Public Policy

Air Force Examining Modernization of Early Warning Radars

By Frank Wolfe | November 23, 2020
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The Raytheon AN/FPS-108 COBRA Dane radar, located at Eareckson Air Station on Shemya Island, Alaska in the Aleutians, collects radar metric and signature data on foreign ballistic missile launches and space surveillance data on new foreign launches and satellites in low-Earth orbit (U.S. Air Force Photo)

The U.S. Air Force is examining the modernization of its system of early warning radars and airborne command and control assets in Alaska.

“It’s time to take a look at new ways of doing these things, and this is a topic that’s under way,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said on Nov. 19 during a virtual forum of the Alaska World Affairs Council to discuss the service’s recently released Arctic strategy.

The U.S. Air Force in July released what it called the service’s first Arctic Strategy to meet competitive threats from Russia and China.

The 14-page strategy, accompanied by a classified annex, was co-signed by Barrett, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, and then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

The U.S. Air Force wants improved sensors and communications for the Arctic, including Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2), as the service seeks to make operations there more routine and as it fields Lockheed Martin F-35s and F-22s to enhance U.S. Arctic power projection to the Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.

“The world has changed since those radars were developed and put in,” Air Force Lt. Gen. David Krumm, the commander of Alaskan Command and the 11th Air Force, said during the Nov. 19 forum. “The locations were designed primarily to detect Soviet bombers coming to attack over the poles. With hypersonic weapons and cruise missiles, the world is changing, and so I would anticipate the Air Force will continue to modernize and improve to look at ways we can design a system that gives us multi-domain awareness up here in the Arctic, and I think that you will see a movement to incorporate those long-range radars in JADC2. But there’s some exciting possibilities with using some of the things that are old, with big data [and] with artificial intelligence.”

One of the radar modernization efforts is an upgrade to the Long Range Discrimination Radar [LRDR] at Clear Air Force Station, Alaska.

In 2015, Lockheed Martin received a $784 million contract for LRDR, an S-band radar for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense anti-ballistic missile system. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) halted its work on LRDR in March due to COVID-19 and now plans to field LRDR in late fiscal 2023, per a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in July .

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) has pushed for extending the life of the Raytheon COBRA Dane missile defense radar on Shemya Island, Alaska.

The Air Force also envisions using Alaska more in the future for hypersonic tests. Sullivan has backed using Alaskan launch and range complexes, such as the Pacific Spaceport Complex and the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC) for hypersonic flight tests and wants to develop new complexes, such as the Aleutian Test Range.

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