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Peterson unit improves missile defense capability

THULE AIR BASE, Greenland -- The first complete shift using upgraded early warning system software took place the night of June 23 through the morning of June 24, making Thule's ballistic missile early warning radar the third radar to complete its upgrade. 

The radar is operated by the 12th Space Warning Squadron, a geographically separated unit of the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. This upgrade completes another step toward a fully-operational missile defense system for the United States and its friends and allies. 

"We're making history here. We're the first crew that did the mission differently here than the crews in 1987," said 2nd Lt. Talaya Jones, 12th Space Warning Squadron and one of the crew members on UEWR's first shift. 

While UEWR will be in a trial period for the next few months, the operators of the 12th SWS plan never to return to the old 1987 system, referred to as "Legacy" by its crews. 

"The UEWR system now continuously feeds information to missile warning, missile defense and space surveillance agencies back in the States," said Lt. Col. Dave Meteyer, 12th SWS commander at the time of the upgrade. "However, if the new system were to go down for any reason, we can still fall back on the Legacy system, which is on standby." 

The UEWR upgrade process included no external hardware changes to the radar. In fact, no one would know looking at the radar that there had been changes. The upgrades were primarily internal and related to data-processing hardware and software. 

"It's a more advanced system that allows operators to see more information and more effectively accomplish missile warning, missile defense and space surveillance missions," Colonel Meteyer said. 

Previously, the radar had operated under a software program that seemed ancient when compared with the 21st century. Operators used a large desktop monitor with monochrome screen, light pen--the precursor to the computer mouse--and relied on thick binders of information to effectively track missile launches and space objects.

"The upgrades definitely make it easier to utilize the weapon system," said Capt. Keith Harrigan, another crew member on the shift. "It allows you to visualize what the radar is seeing much better than before. Now we can better see where the objects are going and what path they are taking with an interactive 3-D interface." 

The UEWR system introduced flat screen computers, color, computer mice and increased computer memory and computing speed to a new missile warning operations center where operators work 24/7. 

"I enjoy the new system because it is something I can relate to as part of my generation," Lieutenant Jones said. 

"This is not your father's missile warning system," said Capt. William Weiford, the third member of the crew. "The interface is much more user friendly." 

UEWR also provides more accurate identification of object parts, separating, for instance, a missile's re-entry system from its launch components. This improved capability is the primary reason for the upgrade and is critical to ensuring the success of any missile defense engagement. However, another major advantage of the upgrade is it significantly improves the unit's ability to conduct space surveillance operations. This improvement is due to both a more effective operator interface and substantially more capable data processing capability. 

The UEWR system did not come online with the flick of a switch. The 12th SWS spent nearly two years preparing for the new system to include construction, testing and crew training. More personnel were stationed at Thule to cover the additional workload, but the squadron still worked long hours and several weekends. 

The UEWR system still requires a three-person crew as did the old system, but will ideally require less maintenance and trouble-shooting to sustain operations. 

Thule's radar primarily watches the skies over the North Pole for land- or submarine-based missile launches. An important secondary mission is tracking about 10 percent of the world's space catalogue or about 475 objects per day. The radar is powerful enough to spot a softball-sized object 3,000 nautical miles away, or from New York to Los Angeles comparably. This information is critical in preparing space launches to avoid collisions in space. 

The two other radar sites that already implemented the UEWR changes are in Beale Air Force Base, Calif., and Royal Air Force Fylingdales, England.