Canada’s Connections to Nuclear Weapons

Tasneem Jamal

Bill Robinson

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2002 Volume 23 Issue 3

Bill Robinson researches and writes on nuclear weapons issues and other topics for a variety of Canadian peace and social justice organizations.

While the Canadian government condemns any reliance on nuclear weapons by non-allied countries, it continues to treat those same weapons as a useful – even necessary – element of Canada’s defences and those of its allies.

This article outlines Canada’s major known connections to the nuclear arsenals of its allies. Its purpose is to provide an overview of the ways in which Canada is connected to nuclear weapons that is as comprehensive as possible. Many of these activities are connected to nuclear weapons in comparatively peripheral ways, while also playing other, non-nuclear roles in Canadian foreign and defence policy; thus, inclusion of an activity on this list does not necessarily imply that it would not continue in a nuclear-weapons-free Canada. Since very little information has been officially released on such connections, it must be borne in mind that this list is incomplete and may in some cases be out of date.

Nuclear command/decision-making

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nuclear decision-making

Canada supports NATO’s nuclear strategy and participates in the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, the primary forum for Alliance nuclear decision-making. Canada contributes personnel to, and helps pay the operating costs of, the various NATO headquarters and planning staffs, including the NATO Nuclear Policy Directorate, that are involved in planning for and, if necessary, carrying out nuclear operations.

NORAD nuclear attack warning/assessment and command of strategic air defence

Canada participates in the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), Canadians are integrated throughout the command structure of NORAD, and Canadian military forces are assigned to support its operations. The Deputy Commander of NORAD is a Canadian officer. Canadian military personnel participate in NORAD’s “Integrated Tactical Warning/Attack Assessment” operations (a vital input to US nuclear weapons decision-making) and participate in command over US and Canadian strategic air defence forces (an important component of the US nuclear war-fighting capability).

In April 2002, the US decided to create a new Unified Command, Northern Command (NORTHCOM), to coordinate the land, aerospace, and sea defences of the United States. NORTHCOM became operational on 1 October 2002, at which time responsibility for NORAD was transferred from Space Command (SPACECOM) to NORTHCOM, and the Commander of NORTHCOM was double-hatted as Commander in Chief of NORAD (US Dept. of Defense 2002). At the same time, SPACECOM was merged with Strategic Command (STRATCOM) to create a new STRATCOM responsible for strategic nuclear and conventional forces, information operations, and strategic defence (including presumably the operation of missile defences once they are deployed). Prior to this reorganization, the US government had decided that NORAD or, in the absence of Canadian agreement, SPACECOM would operate any missile defence of North America eventually deployed. Many Canadians had argued that NORAD was likely to disappear or at least lose all relevance unless Canada agreed to participate in missile defence. The US decision to assign missile defence to STRATCOM instead may reduce the likelihood that the future of NORAD will depend on Canadian support for missile defence. The Canadian government has not decided what position it will take if asked to participate in operating such a system.

A number of Canadian personnel were assigned to SPACECOM prior to its absorption by STRATCOM. It is not yet clear whether Canadians will continue to fill these positions now that they fall under the purview of STRATCOM.


Nuclear weapons deployment in Canada

No nuclear weapons have been based in Canada since 1984, when US Genie air-to-air missiles were returned to the United States from their storage sites at Canadian airbases. Secret agreements reportedly existed as recently as the mid-1980s, however, to permit the dispersal of armed US bombers to Canadian airfields during crisis or wartime (Arkin & Fieldhouse 1985, p. 78). The bomber dispersal option remains an element of US nuclear planning, but it is not publicly known whether agreements for dispersal to Canadian sites still exist.

NATO nuclear weapons deployment

Canada contributes to NATO Infrastructure Funds that, among other uses, help pay for NATO-related nuclear weapon deployments in Europe. The most recent nuclear-related project was the installation of Weapon Storage and Security System (WS3) nuclear weapons storage vaults at 13 European NATO airbases during the 1990s. Planned modernization of these vaults is expected also to be paid for in this manner.


