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Canada’s Nuclear Strike Force

Canada's CF-104s wore bare metal with white wings in the nuclear strike role.

For eight years between 1964 and 1972, Canada maintained a small but potent nuclear strike force in Europe equipped with license-built Lockheed F-104 Starfighters under the auspices of the 1st Air Division. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by the 1 Canadian Air Division was part of a broader umbrella agreement signed with the United States by the government of Prime Minister Lester Pearson, intended to improve Canada’s bilateral relationship with the United States, raise Canada’s military posture within NATO, and a fulfill a desire for a more effective defense policy.

The acquisition of nuclear-capable platforms like the Starfighter began during the administration of Prime Minster John Diefenbaker. Pearson and the Liberal Party had initially scored political points attacking Diefenbaker for shifting Canada towards a nuclear-capable defense policy, but after defeating the Conservative Party in the 1963 elections, one of Pearson’s first acts was to reverse the Liberal Party’s course and acquire nuclear weapons for Canada. His change of heart occurred during the run up to the national elections and, on 16 August 1963, an agreement was finalized with the United States that provided for nuclear weapons for four weapons systems: the CF-104 Starfighters in Europe, Honest John short range ballistic missiles for the Canadian Army in Europe, and BOMARC missiles and Genie nuclear-tipped rockets for the CF-101 Voodoo force for the air defense of Canada.

The 1st Air Division was established in 1952 in France as part of Canada’s NATO air defense commitment. Four wings made up the 1st Air Division and each wing had three squadrons. For most of the 1950s, the Air Division flew F-86 Sabres. These were replaced with CF-100 Canucks to provide all-weather/night air defense capability. In the late 1950s, Canada embarked on a search for a supersonic replacement for the CF-100 fleet. At the time, air defense was on Canada’s mind but the political winds of the Cold War were such that as one of the charter members of NATO, considerable pressure was brought on Canada to contribute to nuclear-deterrent forces in Europe.

Canadian officials inspect a CF-104.
Canadian officials inspect a CF-104. Note the faired over gunport.

With a generous industrial offset, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was chosen as the replacement aircraft for the 1st Air Division, with the aircraft being license-built by Canadair in Montreal as the CF-104. Originally the designation was to be the CF-111, but it was quickly decided to adopt the CF-104 designation to simplify administrative matters as some of Canadair’s production would also be for NATO partners to augment European license production of the Starfighter. Coinciding with the selection of the Starfighter, on 2 July 1959, Canadian Defence Minister George Pearkes announced that the 1st Air Division (which would became 1 Canadian Air Division) would transition from an air defense role to a strike/reconnaissance role. Little mention was made of the adaptation of nuclear strike as one of the Division’s primary tasks. 

Reorganization of the Division’s assets as part of NATO’s 4th Allied Tactical Air Force would put two squadrons assigned to each of 1 Canadian Air Division’s four wings: 1 Wing based at Marville AB in France would have 439 and 441 Squadrons, 2 Wing based at Groestenquin AB in France would have 421 and 430 Squadrons, 3 Wing based at Zweibrucken in West Germany would have 427 and 434 Squadron and 4 Wing based at Baden-Soellingen also in West Germany would have 422 and 444 Squadron. Following France’s withdrawal from NATO military command in 1967, 1 Canadian Air Division was reorganized again with just three wings all based in West Germany: 1 Wing at Lahr, 3 Wing at Zweibrucken, and 4 Wing at Baden-Soellingen.

Because the 1963 agreement was signed in the wake of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the Canadian government did much to minimize the military’s new nuclear role for the Starfighter force, and it wasn’t until 1990 that the true extent of the 1 Canadian Air Division’s nuclear capability was known. Some military officials went as far as to publicly point out to the Canadian press that the CF-104 was “too small” to carry a “large” nuclear weapon and it was a fighter, not a strike aircraft.

CF-104 in flight showing the white wings and large roundels.
CF-104 in flight showing the white wings and large roundels.

In fact, the CF-104s were optimized for the nuclear strike mission; unlike most other nations’ Starfighters, the Canadians didn’t have the M61 Vulcan cannon installed and instead added an additional fuel cell to extend its combat radius. The skill set and tactics for nuclear strike in Europe were also applicable to low level reconnaissance, so the CF-104s could carry a centerline VICON camera pod with 70mm cameras that photographed targets of interest on each side of the aircraft, straight down, and ahead. In the nuclear strike role, the wingtip fuel tanks were augmented with under wing fuel drop tanks with the nuclear weapon mounted on the centerline station.

