$40 million upgrade for Thule radar unifies missile shield sites

  • Published
  • By Benjamin Newell
  • 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Early Warning Radars located throughout the world are undergoing multiple updates to their hardware, software and cyber resilience.

There are five EWR systems. These 10-story, solid state, phased array radars are placed around the globe to provide early warning in the event of a ballistic missile attack and to provide space surveillance. 

The Air Force awarded Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems a $40 million contract to modify the Upgraded Early Warning Radar station on Thule Air Base, Greenland, in December 2016. The Thule station will undergo software and hardware improvements, replacing aging processors and delivering cyber security updates. With this installation, all five EWRs will be on the same hardware and software configuration for the first time in almost 30 years.

“These radar stations serve as scouts, looking along the horizon, beyond 2,500 nautical miles to detect missiles,” said Lt. Col. Brian Beecher, program manager in the Strategic Warning and Surveillance Systems Division. “They cast a wide net so we can detect ballistic missile threats as early as possible and begin warning and defensive procedures.”

Processor and software modifications reduce the amount of equipment required to operate the radar, which reduces energy consumption and sustainment costs over the long-term. The Air Force plans to complete all current modifications by 2020.

“We see lifecycle sustainment savings in simply getting rid of older proprietary software and going to a LINUX-based operating system, as well as achieving a common hardware configuration across all five sites,” said Ted McGlynn, UEWR lead engineer.

Beale AFB, California, and Cape Cod Air Force Station, Massachusetts, radars went operational in 1979 and 1980 respectively. Older, mechanically steered EWRs at Thule, Clear AFS, Alaska, and Royal Air Force Fylingdales, United Kingdom, were upgraded to solid-state phased array EWRs in 1988, 1992, and 2001 respectively. 

As part of an earlier effort, in the late 1990s, the Air Force and Missile Defense Agency began a program to enhance the capabilities of the five current phased array EWRs. The goal was for the radars to provide information directly to the national Ballistic Missile Defense System, leading to the destruction of inbound missiles, rather than simply providing awareness of a threat. 

 The radars at Beale AFB, Fylingdales, and Thule AB were the first to receive upgrades in the 2007-2009 timeframe.

 The Air Force is upgrading remaining EWR sites at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Clear, Alaska, to the second-generation UEWR configuration. The second generation upgrade to Cape Cod and Clear adds a missile defense mission to the radars’ core capabilities of missile warning and space surveillance, without requiring significant additional construction or an increase in manning at the sites.

 “Adding the missile defense mission is the main purpose of upgrading the Early Warning Radars,” said Steve Demers, Missile Defense Agency deputy program manager for UEWR and COBRA DANE missile defense integration. “The UEWRs can pass along data that could be directly used for an intercept.”

These radars also provide information on man-made, low-earth and polar orbiting objects. The space surveillance missions will remain, as the missile defense capability is added as a co-primary mission with the missile-warning mission.

A hybrid Air Force and Missile Defense Agency program office within the Battle Management Directorate headquartered here manages the software updates.

 “We have a solid Air Force and Missile Defense Agency team that has successfully upgraded three Air Force EWR radars,” said Col. Todd Wiest, Strategic Warning and Surveillance Systems Division senior materiel leader for the upgrade program. “The remaining modifications will bring all EWR radars to a fully upgraded common back-end configuration.”