Transit of nuclear-armed bombers

Nuclear-armed bombers no longer fly in Canadian airspace during normal peacetime. The airborne alert and positive control launch options1 remain elements of US nuclear planning, however, and arrangements almost certainly continue to exist to authorize operations by armed bombers in Canadian airspace during crisis or wartime. Many of the so-called “fail-safe points” where airborne bombers would remain prior to receiving confirmed attack orders are likely to be in Canadian airspace.

Transit of nuclear-armed vessels

US Navy nuclear-capable submarines transit Canadian waters and visit Canadian ports on a regular basis. Although almost none of these visitors carry nuclear weapons during normal peacetime, Halifax in recent years has hosted a number of visits by Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, which carry 24 Trident II missiles armed with a total of up to 192 nuclear warheads. Visitors to the Canadian Forces Maritime and Experimental Test Ranges (CFMETR) at Nanoose, British Columbia also have included at least one operational Ohio-class submarine, carrying in that case 24 Trident I missiles also armed with a total of up to 192 warheads.

Operational support

Strategic defence operations

In the event of a nuclear war, Canadian air defence forces would work with US air defence forces to defend North America against Russian bombers. Such efforts likely would be meaningless in the context of a Russian attack, but they might (at least in theory) be highly significant if the United States were the first to attack. In the event of a US first strike, US and Canadian air defences (and missile defences, if any) would need only to intercept any Russian nuclear forces that survived the initial attack. The technical ability of US nuclear forces to execute a successful first strike against Russian forces probably is greater now than it has been since the 1950s, and it will grow even greater if missile defences are deployed. The May 2002 US-Russia nuclear “reductions” agreement will not change this situation. The existence of such a capability, even if Russia does not fear current US intentions, will encourage Russia to take steps to reduce the vulnerability of its nuclear forces, such as retaining larger nuclear forces than it otherwise would, maintaining those forces on high alert, and preserving the option of launching them on warning of attack (a policy that dramatically increases the danger of accidental nuclear war).

Canada does not deploy missile defences, and US missile defence plans do not currently envisage the siting of tracking radars or other facilities in Canadian territory. This circumstance may change, however – particularly if opposition in Greenland and Denmark prevents the deployment of radars at Thule, Greenland. In that event, Canada would come under strong pressure to permit the use of Canadian territory for deployment of such radars (Pugliese 2002).

Support for tanker aircraft

The 1987 defence white paper, Challenge and Commitment: A Defence Policy for Canada, confirmed that arrangements existed between Canada and the US to permit the dispersal of Strategic Command tanker aircraft (to refuel the US bomber fleet) at unspecified Canadian airfields during crisis or wartime. It is likely that these arrangements continue to exist. Similar arrangements may also exist for nuclear command-and-control aircraft.

Nuclear-related communications sites

Canadian NORAD-related radio communications sites almost certainly are designated to operate as backup communications systems for airborne nuclear bombers and other Strategic Command aircraft. The air/ground/air radio sites that formerly comprised the Greenpine system, primarily co-located with NORAD North Warning System sites, were specifically installed to communicate with US bombers flying at or near their fail-safe points during crisis or wartime.

Strategic anti-submarine warfare

Canadian naval forces and maritime patrol aircraft help track (and, in wartime, would help to destroy) Russian ballistic missile submarines and other naval forces. Russian missile submarines now rarely, if ever, venture near North America. In recent years, however, Canada also has engaged in research with the US on monitoring submarine movements throughout the Arctic Basin, where the core of the much-diminished Russian missile submarine fleet now patrols.2

Collection/processing of signals intelligence (SIGINT)

The Canadian Forces Information Operations Group (CFIOG) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) eavesdrop on radio communications and other electronic emissions to gather information about strategic targets and defence systems in Russia and to help track Russian air and naval forces (among many other intelligence targets). CSE and CFIOG operations are tightly integrated with those of their US counterparts, and Canadian detachments and/or exchange personnel serve at a number of similar US SIGINT facilities.


Bomber training

Unarmed US bombers use Canadian airspace to practice airborne alert operations, low-level flying (along as many as seven low-level bomber training corridors across Canada), nuclear bombing, and, with the co-operation of Canadian air defence forces, electronic warfare and air defence penetration tactics.

