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The AN/TPY-2 radar system at the Shariki Communications Site is part of an early-warning detection network around the globe — in Alaska, California, the United Kingdom, the Marshall Islands and aboard U.S. Navy ships.

The system, which uses the so-called X-band radar, is a response to growing concern that 25 countries, including Iran and North Korea, have active offensive ballistic missile programs.

“The actions of North Korea and Iran this past year demonstrate the determination of these rogue regimes to achieve this capability and, potentially, weapons of mass destruction to further aggressive ends,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, head of the Missile Defense Agency, told Congress in March. “We expect to be surprised by unexpected and more robust threats.”

Shariki’s radar sits on the edge of the communications site. It appears almost understated, painted a shade darker than the obligatory beige that covers so many Army bases.

The AN/TPY-2 is a three-part device that looks and sounds like three industrial-sized generators running at full speed. Each part serves respectively as the system’s heart, brains and face, said Capt. Will Hunter, the Army commander at Shariki. It’s the face, a smooth slab pointing due west through a small gap of trees, that tracks enemy missile launches.

The face’s radio frequencies beam out like a fan to track rising missiles. If needed, the system could read the entire horizon. But to strengthen its efficacy, and to conserve power, it searches targeted sections of the sky, Hunter says.

When asked if the radar tracked North Korea’s launches last July, Hunter pauses.

“We received some data last summer,” he says.

On July 4, 2006, North Korea launched short-, medium- and long-range missiles into sea between it and Japan. Late last year and early this year, Iran also conducted several short- and medium-range ballistic missile and rocket launches.

All told, foreign countries launched about 100 ballistic missiles, Obering told Congress. As of March 2007, the pace of these launches was about twice that of 2006, according to his written statement.

At Shariki, Hunter and others know when something is in the sky. But they aren’t necessarily the first to know. As Shariki’s radar tracks missiles, data transfers instantly to round-the-clock watchers in Tokyo, Colorado, Hawaii and elsewhere, Hunter says.

“It operates at echelons way above Capt. Hunter,” he says. “By the time they’ve called me and got me out of bed, the people who are actually running the fight at that level would already know what’s going on and probably already be planning their responses. I’m more of just a caretaker of a system.”

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