Cold Lake (or Primrose Lake) Air Weapons Range (CLAWR) straddles the Saskatchewan-Alberta border along the 55th parallel, covering an area of 11,753.5 km2; 54% (totaling 1.6 million acres) of the range is situated in Saskatchewan, and 46% is in Alberta. The heavily forested terrain of this facility resembles European topography. With its unrestricted airspace, and equipped with state-of-the-art targets, Cold Lake Air Weapons Range is considered to be one of the finest combined air operations training ranges in the world. It contains an instrumented aerospace testing and evaluation range, a manned air-to-ground range (including a high explosive range), and an air-to-air gunnery range.
Construction of RCAF Station Cold Lake, located southwest of the range in Alberta, began in 1952. It became a major Cold War facility after 1954, eventually housing an establishment of more than 2,000 service personnel. In operational terms, an air armament division of the Central Experimental and Proving Establishment (CEPE) was formed at Cold Lake, and evaluation facilities were constructed on the accompanying range so that fighter pilots could test armament systems and fire their guns at various altitudes. During the 1950s, the No. 3 (All-Weather) Operation Training Unit moved to the site to train crews up to operational standard with the CF-100 all-weather interceptor. When this aircraft was phased out in 1961, the military created operational training units to convert pilots to Starfighter, CF-5, and later CF-18 aircraft.
In 1953, the federal government signed agreements with the governments of Saskatchewan and Alberta to perpetually lease the range. The leases, originally established for a twenty-year period, have been renewed continuously since 1954. The latest agreements between the federal and provincial governments are automatically renewed on an annual basis until the federal government chooses to cancel them. In return, the federal government provides annual compensation to the provinces for loss of revenue from forest resources, fur, fish, and recreational, agricultural and related purposes.
Although the range was laid out to avoid First Nations reserves, it encompassed traditional Aboriginal and treaty areas. Five First Nations were affected by the creation of the CLAWR, including the Canoe Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, who in 1975 and 1985 submitted land claims alleging inadequate compensation for the disruption to their rights and livelihoods. In 1993, an Indian Specific Claim Commission inquiry recommended that the federal government negotiate an agreement for breaching treaty guarantees and its fiduciary duty by inadequately compensating and rehabilitating Aboriginal groups. In 1997, the federal government reached with the Canoe Lake Cree a final settlement that provided an estimated $12 million in compensation, as well as controlled access for traditional activities (hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering), commercial fishing, and cultural heritage activities. Several other Saskatchewan First Nations and Métis communities continue to push for monetary compensation, access, and support for economic development.
Non-military use of the CLAWR has increased over the last decade, and will continue to grow as various sectors vie for access to airspace, land and resources (such as natural gas, commercial fishing, and logging) in and around the range. 4 Wing controls land-based access to ensure that safety, operational and security requirements are met. Recently, the province of Saskatchewan has established three environmental protected areas on the CLAWR, allowing 4 Wing Cold Lake and its clients to sustain the tempo and full scope of flying training on the CLAWR. The mission of 4 Wing is to train, deploy and support world-class tactical fighter forces to meet Canada’s defense needs. Two operational CF-18 Squadrons and two training squadrons, as well as numerous support units, make 4 Wing Canada’s largest and busiest fighter wing. Every year Cold Lake hosts Exercise Maple Flag, an international air combat exercise promoting leadership, initiative, and self-discipline in the air; it provides air crew with realistic training in a modern, simulated air combat environment, combining large-scale operations with airborne and ground-based electronic threats. Since 2001, Phase IV of the NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC) program has been conducted at Cold Lake.
The relatively unrestricted Cold Lake Air Weapons Range represents one of the largest live-drop training ranges in the world and is the largest low-level flying area in North America. It continues to provide the air force with an unparalleled training environment. In 2004, the Cold Lake base reached a momentous milestone with 50 years of operation and service to the Canadian Forces—a testament to the enduring partnership between the armed forces and the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.
P. Whitney Lackenbauer