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

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.
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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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