March 2004: The Forgotten Bomarc Story

Martin government should apply lessons of Bomarc to Bush’s NMD
March 1, 2004

Last May, in an informative article in The Monitor, Lesley Hughes revealed how the U.S. government put pressure on the Canadian government to accept nuclear warheads for Bomarc missiles that were already stationed on Canadian territory--a move the U.S. viewed as more realistically fulfilling Canada’s commitment to the defense of North America.

As a follow-up to that article, Monitor readers may be interested to know that, at that time, a group of eight physicists at the University of Alberta produced a scientific assessment of the Bomarc’s capability, with particular reference to the claims that the nuclear-tipped Bomarc was capable of “cooking” nuclear bombs. This was a process aimed at rendering a bomb inactive before it could be released over a target, presumably during intercontinental bomber attacks by the Soviet Union. The conclusion of the “Alberta eight” was that the proposed nuclear war-heads “would be worse than useless for the protection of Canada.”

We raise this history of the Bomarc episode at this time, and recall some of our experiences with it, because of its relevance to the not-dissimilar situation which confronts the present Canadian government in considering possible participation in the latest version of the United State’s NMD (National Missile Defence) proposal. What is common to the two situations (Bomarc and NMD), is scientific input negating the prospects for success in both projects. In the Bomarc case, political “realities” overrode scientific considerations in a matter relating to the national security of Canada. At this writing, there is still no information on the outcome of the NMD proposal for Canada, but there are political implications.

For the Bomarc, the Alberta Eight Report (which we will refer to as RUA-8, for convenience) pointed out that the Bomarc could not possibly accomplish its mission in the manner being proposed, and that it was highly probable that a thermonuclear weapon would be detonated at the point where the Bomarc intercepted the incoming bomber. Given the Bomarc’s operational range, this would be within 400 miles of North Bay, Ontario, or LaMacaza, Quebec.

This prediction by the Canadian scientists was tacitly recognized by Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of State at the time, who stated before a U.S. Congressional Committee that the U.S. was down-playing the protective role of the Bomarc in favour of deterrence strategies.

For the NMD proposal, the body questioning the wisdom of deploying this much larger missile system has been the American Physical Society (A.P.S.), the prestigious organization representing the community of physicists in the United States. An A.P.S. committee found that the boost-phase intercept system of NMD (“the bullet to hit a bullet”) being promoted by the current U.S. administration, would, in their words, “... not be feasible against potential threats.” (Their report is available at

The nuclear arming of the Bomarcs in 1963 was done at the price of compromising the Canadian stance on non-nuclear proliferation. To understand this better, it is useful to recall that Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had agreed earlier, under U.S. pressure, to locate Bomarcs in Canada. He and his Minister for External Affairs, Howard Green, were, however, reluctant to arm the Bomarcs with nuclear war-heads, since this was inconsistent with Canada’s stated nuclear policy of not becoming involved in the nuclear arms race. It should be noted that, at that time, Canada was a prominent contributor, in world terms, to nuclear power development, and it had the expertise to undertake the development of nuclear weapons, but Canadian policy precluded this move. In effect, the Diefenbaker/Green stance was high-minded in the context of the times.

The U.S., however, was anxious to see nuclear weapons installed in Canada, arguing that it was essential in to have a comprehensive North American defense system in place to counter the threat of a nuclear weapons attack from the Soviet Union. In a sequence of events ably chronicled by Lesley Hughes in her article, Lester Pearson, the Liberal leader of the Opposition, announced his willingness to have nuclear warheads installed on the Bomarcs if his party were to form the government. The ensuing political uproar climaxed in an election in which Diefenbaker’s government was defeated.

Following the election, the Pearson administration moved quickly to fulfill its mandate to accept the nuclear arming of the Bomarcs, but chose to do this with what, in hindsight, amounted to a display of due process: it placed the nuclear arming question on the agenda of the Special Committee on Defense, a Parliamentary committee with all-party representation. As the committee’s deliberations got under way, Andy Brewin of the NDP suggested that it should hear testimony from the Alberta eight about their critical report (RUA-8). As a result, Professors Don Scott, Jack Sample, and Lynn Trainor were invited to Ottawa as representatives for the Alberta group. The appearance of these three physicists before the Special Committee took place on August 1, 1963. Also appearing as witnesses on the same occasion were two representatives from the Canadian Defense Research Board (DRB): Dr. J.E. Keyston, Vice-Chairman of DRB, and Dr. G.S. Field, its Chief Scientist.

At this point, it is useful to provide some background relating to these two sets of witnesses. The report of the eight physicists from the University of Alberta had been distributed, during the 1963 federal election, to the leaders of the three main contending parties--Liberal, Progressive Conservative, and NDP-- as well as to candidates seeking election in Alberta. Preparation of the report by the eight physicists was undertaken because of what they regarded as misleading information about the Bomarc’s capabilities appearing in the press from so-called “informed sources.”

