It sits on the barren northwest coast of Greenland, a
forlorn outpost in the Arctic expanse. Here, winter storm winds rip through at
200 miles an hour. Temperatures drop to –85 degrees Fahrenheit. Nighttime
darkness can last three months. Brazen Arctic foxes, known as
"Archies," scavenge for food.
Thule AB, 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is an Air
Force installation like no other. The 2,600-acre site has a Ballistic Missile
Early Warning System (BMEWS) radar, some 360 Americans, 1,000 Danes, and a few
And almost nothing else.
Thule is desolate, a snow-covered end of the Earth. Nothing
except squat scrub bushes grows in the bitter Greenland cold. Even the base's
Christmas trees must be brought in by airlift. Each December, Reserve USAF
pilots donate Christmas trees and fly them from McGuire AFB, N. J., to Thule,
where they quickly go up in dormitories and work sites.
As the 180 or so local USAF personnel see it, Thule is a
vision of Hell frozen over. There is a 10,000-foot-long airstrip, but almost
nobody comes. Once a week, C-141 resupply airplanes shuttle between Thule and
McGuire. Only pilots experienced in Arctic operations are permitted to make
The C-141 flights provide a life-support system for the USAF
personnel and 180 US civilian contractors, who are based in the High North to
keep watch on Soviet ballistic missile launches taking place on the other side
of the pole. The "eyes" of this operation are the crews who man
USAF's newly upgraded BMEWS radar.
With permission from Denmark—it has sovereignty over
Greenland—USAF deployed its first BMEWS radar to Thule in 1961. The upgraded version,
which Raytheon installed at a cost of $110 million and now helps maintain, is a
two-sided, electronically steered, phased-array sensor that can do a vastly
better job of detecting, tracking, and assessing ICBM launches than could the
three mammoth radar dishes that made up the old system.
It is also far more reliable. The older BMEWS radar was
"down" an average of fourteen minutes a day; the newer one is out of
action fewer than fourteen minutes a month. What's more, the new radar performs
its task while using only seventy-one percent of its total sensing capacity,
and power usage has been cut by eighty percent.
The two BMEWS panels send their powerful radar beams deep
into the skies and space above the Soviet Union. The numerous elements of the
panels make a faint popping noise as the system's sophisticated computer
selects and fires them individually.
Inside the Missile Warning Operations Center, work is
carried out by four crews of four. Two additional qualified radar crews are
kept on standby. Occasionally, a crew will be forced to pull a twenty-hour
shift because storms prevent relief from arriving.
The MWOC's computer terminals display a circular graphic
showing sensors as they fire. Few fire at any given time, and the pattern seems
to be random, with three or four flickering symbols appearing and disappearing
every few seconds, to be replaced by another small flock. Crew members speak of
"fencing in" a launched object with radar beams, with the computer
determining the trajectory, arc, and impact point of the object as it breaks
"We often get a 'heads up' concerning [launch of] a
satellite, but not always," reports one Air Force officer. "The
Russians provide the best drills for our crews when they fire an unannounced
A sudden, unexpected Soviet rocket launch within the Thule
BMEWS "field of view" concentrates the crew's attention as they seek
to verify the authenticity of information being reported by the computer. The
crew is allotted one minute to determine if a threat is real.
BMEWS also receives "space watch" assignments.
This entails daily tracking of some of the 19,676 cataloged objects in orbit.
The computer matches a suspect object's track with a "known-object"
trajectory. It is followed closely until a match is found or until the object
is determined to be nonthreatening and is cataloged.
The USAF contingent at Thule AB is a part of Air Force Space
Command, based at Peterson AFB, Colo. On site are the 12th Missile Warning
Squadron of the 1st Space Wing; Detachment 3 of the 2d Satellite Tracking
Group, 2d Space Wing; and a Host Base Support Unit of the 3d Space Support
Danish personnel living on the base perform all essential
services and maintenance as contractors to the US government. The Danes treat Americans
as the guests that they are and keep apart from the Americans on base. Some
anti-American sentiment can be found. One large barrier to closer relations is
the fact that US servicemen and -women stay only for one year. That is long
enough for most Americans.
who visited Thule last winter, is a freelance photographer living in New York
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