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Canadian Forces Station Leitrim

CFS Leitrim, located just south of Ottawa, is Canada's oldest operating SIGINT station. Established by the RCCS in 1941 as 1 Special Wireless Station and renamed Ottawa Wireless Station in 1949, Leitrim acquired its current name when the SRS was created in 1966.[1]

In 1946, the station's complement was 75 personnel. By 1959, it had grown to about 200, by 1966, it was about 250, and, by the mid-1970s, it was approximately 350. The current complement at Leitrim is reported to be 400, of whom probably 250 or more are members of the Communicator Research trade.[2]

In 1987, the normal rank of Leitrim's commanding officer was upgraded from Major to Lieutenant Colonel.[3] This upgrade may have been related to an increase in personnel at the station (possibly coinciding with the 1986 closure of Inuvik) and/or to an increase in Leitrim's SIGINT tasks (see below).

Apparently, US Army and Navy SIGINT detachments existed at the station at one time;[4] there is no evidence, however, that such detachments are still at the station.

Equipment and capabilities

Several SIGINT tasks are performed at Leitrim. "The Communications Research projects never cease at Leitrim. The operations area is manned on a continuous basis so the bulk of the station's personnel are shift keepers."[5] The primary function of the station during most of its existence almost certainly has been the interception of diplomatic radio traffic between Ottawa and foreign capitals.[6]

Leitrim contains a wide variety of antennae, including a Pusher HF-DF circularly-disposed antenna array (CDAA), three other large circular arrays, four satellite dishes, and a number of other, small antennae.[7]

Maintenance of the High Arctic Data Communications System (HADCS), the link between Ottawa and Alert, is conducted out of Leitrim.[8] It is possible that the station also does some processing of intercepts received from Alert through the HADCS. The station also performs signal development (SIG DEV) work[9] and "provides engineering, technical, and special logistics support to the other stations of the [Supplementary Radio] system."[10]

Leitrim's most recent and most important mission, however, is the interception of satellite communications, begun with the installation of a small satellite dish, probably in 1985. By November 1986 at the latest, a medium-sized satellite dish (ca. 10 metres) had been added, and by the end of 1987 two medium-sized dishes were in service. By July 1990, another small dish had been added to the station's inventory, for a total of two medium-sized and two small dishes now in service.[11]

The targets of Leitrim's dishes are probably Mexican and/or Brazilian communications satellites. Both countries' satellite constellations were established in 1985, at about the same time as Leitrim's new dishes started to be installed. A focus on these satellites would also explain CSE's rumoured increase in Spanish language activities.[12]

Leitrim is currently undergoing another upgrade. In 1988-89 studies began on the extension and renovation of the Operations Building at the station, and, in July 1992, DND announced a $29-million expansion at the station (including the Operations Building extension).[13] These developments may be related to the SRS project, announced in February 1994, to convert Alert, Masset and 770 CRS to remote operations.[14] The fact that contracts for "pre-definition" studies for the remoting project were being let as recently as March 1994, however, suggests that the current upgrade is part of a different project.[15]

Another, more plausible explanation for the current upgrade is that CSE intends to expand the satellite monitoring operations at the station. (A possible target would be the new Argentinian satellite constellation established in April 1993.[16])

It is not certain, however, that future dishes will be constructed at Leitrim. Although the station remains the logical place for intercept operators to work, CSE may prefer to operate its intercept dishes at a more remote (and more private) site and then retransmit the results to the operators at Leitrim. CSE has already investigated at least one alternative site for future satellite monitoring operations, the former National Research Council radio observatory site at Lake Traverse, in Ontario's Algonquin Park.[17]


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

[2] History - CFS Leitrim, National Defence, no date, Canadian Forces Communications and Electronics Museum collection; Maj R.H. Theakston, "CFS Leitrim," Communications and Electronics Newsletter, 1975?, p. 19; David Pugliese, "Military communications centre to get $29-million facelift," Ottawa Citizen, 17 July 1992, p. F1. During the period 1975-1978, there were normally 225-232 members of the Communicator Research trade at Leitrim, out of a total station complement of about 350 ("Career Manager's Corner," Capt. D.G. Reed, Communications and Electronics Newsletter, 1975?, p. 44; "Communicator Research (291)," Intercom, Vol. 14, Issue 2, April 1978, p. 22); it is likely that additional Communications Researchers accounted for most of the subsequent increase to 400.

[3] National Defence Telephone Directory, National Capital Region, Spring 1987, p. E151; National Defence Telephone Directory, National Capital Region, Autumn 1987, p. E152.

[4] Jeffrey Richelson and Desmond Ball, The Ties That Bind: Intelligence Cooperation Between the UKUSA Countries, Allen and Unwin, 1985, p. 143.

[5] "CFS Leitrim," p. 20.

[6] Bob Gilmour, "Our electronic spying hides behind cover stories," Edmonton Journal, 26 October 1982, p. A2. Apparently, some embassies, including the former Soviet embassy, are not allowed to use radio for their out-going traffic, but must use commercial cable instead (see John Sawatsky, For Services Rendered, Penguin, 1986, (orig. Doubleday, 1983), p. 276). Under section 7 of the Official Secrets Act, the government can require that the cable companies provide copies of this traffic, thus eliminating any need to intercept it. Even in the case of these embassies, however, it would still be necessary to intercept in-coming radio traffic.

[7] "CFS Leitrim," p. 20; air photos A31405-49 and A27611-40, National Air Photo Library; personal observations.

[8] Sgt Don Cain, "On The Edge," Communications and Electronics Newsletter, 1989/02, p. 22; National Defence Telephone Directory, National Capital Region, Winter 1993-94, p. G339.

[9] National Defence Telephone Directory, National Capital Region, Winter 1993-94, p. G338. SIG DEV is the process of detecting, isolating, identifying, and determining how to exploit new targets.

[10] "CFS Leitrim," p. 20.

[11] Air photos A26638-57, A27068-96, A27239-23, and A27611-40.

[12] This rumour was first reported by the author in 1989 in "Spies Without Scrutiny," This Magazine, September 1989, p. 7.

[13] Supplementary Estimates (B), 1988, p. 71; Annual Report 1988-89, Defence Construction (1951) Ltd., 1989, p. 8; "Military communications centre to get $29-million facelift"; Estimates, 1993-94, Part III: National Defence, 1993, p. 111.

[14] See "Canadian Forces Station Alert, N.W.T.," Backgrounder, February 1994.

[15] See, for example, Advance Contract Award Notice 660QE-3-0005, Government Business Opportunities, 11 March 1994, p. 45.

[16] "Telesat sells stake in Anik C," Kitchener-Waterloo Record, 23 January 1993, p. B4.

[17] See contract W2213-2-7619 listed in Government Business Opportunities, 2 December 1992, p. 24.

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