Cold War radar powered down for the last time

Posted: Friday, February 02, 2001

CLEAR AIR FORCE STATION (AP) -- A half hour was all it took to shut down a 40-year-old Cold War relic.

Workers gathered this week to watch the old radar at Clear Air Force Station powered down for the last time.

''It's kind of a sad thing,'' David Leavy told about 100 people, mostly workers from past and present, who witnessed the shutdown Wednesday.

Leavy, a civilian, has been employed the longest at the Clear Air Force Base Early Warning System -- 39 years, seven months and 17 days. He was present when the missile tracking system was first activated in October 1961.

In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched a rocket into space, kicking off the space race. ''Just months after that launch, they started building this site,'' said Lt. Col. Jeff Vance of the 13th Space Warning Squadron.

Gordon Comings was in Iceland when one of the two sister radar sites was started up in October 1960 and was on hand when the last of its kind was turned off at Clear Wednesday. He worked at the radar site during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 when all workers were on heightened alert in preparation for war.

''That was a tough one,'' Comings said.

The old radar was officially shut down Wednesday, but it hasn't been needed since a new missile warning radar became fully operational on Dec. 15, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

The new radar not only doubles the size of the area monitored, but it also can monitor multiple objects simultaneously instead of one at a time, like the old radar did.

The new radar cuts the operational crew from five to three people, reducing the staff by 22 people. That reduction, however, will be absorbed by attrition, because many workers, such as Leavy, are retiring after a long career at the radar site, Vance said.

Clear's mission is to detect Intercontinental Ballistic and Sea-Launched Ballistic Missiles aimed at North America. The radar evaluates whether the object is a threat and sends the information to the North American Aerospace Defense Command headquarters in Colorado Springs. The radar also tracks satellites and some 9,000 objects floating in space for collision avoidance for both manned and unmanned space missions.

''It's our interest to know what's up there,'' Vance said.

If a National Missile Defense System is built, the Clear radar will feed and cue the interceptor's radar. After the initial warning, the defense system's own radar would take over to shoot down whatever is launched, Vance said.

The new radar is considered state of the art, although it's 20 years old. It was dismantled and shipped from southwestern Texas and placed in a new building at Clear. Work on the new radar site began in April 1998 and was completed a year ago. The new radar had to go through a year-long checklist of qualifications before it was deemed fully operational in December.

''The system is actually performing extraordinary well,'' Vance said.

The entire project cost $110 million, Vance said.

The equipment uses about half the power and takes up one-fourth the space of the old radar. The old equipment, with its three football-sized upright panels and large golf ball-looking tracker, dwarfs the new triangular radar that sits in a small clearing in the woods.

Maintenance costs were also reduced because special contracts were previously needed to build parts that were no longer being made for the old radar, Vance said.

Two crews were working simultaneously on the two radar sites until Wednesday.

Sid Michaels was one of the civilians whose jobe switched from the old radar to the new one. He came up from Huntsville, Ala., in 1968 to work on the missile warning system. He now works on a more computerized and digital radar, but he still has a soft spot for the old radar, which was the last of its kind for the Air Force.

''This is the last of the large mechanical radars,'' Michaels said. ''I hope they'll preserve all or part of it as a relic of the Cold War.''

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