HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – The sun went down on Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, one night and when it rose, Cannon was the first Department of Defense site to host a refurbished weather radar system, courtesy of a program managed at Hanscom.
The NEXT RADAR, or NEXTRAD replacement, completed at Cannon in February in one night, is part of an ongoing effort there and at 24 other Air Force installations worldwide. The Air Force’s 25-site replacement program is part of a three-agency U.S. government effort to standardize the 180 radars that build national weather and flight data for the National Weather Service, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. military.
“Individual radar replacements are labor intensive, and they must be done right,” said Ricky Keil, who oversees the NEXRAD effort for PEO Digital at Hanscom. “Oftentimes, crews must wait until wind dies down to raise the towers and place sensitive radomes. That means they’re working in the dark and the cold, on a piece of equipment that doesn’t forgive many mistakes.”
The total cost to upgrade and sustain national weather radar systems throughout the country and at military locations overseas is $138 million, and the Air Force shoulders $20 million of that financial responsibility for its sites.
“The Weather Branch at Hanscom supports the NEXRAD mission by managing the Air Force’s funding contribution to the NWS-led program and also manages the Air Force’s portion of the supply chain to help keep replacement parts in maintainers’ hands,” said John Dreher, chief of weather systems for Program Executive Office Digital’s weather division. “The Air Force benefits substantially from the entire NEXRAD network because the improved radars help us with the mission of issuing severe weather warnings and advisories for Department of Defense locations throughout the country.”
NEXRAD units are National Weather Service Weather Surveillance Doppler radars, or WSR-88s. The large Doppler radar spheres perched atop metal frame towers resemble huge, smooth, white golf balls sitting on giant tees. Doppler information on weather systems can be read more than 120 nautical miles from the station, while rain, snow and other precipitation is spotted out to 248 nautical miles.
These radars, considered to be the most advanced and powerful in the world, are undergoing a series of service life extension programs, according to Keil. In order to keep the radars online into the next decade, Hanscom must work to update components like the signal processor, shelter and transmitter, which date to the 1990s.
Military forecasts for the U.S. Army and Air Force rely on NEXRAD, as do many forecasts based on National Weather Service data, including those produced by local news outlets and the FAA. A team of Airmen, civilians and contractors at Hanscom and a 557th Weather Wing unit in Norman, Oklahoma, keep the 25 NEXRAD units the Air Force owns maintained and upgraded on schedule.