New Missile Radar Monitoring North Korea Likely to Be Located in Alaska

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Early warning radar located at Clear Air Station in Alaska. The Air Force base is seen as the likeliest location to host a new, more powerful radar that lawmakers are seeking for an improved ability to monitor potential long-range missiles launched by North Korea against the United States.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
Dec. 13, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

A power­ful new radar that Con­gress wants the U.S. mil­it­ary to ac­quire would likely be fielded in Alaska, ac­cord­ing to in­formed sources.

The com­prom­ise de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill worked out by House and Sen­ate ne­go­ti­at­ors in­cludes a re­quire­ment that the Pentagon’s Mis­sile De­fense Agency de­ploy an­oth­er X-band radar sys­tem aimed at help­ing de­fend the United States from any po­ten­tial in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­sile at­tack by North Korea.

The De­fense De­part­ment policy-set­ting le­gis­la­tion, which the House passed on Thursday and now awaits a fi­nal vote by the Sen­ate, would au­thor­ize $30 mil­lion in new mon­ies to ini­ti­ate de­ploy­ment “at a loc­a­tion op­tim­ized to sup­port the de­fense of the United States home­land,” reads the draft text.

The like­li­est place to host the radar is some­where on the West Coast, say mul­tiple Cap­it­ol Hill sources and oth­ers.

“My un­der­stand­ing is they are go­ing to put a down-pay­ment on build­ing a long-range radar that would most likely be based near the Clear Air [Sta­tion] to cov­er a good part of the globe, in­clud­ing all the way down to Hawaii,” said Riki El­lis­on, chair­man of the Mis­sile De­fense Ad­vocacy Al­li­ance.

The Air Force base is loc­ated some 80 miles south­w­est of Fairb­anks, Alaska. Its mis­sion for dec­ades has been to mon­it­or for pos­sible long-range mis­siles fired at the United States.

“There’s no oth­er place to put it,” said a Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an aide. This source and oth­ers provided com­ment an­onym­ously for this art­icle be­cause they were not au­thor­ized to speak on the re­cord.

The United States presently de­ploys an AN/TPY-2 radar, us­ing X-band tech­no­logy, at the Shariki mil­it­ary base in north­ern Ja­pan that mon­it­ors for signs of pos­sible bal­list­ic mis­siles fired by North Korea. A second early-warn­ing AN/TPY-2 unit is slated for field­ing by fall 2014 at the Kyo­gam­i­saki air base on Ja­pan’s west­ern coast.

However, that type of radar is not power­ful enough to provide the kind of de­tailed track­ing and tar­get­ing in­form­a­tion needed to ini­ti­ate a mis­sile-in­ter­cept re­sponse to pro­tect the home­land, ac­cord­ing to El­lis­on.

The en­vi­sioned radar would be “much more power­ful than the AN/TPY-2” and could “be used both as a tar­get­ing and early-warn­ing radar,” he said.

The mil­it­ary also cur­rently fields the Sea-Based X-band Radar 1 — a power­ful float­ing radar that can de­tect small ob­jects in out­er space as far away as 2,500 miles and track bal­list­ic mis­siles throughout the en­tire course of their flight. The radar was re­posi­tioned this past spring to bet­ter mon­it­or for North Korea mis­sile at­tacks dur­ing a peri­od of heightened ten­sions with the Kim Jong Un re­gime.

However, the sea-based radar is not de­signed to provide “per­sist­ent” track­ing in­form­a­tion of the kind wanted for around-the-clock aware­ness of North Korea, ac­cord­ing to El­lis­on. Ad­di­tion­ally, the float­ing radar in fu­ture years may need to be re­lo­cated to the At­lantic Ocean if the Ir­a­ni­an mis­sile threat be­comes more press­ing, he said.

The GOP aide said an ad­di­tion­al X-band radar is something the Mis­sile De­fense Agency wants in or­der to im­prove the ef­fect­ive­ness of the coun­try’s Ground-based Mid­course De­fense sys­tem.

The Mis­sile De­fense Agency de­clined re­quests to com­ment on the mat­ter, in­clud­ing on wheth­er it as­sesses a mil­it­ary re­quire­ment for hav­ing yet an­oth­er radar mon­it­or­ing North Korea.

The GMD sys­tem presently is com­posed of 30 long-range in­ter­cept­ors loc­ated in silos in Cali­for­nia and Alaska, along with sup­port­ing X-band radar tech­no­logy. It is the mil­it­ary’s primary de­fense against a pos­sible North Korean ICBM at­tack on the con­tin­ent­al United States.

A 2012 Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil re­port con­cluded the GMD sys­tem was “fra­gile” and noted par­tic­u­lar con­cerns with its abil­ity to seam­lessly mon­it­or and track bal­list­ic mis­siles and their war­heads dur­ing all phases of flight.

The de­cision this past spring to elim­in­ate the Pre­ci­sion Track­ing Space Sys­tem — an MDA pro­gram that would have placed satel­lites in out­er space to provide near real-time track­ing data on launched bal­list­ic mis­siles — meant it be­came all the more ur­gent to do something that would fill the void in GMD sys­tem track­ing abil­it­ies, El­lis­on said.

Im­prov­ing the GMD sys­tem’s radar cap­ab­il­it­ies is “equally as im­port­ant as mod­ern­iz­ing the Ground-based In­ter­cept­or,” El­lis­on said.

It could take roughly three years for the new radar to be op­er­a­tion­al­ized, ac­cord­ing to El­lis­on and the GOP staffer.

The bicam­er­al de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill also in­cludes a pro­vi­sion re­quir­ing the Mis­sile De­fense Agency to be ready by 2019 to de­ploy on the East­ern sea­board “sensor” cap­ab­il­it­ies that would mon­it­or for pos­sible ICBM at­tacks from Ir­an. That timeline would be sped up should Tehran suc­cess­fully flight-test a long-range bal­list­ic mis­sile be­fore 2019.

The GOP aide said the Re­pub­lic­an side of Con­gress wanted to have sensor cap­ab­il­it­ies read­ied on a short­er time scale to track Ir­a­ni­an threats. However, be­cause the North Korean mis­sile danger is seen as “more im­min­ent,” the de­cision reached by Sen­ate and House Armed Ser­vices com­mit­tee ne­go­ti­at­ors was to pri­or­it­ize de­ploy­ing a radar to mon­it­or the North, the staffer said.

This art­icle was pub­lished in Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, which is pro­duced in­de­pend­ently by Na­tion­al Journ­al Group un­der con­tract with the Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive. NTI is a non­profit, non­par­tis­an group work­ing to re­duce glob­al threats from nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al, and chem­ic­al weapons.

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