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Nanoose test site for nuclear subs

Maureen Curle — May 1984

For most Vancouver Island residents, it is easy to forget that the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental and Test Range (CFMETR) even exists. Driving along the Island highway about to miles north of Nanaimo and looking across the long but narrow Nanoose Bay, one can only see a few non-descript buildings, and, anchored off shore, a yellow submarine and a decommissioned Yard oiler, both of which are occasionally used as target ships.

Few could imagine the complex collection of hydrophones, computers, display systems and high-tech electronics that are housed in the test control centre on Winchelsea Island, just off the tip of the Nanoose peninsula.

CFMETR takes pride in the reliability and accuracy of its facilities. Lieutenant Commander Colin Isham, Commanding Officer of CFMETR, has said that the underwater testing range is the most sophisticated in North America.

During maritime defence discussions between Canada and the United States in the early I 960s, it was agreed that both countries would achieve cost benefits from a cooperative arrangement. Nanoose Bay area was selected as the best location for the range because of its relatively quiet waters, undisturbed by commercial shipping, its uniform depth of 1400 feet and its proximity to existing naval and air bases at Esquimalt and Comox, both on Vancouver Island, and the American naval base at Bangor, Washington.

Commander Isham says that roughly 80% of range time is used by the US and most activities at CFMETR centre on the three-dimensional test range where improvements to different types of torpedoes are tested in a five by fifteen mile stretch of water in Georgia Strait, just outside Nanoose Bay. Torpedoes can be fired from submarines, surface vessels, airplanes or helicopters, but are most often fired from small-range vessels. Recovery of these torpedoes is also an important part of CFMETR activities as the lightweight Mark 46 is valued at $100,000 and the heavier Mark 48 costs about $1 million.

At one point beluga whales were trained to locate bottomed torpedoes and affix clamps used to haul the objects to the surface, but this did not prove 100% satisfactory as whales wouldn’t dig for objects under the mud and other recovery equipment often had to be used anyway.

Under the joint agreement between Canada and the United States, Canada is responsible for construction and maintenance of all fixed facilities such as buildings, roads and jetties, administration, security and operational control of the range. The US is responsible for supply, installation and maintenance of all technical equipment for operation of the 3-D range, as well as for technical training of both Canadian and American range personnel.

Both Commanding Officer Isham and the Canadian Minister of Defence, Jean-Jacques Blais, have said that there are ‘no nukes’ at Nanoose Bay. Approximately eight American nuclear-powered submarines are tested at Nanoose each year, but, says Isham, “nuclear missile-carrying submarines never come here.”

Commanding Officer Isham has said that there will be a 50% increase in operations at CFMETR.

This will not mean an increase in torpedo firings but an increased use of sophisticated and complex technology which will require four additional technicians on permanent staff.

There are 103 Canadian personnel presently employed at CFMETR. Annual federal funding from the Department of National Defence has been roughly estimated between 5 and 6 million dollars. While many Canadians feel this is a small contribution to ‘national security,’ others feel we might be more ‘secure’ if these funds were used for nonviolent training programs for our politicians and military personnel.

Last summer Vancouver Island peace groups participated in a five week long ‘Peace Camp’ on the Island highway overlooking Nanoose Bay. Several thousand visitors passed through the camp, taking away with them a better understanding of weapons testing at CFMETR.

Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island peace activists have recently established a ‘Nanoose Action Alert’ to call attention to the presence of nuclear-powered submarines in gulf waters. When a submarine is sighted, a rapid response phone tree will mobilise a variety of actions including vigils, media, telegrams and letters to officials.

The peace activists who take part in these actions emphasize that the military installations and individual employees are not the enemy. The real enemy, they point out, is the cultural value system which has for generations made militarism a socially accepted method of problem solving.