The U.S. Department of Defense has announced its selection of Clear Air Force Station (AFS) in central Alaska as the location of a new land based missile defense sensor to provide North America an extensive and persistent capability for the tracking and discrimination of long-range ballistic missiles from North Korea. Clear AFS, on the foothills of the Alaskan Range, is currently home to an older Early Warning Radar (EWR), operated by the Alaska National Air Guard. This new Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) will likely propagate S-Band wavelength beams thousands of miles.
The other option in the selection process was to place the radar on Shemya Island, on the far western edge of the Aleutian Island chain, around 1500 miles southwest of Clear AFS. Shemya is also the location of the Cobra Dane intelligence gathering radar.
Placing this new radar forward in Shemya would have put the sensor around 1200 miles closer to North Korea, meaning it could pick up the missile threat much earlier and provide additional range to cover more of the Pacific, including Hawaii, than a radar at Clear could do. However, placing the radar more forward also means the high fidelity track to Early Warning Radars at Clear and Beale AFB would be lost as the missile threat goes beyond Shemya and gets closer to the United States, affecting the capability to properly evaluate the success of successive interceptor shots. Shemya’s location also does not offer the same capability to track and discriminate long-range ballistic missiles from both Iran and North Korea.
Added to these factors is the persistence, force protection of the asset, and its building and maintenance costs. Due to its remote location, costs for building, maintenance, operations and force protection are significantly higher on Shemya than at Clear. The cost difference is so extensive that the U.S. Government can build and operate the LRDR at Clear AFS, and then construct and maintain a second S-Band Radar in Hawaii to cover the sensor gap for significantly less money than building and operating an LRDR radar on Shemya.
The S-Band wavelength for the LRDR, like its chosen location at Clear, is the best of a compromise between the long UHF wavelengths used for surveillance and tracking for over 60 years with the EWRs, and the ultra-high fidelity discrimination of the X-band radars wavelengths that are used for tracking in the current forward based TPY-2 Radars, fire control for THAAD and for our national Ground Based Midcourse Defense with the Sea Based X-Band radar. AN/SPY-1 S-Band radars are deployed today on U.S. Navy Aegis BMD Ships as their air and missile defense sensors. U.S. Navy Aegis BMD Ships using the S-Band Radar have had 29 successful ballistic missile intercepts. These ship-based radars are much smaller and less capable in terms of range and power than the LRDR will be.
The LRDR S-Band radar will be able to both surveil and track multiple clusters of debris that long-range ballistic warheads travel in at tremendous ranges, while providing discrimination of the warhead among those clusters to the Battle Management Command and Control system at Shriver AFB in Colorado Springs. This information is processed and sent to the interceptor prior to launch and updated during its flight, providing the seeker sensors on the kill vehicle what the warhead is going to look like and where in space it will be. It is of note that the seeker sensors on the kill vehicles of the current first and second generation interceptors have exceptional range and capability to independently discriminate as well. The new upcoming Redesigned Kill Vehicle, with a first flight planned in 2018 and to be fielded in 2020 will have even more reliable discrimination sensing with greater range, vision and continuous communication with the ground which is not available today.
Compared to the SBX docked in Honolulu, which has to be floated out to the middle of the Pacific and activated in anticipation of a long-range North Korean missile launch, the LRDR will be fixed permanently in the right position for the defense of North America at all times from North Korea, with residual capability to defend against Iran. The LRDR will also cost considerably less to operate than the SBX. The SBX will be relied upon for the defense of the United States until the LRDR is deployed in 2020, and until the new S-Band Radar in Hawaii is completed and deployed.
It is reaffirming to our nation that our Department of Defense is making the right decision at the right time for the right reasons. As the Pacific Combatant Commander Admiral Harry Harris Jr. who takes command today stated this week, North Korea is the greatest threat the United States faces in the Pacific.
In reference to Kim Jong Un, Admiral Harris said “He is on a quest for nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them intercontinentally. He kills people around him who disagree with him, and that’s something we should always keep in mind.”
In complex times, bedeviled by an escalation of ballistic missile proliferation and threats to the United States, we as a nation and people have to be vigilant, and smart with our limited resources to protect ourselves with our generational technical superiority from known and unknown threats.
The decision to go forward with the LRDR in Clear Air Force Station, Alaska is to be commended.
Clear skies are ahead.
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