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Unit at Hill AFB sustains radars, bolsters nation’s homeland defense

The AN/FPS-117 engineering facility at Hill Air Force Base with the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains in the background.

The AN/FPS-117 engineering facility Nov. 20, 2019, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The facility is used for testing and training and is a replica of the long-range radar systems that make up the American-Canadian North Warning System. (U.S. Air Force photo by Todd Cromar)

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- When F-22 Raptor fighter jets intercepted Russian fighters and bombers off the coast of Alaska during series of incidents last year, it was a network of radar systems sustained by a program office at Hill Air Force Base that prompted the jets to scramble in support of those missions. Russian military aircraft flying near the United States is not uncommon, and fortunately there’s a series of Atmospheric Early Warning System radars feeding information to air operations centers that serve as the backbone of the nation’s homeland defense when it comes to advanced warning and air traffic surveillance.

The effective, 40-year-old radar systems are sustained by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center's Aerospace Dominance Enabler Division at Hill AFB. “A lot of people have the mindset that you have these radar sites and you just set them out there and forget about them,” said Col. Erik Quigley, division commander and senior materiel leader. “However, to keep them active, it’s a team effort, whether it’s maintenance of the systems and facilities, or their connectivity to the operations centers to tip off those F-22s.”

The AEWS consists of 25 AN/FPS-117 operational radars and 36 short-range AN/FPS-124 operational radars that make up what’s called the American-Canadian North Warning System, which stretches nearly 3,000 miles across North America from the Aleutian Islands in southwestern Alaska to Baffin Island located in northeastern Canada. As well as their military use, the radars feed the Federal Aviation Administration, Nav Canada, and other customers.

Program Manager Brent Odenwalder said to sustain these highly-sophisticated radars that were fielded in the 1980s, his unit faces some challenges, particularly parts obsolescence. The designed service life was for 20 years, but they will be sustained through 2035 and potentially beyond. “We’ve actually gone back to the surplus market to buy back old parts that we never thought we’d need again to sustain and keep the system up and running,” he said. There’s also been a nearly decade-long modernization effort to insert new technology and parts into the system via an “essential parts replacement program,” which provides a series of field maintenance equipment kits to replace “single point failure items” on the radars.

“With the acceleration of technology, parts can become obsolete very quickly and it’s important for the program office to work closely with the prime contractor to ensure obsolescence is tracked for the parts being developed,” said Bob McCaleb, engineering technical advisor. However, when it comes to extending the life of the system, eventually there becomes a point of diminishing returns and it makes sense to make a major investment in the program.

“Our challenge right now is compliance to keep it up to 21st century standards,” Quigley said. He also indicated an analysis of alternatives to field a next-generation radar warning system is currently underway by the Pentagon and others. “It’s not an easy task finding innovative solutions for new/replacement systems to keep up with the evolving threats that the early warning systems can identify/track. In the meantime, we have to sustain these current radars through 2035,” Quigley said.

Awareness of and the ability to execute operations in the Arctic were key talking points by Air Force senior leaders, including the secretary of the Air Force at the recent Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida. “These radars are truly the eyes and ears of everything that goes on to protect our northern border,” McCaleb said.