Isolated unit watches over U.S. from above
Stars and Stripes June 24, 2007
THULE AIR BASE, Greenland — Odds are there’s barely a servicemember in Europe or Iraq who has ever met one of the 30 or so people who make up the operational staff of the 12th Space Warning Squadron.
They don’t know the unit, but they know this — their satellite phones work, their ATM cards get them cash from Kaiserslautern, Germany, to Kuwait, and the Blue Force Tracker systems in their Humvees can show them where they are to within a few feet.
The 12th SWS is, geographically, about as far removed from other units as it can possibly get, positioned on a hilltop in northern Greenland, hundreds of miles above the Arctic Circle. The reach of its mission, however, goes a long, long way. The 12th SWS is part of a satellite and space debris tracking network that keeps tabs on every man-made object in the skies above Earth, charting its speed, size, height and capability, said Lt. Col. T.J. Lincoln, 12th SWS commander.
The 12th doesn’t track every object in the sky all the time, but it is part of a global network that does, and acts like an air traffic control system for the heavens, ensuring the U.S. knows the position of every object.
The system helps maintain the order crucial to keeping satellites in orbit and functioning, Lincoln said. If no one tracked the satellites, no one would know when two were on a path to collide, or one malfunctioned and began to descend, Lincoln said.
The U.S. military and economy can’t afford that kind of carelessness because almost everything these days — communications, weather information, surveillance, phone calls — is all routed through space.
“If the space objects aren’t tracked properly, you’re not going to have that space asset,” Lincoln said.
So the network that the 12th SWS belongs to watches everything from communications satellites to softball-size pieces of debris more than 3,000 miles above Earth, comprising a catalog of about 31,700 objects, he said.
Satellite tracking, though a large part of the day-to-day work for the unit, isn’t the squadron’s primary mission. Its first and foremost job is to find and track ballistic missiles launched at the U.S.
Given that mission, its presence in the extremely isolated location of Thule makes a little more sense. Initially installed in 1961 during the height of the Cold War, the SWS station was set up to be the country’s first line of warning in the event the Soviet Union launched a nuclear weapon at the U.S. by the shortest route possible — over the north polar region, Lincoln said.
The threat made Thule the first in what would become a large array of radar stations around the world that now can watch for incoming missiles from various directions, including from sea-based launch platforms, with overlapping “fans” of coverage in stations such as Clear Air Station in Alaska and RAF Fylingdales in England.
To keep a constant eye out for threats, the site at Thule is a self-contained facility with its own backup power supply, cafeteria and bunks. It’s a scenario similar to the portrayal of warning and missile launch sites in the movie “War Games,” of jumpsuit-clad men sitting in windowless rooms behind many, many locked doors, facing blinking terminals.
The reality isn’t far off, both in concept and in the type of equipment seen in the film. The terminals, at first glance, look terrifically outdated in a military station tasked with charting every single object floating in space above Earth.
Like props from the film, the terminals are large, blocky instruments with the simple black-and-green screens that preceded color computer monitors, though their appearance does, in a way, make sense — the system was last upgraded in 1987, according to Lincoln.
“It’s kind of old-looking, but it does exactly what it needs to do,” he said.
Even so, the system is undergoing an upgrade, a project that not only will replace the aging terminals but change the unit’s primary mission, according to Lincoln.
Because the upgrade will allow the radar to track missiles with enough range and precision to guide ground-based interception measures, it will take on a missile-defense role, though Lincoln is quick to stress that no decision-making is made at Thule.