Science Evaluation of the SWINTER Alert Trial, Research Report 84-1, National Defence, July 1984, pp. 3 and 47.).

[3] "Canadian Forces Station Alert, N.W.T.," February 1994.

[4] Capt Gerald Baril, "Room at the Top," Sentinel, 1980/3, p. 8.

[5] CFS Alert introductory booklet, p. 14; P.C. 1992-2435 (26 November 1992), registered in Canada Gazette Part II, Vol. 126, No. 26, 16 December 1992, p. 5133.

[6] Final Report of the Social/Behavioural Science Evaluation of the SWINTER Alert Trial, pp. 2, 36. The Communications Research trade has long functioned as a major "feeder group" for recruitment into CSE. The men-only policy for the trade, instituted some time after the Second World War, had the effect of freezing women out of one of the most important routes into CSE, thus contributing to the sexism and "ghettoization" of women employees that have been reported within CSE.

[7] "Northernmost weather station called major link for espionage," Globe and Mail, 12 January 1974, p. 11.

[8] Air photo A26984-107, National Air Photo Library.

[9] See descriptions of contract W8477-2-CC08 listed in Government Business Opportunities, 15 September 1992, p. 19 and Government Business Opportunities, 27 January 1993, p. 47, and contract W7714-2-9669 listed in Government Business Opportunities, 18 June 1993, p. 50.

[10] Michael Stephenson, "High Arctic Watch," The Beaver, Spring 1982, pp. 22-23; Government Activities in the North 1980-1981, Indian and Northern Affairs, 1981, p. 120; 1977-78 Supplementary Estimates (A), 1977, p. 72.

[11] Government Activities in the North 1982-1983, 1983, p. 63; G.D. Nagy, Power Supplies For Arctic Radio Repeater Systems, Report No. 787, Defence Research Establishment Ottawa, September 1978, p. 1; Government Activities in the North 1981-1982, 1982, p. 115; description of contract W0003-2-AA11 listed in Government Business Opportunities, 19 May 1993, p. 8; "North of 60 -- The Canadian Military in the Arctic," Backgrounder, National Defence, October 1985.

[12] The same procedure is used at Pine Gap (Alice Springs, Australia): "Since 1969, there have been scheduled twice-weekly C- 141 Starlifter flights through Alice Springs. Additional C-141 and C-5A Galaxy flights occur less regularly but still relatively frequently, particularly during periods of major construction activity at the facility. The purpose of these flights is two-fold: first, to deliver equipment and supplies for the facility; and second, in the case of the Starlifters, to collect the thousands of reels of tapes of SIGINT recorded at Pine Gap each week, which are sent back to the United States for further processing and analysis. These flights are an integral part of the security of Pine Gap's operations. Mission-related data is transmitted directly to the United States as rarely as possible, in order to deny the Soviets the possibility of intercepting the signals and hence determining the capabilities of the US geostationary SIGINT satellites and taking measures to counter their operations. Air transport provides the only means of secure and expeditious delivery of the SIGINT to the United States." (Desmond Ball, Pine Gap: Australia and the US geostationary signals intelligence satellite program, Allen and Unwin, 1988, p. 74.)

[13] Defence 89, National Defence, 1990, p. 59.

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