PAVE PAWS critical for space surveillance network, deterrence


Iranian ballistic missiles fired in an attack on Iraqi bases late last year caused limited damage and no loss of life, due in part to the United States Air Force’s “early warning system,” which includes space-based infrared system satellites.

SIBRS is a highly valued asset in detecting those types of ground based threats, but what if an attack came from a submarine positioned close enough to target U.S. soil?

That’s where the 21st Space Wing is clutch using systems like the PAVE PAWS at Cape Cod Air Force Station, Massachusetts, as a real-world asset to protect and defend the homeland.

“With the advent of submarine launched ballistic missiles, grave threats to the American homeland could originate from any point in the ocean in addition to the known land-based missile launch sites,” said Lt. Col. James Roberts, 6th Space Warning Squadron commander. “To deter this threat, radar detection systems were erected on the East and West coasts of the US in support of the homeland defense mission of North American Aerospace Defense Command. These radars operate 24/7 with a detection range of over 3,000 nautical miles.  If a ballistic missile penetrates this surveillance zone, the system alerts the console operator and prepares emergency message traffic for electronic dissemination to the Missile Warning Center at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colorado.  This early warning system provides our nation’s leaders with time to determine if an actual attack is underway and decide what actions to take in response.”

The PAVE PAWS system at Cape Cod is one of several radars spanning borders of the North American continent with the ability to detect a ballistic missile launch from land or sea, but that isn’t their only mission set.

“The PAVE PAWS system can also track objects in low earth orbit as they pass overhead—increasing the value of the system without incurring the additional cost of a separate dedicated system,” said Senior Master Sgt. Timothy Bahr, 6 SWS superintendent.

Originally established during the Cold War, the PAVE PAWS system satiated the need for a quick reaction time. Unlike a fixed antenna that needs to manually move, the PAVE PAWS system is “steered” electronically and can be begin the tracking process in a different direction in a fraction of a second.

“Operating in the ultra-high frequency band of the electromagnetic spectrum, the PAVE PAWS radar continuously scans the horizon out to 3,000 nautical miles searching for any threats that may threaten the North American continent,” Roberts said. “Using computer-controlled pulses and an array of over 3,000 antennas, the radar directs energy to the areas of interest and ‘listens’ for a signal return.  This system of directing radar energy eliminates the need to turn a radar dish to track threat objects one-at-a-time and allows a single radar to track many objects simultaneously.”

According to 6 SWS, though the technology was created decades ago, the system remains a relevant and critical for the space surveillance network and deterrence.

“Though the Cold War is over, the weapons that necessitated the development of the PAVE PAWS system are still effective and on alert today,” Roberts said. 

The 6 SWS Operations Officer, Lt. Col. Travis Kennebeck, believes PAVE PAWS is critical to space superiority.

“Given the capacity to track low earth orbiting objects like the International Space Station, the PAVE PAWS radar generates valuable data for the 21 SW’s mission supporting foundational space domain awareness to achieve space superiority.”