Dual-capable fighter-bomber training

Dutch, German, and Italian fighter-bombers practice offensive tactics, some of which may be relevant to nuclear bomb delivery, as part of their flight training at Goose Bay, Labrador. (A small number of Dutch, German, and Italian fighter-bomber squadrons are certified to carry US nuclear bombs during wartime; aircraft from Dutch and German nuclear-certified squadrons are known to have participated in flight training at Goose Bay.) The British Royal Air Force also trains at Goose Bay, but its aircraft are no longer equipped with nuclear weapons.

Anti-submarine warfare testing/training

US Navy surface and submarine forces test torpedoes and practice anti-submarine warfare (ASW) tactics in co-operation with Canadian naval forces at CFMETR in British Columbia. Among their other purposes, these activities are directly relevant to strategic ASW operations (i.e., operations against Russian missile submarines).

Nuclear weapon delivery vehicle testing

In the past, Canada has permitted flight tests in Canadian airspace of the AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile and AGM-129A Advanced Cruise Missile, both of which are strategic nuclear delivery vehicles in current operational service. These tests were conducted under the Canada-United States Test and Evaluation Program (CANUSTEP) agreement, which was signed in 1983 and extended in modified form in 1993. The cruise missile test program was ended in 1994, but future tests of these or other nuclear delivery systems could be undertaken under the auspices of this agreement in the future.

Research and development / production

Missile defence research

The Canadian government chose not to participate formally in US missile defence research when invited to do so in 1985. This position was reversed, however, in the 1994 Defence White Paper, in which the government announced that Canada would co-operate in “the examination of ballistic missile defence options focused on research and building on Canada=s existing capabilities in communications and surveillance.” A number of Canadian government and joint US-Canadian missile defence-related projects are already underway.

Exports of nuclear technology/materials

Canadian exports of uranium and of nuclear technology contributed to the development and production of nuclear weapons in the United States, Britain, India, and, probably, France. Despite Canada=s comparatively strict safeguards regime, much of which was established after the aforementioned contributions, the risk remains that such exports will continue to contribute to nuclear proliferation in the future. In 1992, the parliamentary Sub-Committee on Arms Export (pp. 23-24) recommended that “the nature, results and controls over nuclear-related materials, systems, technology and components be the subject of a parliamentary study.” To date, however, no such study has been undertaken.

Nuclear weapon-related exports

In recent years Canadian industry has produced components for B-2 bombers; B-52 bombers; a number of dual-capable systems, including F-15, F-16, and F-117 fighter-bombers; and a variety of missile defence and other nuclear-related systems. Many of these contracts were obtained with the assistance of the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a Crown corporation, and subsidised with millions of dollars from the Technology Partnerships Canada program (and its predecessor the Defence Industry Productivity Program) and other government programs.



  1. The “airborne alert” option is the ability to maintain a portion of the US bomber force armed and airborne 24 hours a day, ready to fly directly to their nuclear targets. The “positive control launch” option is the ability to send armed bombers airborne on the receipt of indications of a nuclear attack on the United States, but before the attack has been confirmed. To reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war, bombers launched under these circumstances would not fly to their nuclear targets, but would fly instead to “fail-safe points” (formally known as positive control turn around points), where they would await further orders.
  2. See, e.g., Verrall 2000.


Arkin, William M. & Fieldhouse, Richard W. 1985, Nuclear Battlefields: Global Links in the Arms Race, Ballinger.

Pugliese, David 2002, “U.S. covets Maritime radar post: Eastern Canada sites would help missile shield: DND report,” Ottawa Citizen, 28 April.

Standing Committee on External Affairs and International Trade, Sub-Committee on Arms Export 1992, The Future of Canadian Military Goods Production and Export, October.

US Dept. of Defense 2002, “Special Briefing on the Unified Command Plan,” 17 April.

Verrall, Ron 2000, “Tracking submarines under the arctic ice,” Maple Leaf, Vol. 3 No. 14.

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