New Radar Complete at Clear Space Force Station
Construction is complete on the Long-Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) at Clear Space Force Station in the Interior. A ceremony on Monday marked the formal transition from the installation and integration phase to the testing and training phase.
Deterrence Through Denial
“We might as well go build some pyramids! Because the size and the scale of this capability really is unbelievable,” says Vice Admiral Jon Hill, director of the Department of Defense Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which oversees the project.
The LRDR consists of two arrays of gallium nitride semiconductors, each 60 feet tall by 60 feet wide. Hill says Lockheed Martin developed technology “that merges the long-reach capability of lower-frequency radars with the high-resolution of high-frequency radars.” In addition to the daily task of tracking objects in Earth’s orbit as small as individual bolts, MDA needs the radar to intercept intercontinental missiles, guiding rockets launched from Fort Greely or from sea-based batteries.
Lieutenant General A.C. Roper, deputy commander of US Northern Command in Colorado Springs, says the enhanced missile defense capability represents a shift from “deterrence through punishment,” meaning massive retaliation, to “deterrence through denial” by giving potential adversaries pause. “It’s the type of deterrence that shifts his cost-benefit calculus, providing doubt that an attack would be successful,” Roper told the crowd at the ceremony. “And the LRDR helps to shift that calculus: you have given our potential adversaries something to think about when contemplating an attack on our homeland.”
Construction began in 2018, when Clear was still an Air Force station, with the demolition of the Cold War-era Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS). “Just to get started, we had to clear the site and remove the old BMEWS,” Hill says, “and I’ll tell you that was quite an adventure but done in record time. Fifty-four rail cars to remove the scrap metal and soil from the site. Pretty stunning.”
Anchorage-based STG Pacific drilled shafts to secure the foundation, and the Army Corps of Engineers poured the concrete. Hill says it was a difficult pour, given the narrow window of conditions, such that the Corps poured 4,100 cubic yards of concrete in nineteen hours.
Arctic Slope Regional Corporation Construction built a new power plant for the LRDR. A joint venture of Washington-based Haskell Corporation and Davis Constructors and Engineers of Anchorage built the equipment shelter to house the two radar arrays. Palmer-based White Mountain Construction built the security fence and entrance control facility.
The total price tag is given as $1.5 billion.
Eye on the Sky
Concept art illustrates how the Long-Range Discrimination Radar at Clear Space Force Station integrates with other assets to scan the polar and North Pacific regions.
Scanning into space, LRDR’s S-band radar complements the current tracking stations in Alaska that search for threats closer to the horizon, according to Lieutenant General David A. Krumm, commander of the Alaskan Command. “The location here in Alaska allows us to have a field of view that we think we need to do missile defense, particularly against a ballistic missile threat,” he says.
The LRDR promises the ability to simultaneously search and track multiple small objects at very long ranges and discriminate between warheads and non-lethal decoys. This has been a potential pitfall for the Ground-Based Interceptors, if an enemy could overwhelm defenses by confusing the targeting system. Hill explains that the LRDR at Clear can be integrated with US radars worldwide. “We can take cues from space assets,” he says. “We can take cues from seaborne assets and from land-based assets”
The MDA also touts the flexibility of LRDR to be upgraded without changing the hardware to adapt to another looming security threat: hypersonic missiles. Essentially an intermediate-range missile that evade defenses by never leaving the atmosphere, the technology is under development by Russia, India, and Brazil, as well as the United Kingdom and France.
Beyond missile defense, LRDR monitors the space around Earth, to detect, track, and identify active or inactive satellites, spent rockets, or other fragments that could pose hazards to the orbital neighborhood.
Let Testing Begin
The LRDR shelter building, to the left of and behind an older radar dome at Clear Space Force Station, known as Clear Air Force Station until June.
Admiral Hill says the LRDR has partial capability already, but really the fielding ceremony marks the next phase of preparations before the MDA transfers control of the radar to the US Space Force and Northern Command. Before that happens, the equipment and crew will be put through ground testing and, eventually, a flight test to detect an airborne “threat model.” Testing won’t be finished until 2023.
Transfer was originally scheduled for 2022, but construction delays due to COVID-19 put the project at least three months behind schedule. The delay caused an estimated $25 million cost overrun, according to a Government Accounting Office report.
The project is catching up now, according to Hill. “The Department of the Air Force, the lead military department in this effort, has already funded and hired the missile defense radar operators and systems analysts required to operate the LRDR remotely from Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station and Beale Air Force Base,” he says. “This staffing and organization will increase synergies and operational redundancy by giving us the ability to operate from locations other than Clear Space Force Station.”
Clear, located near the Parks Highway town of Anderson, is operated by approximately 150 personnel with the 13th and 213th Space Warning Squadrons, mostly from the Alaska Air National Guard, in addition to Air Force and Space Force.
Despite the remote location, Hill anticipates the LRDR becoming a showpiece for science and technology educators in Alaska. “It hits everything from electrical engineering to mechanical design to materials. It’s about the environment, when you look at the environmental mitigations we put in place.”
The radar site at Clear goes back to 1958, when the US Air Force set up the first Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, within months of the USSR’s Sputnik 1 demonstrating the ability to send rockets around the world, much faster than nuclear-armed bomber planes.