Three different nuclear stores were used by the CF-104 fleet and each had its own unique Canadian designation. The most common weapon was the B28 which came in two versions: the B28EX, a free fall weapon which the Canadians referred to as “Weapon #1” and the B28RE, or “Weapon #2,” a parachute-retarded version of the B28EX. The B28 warhead was capable of different yields, ranging from 70 kilotons to 1.45 Megatons, but in practice only the 70 kilotons and 350 kilotons yields were used by the 1 Canadian Air Division.  A four digit code was required for the permissive action link (PAL) to arm the weapon. The B28EX was delivered in an over the shoulder toss while the B28RE was delivered at low altitudes, the parachute allowing the CF-104 pilot to make his escape before detonation. 

The B43 nuclear bomb, referred to by the Canadians as “Weapon #3,” was only used by 4 Wing and had a massive 1 Mt warhead. It could be parachute-retarded but, like the B28s, also had a PAL for arming. The fourth nuclear store used by the CF-104 force was the B57. It was a low-yield weapon with an explosive force of 5-20 kilotons. Also known as “Weapon #4,” it was much lighter than the other stores. It was initially developed for the US Navy, which wanted a lightweight tactical nuclear weapon. Like the other weapons, the B57 had an option for parachute delivery as well as a four-digit PAL code to arm the warhead. 

The B28 weapons were delivered first, beginning in May 1964. The B57 arrived in 1966 and the B43 was delivered to Canadian bases in 1968. Because the weapons remained in US custody even on Canadian bases, it gave the Pearson government political cover regarding proliferation. At each base, the weapon storage area was manned by United States Air Force personnel and the PAL codes were kept in a safe at the quick-reaction area (QRA) accessible only by the United States Air Force alert duty officer. Release of weapons was under dual-key authority which both US and Canadian command authorities had to authorize. Loading of a live weapon took about 30 minutes, so each Canadian base had a QRA area where fully-armed Starfighters stood nuclear alert. Double-barrier fencing surrounded each QRA area, and no individual could work on the alert aircraft alone. Two personnel had to be present for even the most minor tasks to be performed on the QRA Starfighters. 

Kit box art showing the four tank configuration of the CF-104.
Kit box art showing the four tank configuration of the CF-104.

The targets of the 1 Canadian Air Division consisted primarily of the logistical depots and airfields of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG). Major bridges that would be used in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe were also on the Canadians’ target list. The exact targets to be hit were provided by Supreme Allied Command Europe (SACEUR) HQ, but it was up to each squadron and its pilots to plan the inbound and outbound routes to the targets and any particular tactics to be used during the mission. Each squadron had a target evaluation board that reviewed each mission plan for acceptance. Once accepted, the plan was forward to the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command in Omaha, Nebraska, where it was included in the the United States military’s nuclear war plan, the Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP). This way, Canadian missions (and any other mission planned by NATO allies or other US military branches) could be deconflicted.

Each plan required a high degree of timing precision, typically inside of a 30 second window to hit each navigational waypoint to avoid flying into someone else’s thermonuclear detonation. In practice missions, the Canadian pilots proved to be highly skilled, usually hitting each navigational waypoint within 10 seconds of the plan. Once fully operational in the nuclear strike role, the 1 Canadian Air Division was responsible for 20 per cent of the 4th Allied Tactical Air Force’s nuclear muscle; 4ATAF covered central and southern West Germany and included two Luftwaffe divisions, the USAF’s Seventeenth Air Force, and a large number of Army air defense units. The squadrons of the 1 Canadian Air Division were subject to each and every one of the nuclear inspection and readiness drills that any nuclear-capable USAF unit had to not just endure, but pass with near perfect scores. 

Prime Minister Pearson’s 1968 announcement that he planned to step down (and be succeeded by Pierre Trudeau) coincided with a drawdown of Canada’s NATO nuclear commitment. Social changes going in both Canada and the United States in the late 1960s required more focus on domestic issues in Canada and nuclear alert duty in Europe was very expensive. Despite some of 1 Canadian Air Division’s squadrons being operational with nuclear weapons for a short period of time (1 Wing only started nuclear alert duties in 1969), the drawdown began in 1970 and the last nuclear alert was stood on 31 December 1971 by 4 Wing. The last of the weapons were removed from the Canadian bases in 1972 as the Starfighter force was re-tasked with tactical air support. The the M61 Vulcan cannons were installed on the CF-104s and they were given a two tone dark gray/dark green camouflage as part of their new conventional tasking. 

The following message was sent from Canadian Forces HQ in Canada to the head of the 1st Canadian Air Division on 17 January 1972: 

Final phase out of special weapons on 12 January marked the end of an era which started in 1964. Thank you for the great credit which you have brought to the Canadian Armed Forces in Europe.

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3 Responses

  1. Hessel van den Berg

    I love the Starfighter, currently there’s an organisation trying to get the starfighter back in the air in the Netherlands. Such an awesome sight.

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