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Alert (then located in the Northwest Territories) was first inhabited by employees of the Canadian Department of Transport and the United States Weather Bureau in 1950 when the "Joint Arctic Weather Station" (JAWS) was established. An airfield and small building were built to service various weather monitoring equipment.
This weather station remains in operation to this day, however operations were subsequently handed over to employees of the Canadian Department of the Environment via the Meteorological Service of Canada.
Alert Wireless Station
The Canadian military was interested in the establishment of JAWS at Alert for several reasons. The JAWS facility extended Canadian sovereignty over a large uninhabited area which Canada claimed as its territory. Alert was also the closest point in North America to the northwestern area of the Soviet Union. In fact, Alert was closer to Moscow than it was to Ottawa, therefore the possibilities of using the site for intercepting radio signals warranted a military presence.
In 1956, the Royal Canadian Air Force which was expanding its presence throughout the high Arctic with the construction of the Distant Early Warning Line radar network, established a building uphill from the DOT's JAWS station to house "High Arctic Long Range Communications Research" or signals intelligence operations.
In 1957, the Alert Wireless Station was conceived as an intercept facility to be jointly staffed by personnel from the Royal Canadian Navy and the RCAF. Five additional buildings were constructed: a mess, 3 barracks/accomodations buildings, and a power house and vehicle maintenance building, in addition to the existing operations building built in 1956. The operations building housed the radio intercept and cryptographic equipment. Up to 24 men were posted to Alert at any one time. Alert was considered (and remains to this day) a hardship assignment, with no spouses being permitted. Until 1980 only men were permitted to deploy at Alert.
The February 1, 1968 unification of the RCN, RCAF and Canadian Army to form the Canadian Armed Forces saw the Alert Wireless Station change its name to Canadian Forces Station Alert (CFS Alert). Its personnel were no longer drawn from the air force or navy, but rather from the Canadian Forces Communication Command.
At its peak, CFS Alert had upwards of 215 personnel posted at any one time. The station became a key asset in the global ECHELON network of the US-UK-ANZAC intelligence sharing alliance, with Alert being privy to many secret Soviet communications regarding land-based and sea-based ICBM test launches and many operational military deployments.
Budget cuts to the Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces in 1994 saw CFS Alert downsized to approximately 74 personnel by 1997-1998 when most radio-intercept operations were automated (controlled by CFS Leitrim ). Remaining personnel are responsible for airfield operations, construction/engineering, food service, and logistical/administrative support. Only 6 personnel are now responsible for actual operations and control of the facility was passed to DND's Information Management Group following the disbanding of CF Communication Command with a force restructuring and cutbacks in the mid-1990s. Several of these personnel are likely also attached to DND's Communications Security Establishment.
With Canada's committment to the global war on terrorism following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, CFS Alert has received renewed and increased funding to expand its SIG/INT capabilities.
The military has constructed several roads in the area to permit patrolling, as well as for logistics purposes from shore locations near anchorages east of the station, as well as to the airfield. Resupply is provided by cargo ships during the short shipping season in late summer when Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers can provide escort services. The rest of the year, Alert is serviced exclusively by Canadian Forces Air Command (AIRCOM) transport aircraft.
Alert is in total darkness from October 14 to March 1 every year and its weather conditions and isolation provides a significant challenge to pilots. Unfortunately there have also been several tragic crashes.
- In summer of 1950 an RCAF Lancaster crashed during the establishment of the JAWS weather station when the parachute for resupplies being airdropped became entangled on the tail of the aircraft. All 9 crewmembers were killed and are buried west of the airstrip.
- On October 30, 1991 an AIRCOM CC-130 Hercules transport aircraft flying to CFS Alert from Edmonton, Alberta via Thule, Greenland, was on final approach to the airstrip. The pilot apparently was flying by sight rather than relying on instruments. The aircraft crashed 2 miles short of the runway, killing 5 of the 18 passengers and crew. Subsequent rescue efforts by personnel from CFS Alert, USAF personnel from Thule, and CF personnel from bases in southern Canada, were hampered by a blizzard and local terrain. The crash investigation recommended all CC-130s be retrofitted with ground proximity detectors. The crash and rescue efforts were the basis of a film called "Ordeal in the Arctic."
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