For $1B Radar, It’s Clear

The Missile Defense Agency today confirmed  Clear Air Station as its preferred location for a new type of radar system, called Long Range Discrimination Radar. The final decision will depend on  safety and environmental studies.

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The selection of Clear helps solidify Alaska’s role as host to the ground-based mid-course missile defense system, designed primarily to shoot down warheads from North Korea. Clear is on the Parks Highway, 80 miles from Fairbanks. It is already home to an upgraded early warning radar system that will be part of the missile defense system.

Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance,  says LRDR improves the view of the target, giving interceptors a better chance.

“You want to see it, just like a baseball player playing outfield. You want to be able to watch that ball once it gets hit off the bat all the way into the mitt, to make the best chance of catching the ball,” says Ellison, whose organization accepts money from the defense industry. “Right now, we can’t see it all the way through. We have to close our eyes for a good part of it, and then we have to look up and find it.”

That’s the “long-range” part of the name. Ellison says the “discrimination” part is also vital to defeating an enemy missile.

“When it goes though space, there’s a lot of junk. There’s a lot of parts. There’s a lot of stuff in that, including countermeasures, including decoys and maybe a couple of warheads in there, he said.  “So this radar is able to pinpoint exactly what the actual vehicle is, the target vehicle that’s carrying the weapon.”

George Lewis, a visiting scholar at Cornell University and a long-time critic of missile defense, says the discrimination is crucial. Lewis says existing radar will likely spot a North Korean launch right away, or when it clears any cloud cover in a minute or so.

“We will see it quite early in flight. This radar would probably be the first one that can begin to make serious discrimination measurements, and the earlier you do that, the better off you are,” said Lewis.

Existing radar, Lewis says, has a range resolution of about 30 feet.

“That means that at about 30 feet apart — if there are two objects that are about 30 feet apart — that’s the distance at which it would being to be able to tell that there’s two objects, instead of one,” he said.

A typical warhead is about 6 feet long, so Lewis says the current system would see lots of stuff as a possible warhead. Lewis says LRDR’s range resolution would most likely be about 18 inches. Even with LRDR, Lewis says it won’t be easy to pick out the warheads from the debris, but he calls it a necessary component.

LRDR is estimated to cost about $1 billion. Much of that will be spent on hardware and technology, though the system would require construction on site. The Missile Defense Agency says it hopes to have the new radar system operational by 2020.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at

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