In 1961, Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) air division replaced its aging Canadair CL-13 Sabres with Lockheed CF-104 Starfighters. In May 1958, the Starfighter had set a speed record of 1,404 miles per hour (2,250 kilometres per hour) and an altitude record of 91,243 feet (27,830 metres). The fastest aircraft to serve in the RCAF, the Starfighter approached its targets using a treetop-level flight path from takeoff to the target area. Moreover, because the aircraft had a relatively small wing surface, it could not glide very well; in the event of mechanical failure, the pilot had a split second to decide to eject or take other action. Indeed, the Starfighter was known as "a missile with a man in it." The loss rates for the F-104s were thus relatively high, and Germany's Luftwaffe lost so many that it became a heated political issue there. Canadian pilots had one of the lowest Starfighter loss rates, but the RCAF and Canadian Armed Forces still lost 110 of their 239 fighters in accidents. These crashes resulted in the deaths of 39 pilots.Although the CF-104 could fulfill the role of tactical ground support, it was primarily designated as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nuclear deterrence force. Indeed, the aircraft reflected the changing role of the RCAF in NATO's European force. United States Air Force command in NATO viewed the RCAF's 1 Canadian Air Division as one of NATO's very best formations and had asked the Canadian government to equip it with the Starfighter. NATO proposed a high priority mission for the air division: nuclear interdiction on strategic targets in the heartland of the Soviet Union. In short, the CF-104 would carry nuclear weapons intended to deliver strikes in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The government approved the mission, and a contract was let to Canadair for the production of some 200 aircraft. These RCAF Starfighters, a modified version of the F-104G model, were optimized for the nuclear strike role.
After having freely accepted this critical strategic bombing mission for NATO, the government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker refused to accept the nuclear munitions required to carry out the task. This situation created a very messy public brawl not only within Canada but also between Canada and its NATO partners. Ultimately, this controversy contributed to the defeat of the Diefenbaker government in 1963.
The eight Sabre squadrons of 1 Canadian Air Division were re-equipped with CF-104 Starfighters in 1962, and the four CF-100 squadrons disbanded. In 1968, two of these Starfighter squadrons were disbanded. In 1970, Canada's NATO contingent was further reduced to three squadrons, and 1 Canadian Air Group replaced 1 Canadian Air Division. No. 417 Squadron, Cold Lake, Alberta, was the CF-104 operational training squadron. The Canadian Armed Forces began to replace the CF-104 with CF-18 Hornets in 1982.