COBRA DANE Radar:Protecting the U.S. from abroad
By Robb Lingley, 21st Space Wing
/ Published December 27, 2017
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The COBRA DANE radar, a single faced ground-based, phased-array radar at Eareckson Air Station, Alaska, is a large and powerful radar located on the island of Shemya, in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, that can detect objects up to 2,000 miles away.
“Shemya Island crosses the 180 degree line of longitude, making it the easternmost continually inhabited settlement in the United States,” said Maj. Christopher Hill, 13th Space Warning Squadron operations officer. “There are no uniformed members currently stationed at Eareckson.”
Employed as an early warning system, COBRA DANE has the capacity to track 200 targets at a time and provide detailed information on them to North American Aerospace Defense Command headquarters.
“It can track objects in low-earth orbit that are approximately the size of a golf ball,” Hill said.
In past decades there were upwards of 1,000 military members who supported various missions operated by the installation. Currently 29 contractors operate the COBRA DANE radar and 250 more contractors are employed at Shemya supporting both base operations support functions and COBRA DANE operations.
“COBRA DANE’s primary mission is to support U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Strategic Command by providing midcourse radar coverage for the Ballistic Missile Defense System,” said Hill. “The system detects Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and Sea-Launched Ballistic Missiles, classifies reentry vehicles and other missile objects, and provides real-time information to the Ground-based Midcourse Defense Fire Control for potential interception and elimination of threat missiles.”
Its secondary mission is to support USSTRATCOM’s space situational awareness mission by detecting, tracking, correlating, and characterizing man-made resident space objects, primarily in the Low-Earth Orbit regime, including space debris and early observation of new foreign launches.
The radar, which is just a few islands away from Russia, stands 120 feet tall and has a 95 foot diameter. It became operational on Aug. 1, 1977, underwent a modernization in the early 1990s, and has had numerous upgrades since.
“Initially, the system supported three critical U.S Air Force missions, technical data collection for ballistic missile verification, early warning, and space surveillance,” said Hill. “Its missions and purpose have evolved over the decades as threats have evolved.”
COBRA DANE is an Air Force Space Command government owned facility with Raytheon, the company that developed it, providing the manpower. Currently, 13th SWS provides administrative oversight to COBRA DANE operations while the Air Force Lifecycle Management Center performs program management and sustainment.