Arctic air base scans skies for missiles and satellites
June 20, 2007
THULE AIR BASE, Greenland — If there’s one thing that lets visitors to Thule Air Base know they’ve reached one of the U.S. military’s most isolated outposts, it’s the presence of icebergs.
Floating in the bay near the shoreline of the base, in the shadow of four major glaciers that creep down to the water from a colossal icecap, the icebergs are an authoritative sign that you have come about as far north as humans can place a permanent settlement.
As the military’s northernmost facility, Thule is a place of superlatives — high winds, low temperatures, 24-hour sunlight and darkness — but it’s the details that tell the most about the nature of the base.
The runway is painted bright white, visitors are told, because to keep it asphalt-black would allow it to absorb heat from the sun and melt the permafrost beneath it, causing it to warp and buckle.
Most buildings are either raised off the ground or underpinned with cooling pipes to keep them from sinking into the tundra. To keep heat in during the winter, the buildings have small windows. Blackout curtains help people sleep during the summer.
There are no fences, and two years ago a polar bear took advantage of it to visit the local landfill. The arctic hare and arctic fox that roam the dirt roads at Thule do the same.
New airmen learn that about 700 miles to the south on their flight up, they crossed the Arctic Circle, and they are closer to the North Pole (less than 1,000 miles) than they are to the nearest American city.
At first glance, it’s hard to see why the military would need a presence in such a remote location, or what it could do for U.S. troops and commanders. It is home to only a cadre of about 140 military personnel, bolstered by about 600 Danish and American civilians.
But Thule, as small and isolated as it is, has a longer history than many foreign U.S. bases and a current capability far larger than its small numbers.
The first American presence in the northern Greenland location dates to 1943, when the U.S. Army Air Forces built a weather station at Thule, operated by Danish personnel, and later supplemented by a rudimentary dirt air strip.
Thule acted in a weather and arctic re-supply role for about five years until the grip of the Cold War took hold, and things rapidly began to change, according to a base history. In 1951, the U.S. began Operation Blue Jay, a feverish attempt to quickly build and establish a radar station and northern staging area for strategic bombers and tanker planes to mitigate the threat from the Soviet Union.
Within two years, a 10,000-foot runway was complete and the local population was on the way to its eventual high of about 10,000 military and contract personnel.
But in the late 1950s, the focus of the base changed with the development of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. Set at a location about mid-way between Washington, D.C., and Moscow, Thule became an early site for the American Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), and to this day that remains one of its primary functions.
Currently, Thule Air Base is home to three major units — Detachment 3 of the 22nd Space Operations Squadron, which tracks and controls polar satellites; the 12th Space Warning Squadron, which runs the BMEWS radar system; and the 821st Air Base Group, which oversees the facility.
The base also runs the world’s northernmost deepwater port, which can handle everything from cargo ships to submarines.
Thule Air Base
Military personnel: 140U.S. contractors: 90Greenlandic and Danish contractors: 450Aircraft landings annually: More than 3,000Distance to North Pole: Approximately 950 milesDistance north from the Arctic Circle: 700 milesAverage July temperature: 40 degrees FJan.-April temperature range: 0 to -40 degrees F
Source: 821st Air Base Group public affairs office