The Defense Research Board had been established as a fourth arm of Canada’s Defense establishment, with a standing comparable to the other three arms: the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The DRB was responsible for giving scientific advice to the Government of Canada on military matters.

In their appearance before the Special Committee, the Alberta scientists presented their assessment that the Bomarc would be unsuccessful in achieving the objectives claimed for it, using blackboard illustrations, for example, to convey their reasoning linked to various physical parameters of the Bomarc’s proposed role. Prior to their appearance in front of the Special Committee, the DRB representatives had issued a press release contradicting the statements contained in the original RUA-8 report, and in doing so played down the importance of the proposed “cooking” process in relation to the strategic value of having nuclear-armed interceptors acting as deterrents for an enemy considering a manned bomber attack on North America. This, in itself, represented a considerable change in posture, because the cooking process had received a big play in the press, during the lead-up to the federal election of the previous May.

In front of the Special Committee, Dr. Field, in particular, spent a considerable amount of his time criticizing the lack of qualifications of the Alberta scientists in the areas of explosives and weaponry (a point they were willing enough to concede), but made little effort at seriously countering their technical arguments. Dr. Field added the comment that DRB had considerable experience with explosives, but neglected to point out that this experience was limited to chemical explosives.

In fact, both of these groups appearing in front of the Special Defense Committee were operating in semi-darkness at best, because, for both, a lot of relevant information was classified as secret. It seemed, from the vague answers the DRB representatives gave to some questions from committee members, that they were relying on assurances supplied by their U.S. contacts--that “cooking,” for example, “worked”--never mind the details.

The Alberta scientists, on the other hand, readily admitted that their model of a thermonuclear weapon was very simple, but that nonetheless any thermonuclear weapon would involve certain basic physical conditions and parameters, and that, because of these, there was a considerable risk of thermonuclear explosions occurring at or near the point of interception of the bomber by the missile: it just wasn’t going to be as neat as the “cooking” scenario implied. It seems very likely now, in retrospect, that there had never been any actual tests of the “cooking” process, and that the whole manoeuvre was a crude and rather desperate gesture.

Confronted by these two sets of diametrically opposed witnesses--one trying to explain how they arrived at their position, the other basing their presentation on contempt for the naiveté of the Alberta group’s approach--many members of the Special Committee found the experience very confusing, and said so. The drama of this encounter was not lost on the members of the Parliamentary press corps who were covering the hearings.

Tim Creery, reporting for Southam News, filed a report that was carried in newspapers across the country, and headlined in The Calgary Herald, for instance, with: “Scientists faced ‘wall of arrogance’.” There were separate reports on the proceedings by Val Sears in The Toronto Star, by Charles Lynch in The Calgary Herald, and by Bruce Macdonald in The Globe and Mail, covering various aspects of the confrontation and the uncertainty experienced by committee members, who felt they were being asked to evaluate a matter on which the official source of information was not performing very convincingly.

What clearly came out of this affair was that a Canadian federal election was won on the basis of misinformation supplied to facilitate the placing of nuclear weapons in Canada. The reliance of the Canadian government on its official source of scientific and technical information for its military was replaced by what U.S. military and political sources wanted, engineered through the agency of the DRB.

A few weeks after the August 1 meeting, MP Marcel Lambert (PC-Edmonton West), the Vice-Chairman of the Special Committee, expressed his feelings on the futility of the Committee’s role: “...The testimony of the physicists...was ‘academic,’ for, by the time they appeared, the government had already decided to accept nuclear weapons.” (Edmonton Journal, Sept. 11, 1963). It does appear that the Committee’s proceedings on this question amounted to a display of due process. The proceedings of the meeting are a matter of public record. (See Special Commitee on Defense, Chairman: Maurice Sauvé, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence, No. 10, House of Commons, August 1, 1963, Queen’s Printer, Ottawa.).

It was a regrettable episode in which the expertise of independent Canadian scientists, outside the DRB, was not sought in advance or consulted later, except in a confrontation in front of the Special Committee on Defense. It is worth noting, in the current debate about the Nuclear Missile Defense of North America, that many Canadian physicists are also active members of the A.P.S., indicating that, in this and other ways, they have international standing in their field. They, along with others in this country, could act as consultants with a Canadian perspective on policy questions of this type, for it is evident from the Bomarc experience that a government needs scientific and technological advice from sources which are not “in-house”--that are outside organizational structures closely linked to government.

In the years since the Bomarc episode, there has been no successful initiative to establish facilities for delivering such advice (i.e., on policy relating to major issues such as participation in missile defense) in this country. The Bomarc lesson has still not been learned.

One possible mechanism for providing objective evaluations of such policy questions, is to set up an Office of Technology Assessment, along the lines currently functioning (with a high degree of independence) in many European countries.


(F.D. Manchester and L.E.H. Trainor are Professors of Physics Emeritus at the University of Toronto.)