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News > Team overcomes major challenges to upgrade key radar site
Radar upgrades
A team from the Electronic Systems Center managed a comprehensive upgrade of this Early Warning Radar site in Thule, Greenland. They wrapped up final testing last year, completing all work on schedule and slightly under budget. (Courtesy Photo)
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Team overcomes major challenges to upgrade key radar site

Posted 1/18/2011   Updated 1/18/2011 Email story   Print story


by Chuck Paone
66th Air Base Group Public Affairs

1/18/2011 - HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- With completion of final testing last year, an Electronic Systems Center team wrapped up a comprehensive upgrade of the third of five massive early warning radars that support a layered missile defense capability for the United States, its forward-deployed forces and its friends and allies.

The upgrade of the Thule (pronounced Tool-ee) radar site in northern Greenland occurred on time and slightly below projected costs, despite a number of significant challenges, including the need to maintain radar coverage while the work was being done.

"It's like trying to upgrade a plane while it's flying," said Geoff Lum, deputy program manager for Ballistic Missile Defense System Integration, a Missile Defense Agency member stationed here.

The requirement to maintain coverage during all phases of the project, including the actual 31-hour marathon during which the new radar equipment was assembled, necessitated some very deliberate planning, according to Capt. Jason Ludwig, the Thule upgrade program manager.

During that set-up phase, "there wasn't a minute of wasted time," he said. "Everything was very carefully scheduled and choreographed."

Thule's austerity and remoteness brought their own challenges. Access to and from the site was provided only by weekly flights on a 32-passenger plane, and at one point the charter service flying those planes went on strike.

The team also had to factor in the harsh weather - temperatures that reach minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit, winds in excess of 200 miles per hour and a storm season that runs from mid-September to mid-May. Beyond that, Thule spends four months of the year in total darkness, and icing conditions allow only two months of port access per year.

While much of the equipment was flown in, program officials did rely on shipping for construction material, and in one instance, had to deal with delays resulting from a cargo ship stranded by an iceberg. Despite all of this, the upgrade program held to its schedule and could have exceeded it even, if not for the need to adhere to precisely planned and coordinated targets of opportunity, Mr. Lum said.

"Everything we did had to be done when it was scheduled," he said. "Activities had to be planned out well in advance, and we couldn't deviate because this is a national asset." That meant coverage had to planned for and provided by other sites during any down times.

That, in turn, meant the team had to be ready to go when it was time.

"If you missed a test window, you might have to wait quite a while for another one," Captain Ludwig said. The result would have been lengthy schedule slips.

Another key - for the work on Thule and on previous efforts at Beale AFB, Calif., and Fylingdales Royal Air Force Station in the U.K. - was to add new capabilities for additional users without disrupting or reducing existing capabilities.

The number of organizations depending on data from the early warning sites has grown in recent years. In addition to Air Force Space Command, the list now includes U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Strategic Command, among others.

"We have to ensure that we don't induce any problems," while adding these new capabilities and users, said Jay Alonis, the Thule acquisition lead.

The work enhanced the performance of the radar to improve target detection, enabling smaller objects to be seen from father away. Modern, commercial computer equipment replaced the older and harder-to-maintain equipment, and a total software overhaul replaced the antiquated JOVIAL code with current industry-standard C++, said Pat Lipka of MITRE, the system integration and test lead.

The hardware and software modification exploits inherent capabilities of the original radar design, enabling it to support the new missile defense mission, Mr. Lipka said. This modification allows the radar to detect and report on ballistic objects sooner and more accurately without changing the existing radiating power of the radar.

"The benefit of this is to increase the missile defense battle space for the protection of the United States," he said. "In addition, we also improved the performance our legacy mission of missile warning and detecting and tracking satellites for the space surveillance mission."

All of these improvements make the site much more capable and significantly improve the Air Force's ability to provide ongoing sustainment, which is also a concern for the program office. Unlike with many programs, where the program office acquires and modernizes systems while handing sustainment over to a depot, the early warning sites are handled continuously by the program office.

"All five radar sites are ESC-developed systems, and this office has cradle-to-grave responsibility for them," said Mr. Lipka.

For these upgrades, the program manager wears two hats, he said. He is responsible for providing radar sustainment to the warfighting customer, Air Force Space Command, while also serving as the program manager for the Missile Defense Agency. This ensures that one office has the responsibility to address the requirements and operational needs of both agencies.

The Thule upgrade has been recognized as a model for program success, with prime contractor Raytheon and the government program team lauded for their joint accomplishments. One specific honor came when Aviation Week cited the Thule upgrade as First Runner Up in it 2010 Program Excellence Awards.

"I think the recognition validates our accomplishments," Mr. Lipka said. "It's pretty rare to have a program with this much complexity perform so well against its schedule and cost goals."

As a result, this national asset is now more of an asset than ever.

Decision-makers within Space Command and MDA are now considering options for upgrading the remaining two of the five-site network, located in Alaska and Massachusetts.

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