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Sentinel of space found in Alaskan wilderness

CLEAR AIR FORCE STATION, Alaska (AFNS) -- Among the bears, moose, wolves and wolverines of Alaska's interior is a silent sentinel of space -- Clear Air Force Station. Its personnel keep an eye on things above for the sake of tactical warning of ballistic missile attacks against the U.S. and Canada and space situational awareness.

The 11,500-acre installation sits about 80 miles southwest of Fairbanks. It is one of more than 20 geographically separated units within the 21st Space Wing, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. Clear AFS is home to the Air Force's 13th Space Warning Squadron and is the oldest missile warning site in North America.

The station is part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, providing early warning of intercontinental ballistic missiles and sea-launched ballistic missiles to North American Aerospace Defense Command. Clear AFS also provides surveillance data to the U.S. Strategic Command concerning objects orbiting in space.

To carry out those missions, the 13th SWS is equipped with a Solid State Phased Array Radar System, an 11-story tall, flat-topped triangular structure with two radiating faces composed of nearly 2,000 active elements each. The system peers about 3,000 miles into space and covers a vast stretch of real estate from the Arctic to the Pacific oceans including the west coast of the continental U.S.

Mission timing is critical. Within 60 seconds personnel are required to respond to potential threats, passing information to the Missile Warning Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for threat assessment. And it has to happen every single time a possible inbound intercontinental or sea-launched ballistic missile directed at North America is detected.

To pull off such a detailed mission with that degree of precision takes a high level of teamwork and skill. At Clear AFS that means a blended group of active-duty Airmen and members of the Alaska Air National Guard from the 213th Space Warning Squadron. Presently there are 13 active duty personnel, six Airmen on temporary duty as firemen, two members of the Royal Canadian Air Force supporting the mission, and 109 from the Air National Guard on station. Additionally there are 35 Defense Department civilians, and more than 150 contractors supporting the mission.

There are benefits and challenges with such close interaction, but the 13th SWS and the 213th SWS handle them almost seamlessly fulfilling the mission of the 21st Space Wing.

"The Air Force owns the mission and installation and the Air National Guard is the force provider for 85 percent of space operators and 100 percent of security forces," said Lt. Col. Jason Burch, 13th SWS commander. "The 213th SWS provides continuity and operations and security expertise. The Air National Guard trains and evaluates active duty, Air National Guard and Royal Canadian air forces."

"The U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard adhere to the same operational standards, but there are slight differences with the administration of forces," said Lt. Col. John Oberst, 213th SWS commander. "The benefit to the U.S. Air Force is mission continuity and unparalleled expertise provided by the Air National Guard."

Having security personnel who are permanent residents of the area are benefits as well. For security forces that means thorough familiarity with typical activities for the area allowing potential threats to be identified quickly, Oberst said.

And there is another benefit to having the two groups working together on a daily basis.

"The U.S. Air Force brings the active-duty perspective, which is difficult for guardsmen to get in a remote geographically separated unit," Oberst said.

"One challenge working together so closely presents is in the area of total force integration,” Burch said. “There are activities that bring guardsmen under federal authority to the Air Force. This involves security forces signing in for shifts at the radar, gate duty and patrol and operations personnel when they sign on to work on the missile warning operations center floor.”

Clear AFS is unique in other ways. Temperatures can range from -50 degrees in winter to 90 degrees in summer. The dry and hot climate provides optimal conditions for fires on or near base during summer months, said 1st Lt. Steven Havens, the 213th SWS chief of operations support.

In the coldest times of winter, Havens said there are interesting situations personnel at Clear AFS must deal with.

"Tires develop flat spots from sitting on pavement and take several miles of a jarring ride to smooth back out and become round," he said.

In the winter, vehicles must also be plugged into outlets to prevent engine blocks, batteries, and oil from freezing solid.

"If and when someone forgets to plug in, or their block heater, oil pan heater or battery heater malfunctions, civil engineers come out and puts a tent over your car and runs a heater to thaw the frozen engine," he said.

In addition, wildlife thrives in such remote locations. Havens said both black and grizzly bears frequent the area and special public announcements are broadcast, warning people away from the sighting areas until the animals clear out. If it becomes a safety issue, the Fish and Wildlife Department is called in. Base personnel regularly see moose, eagles, fox, coyote, wolverines, lynx, and the occasional caribou on the drive home.

Havens said not many people live at the station full time. About 300 of them have dorms where they live during their duty days, but most people working at the base drive long distances to their jobs each week. Havens said many drive 300 miles one way each week while others drive the 150-mile roundtrip to Fairbanks daily.

A composite area holds most of the base facilities connected under one roof. Facilities like the command section, gym, dining facility, medical clinic, library, dorms, shopette, and recreational activities are all located together for ease of access during times of extreme cold.

"It's all connected, so one who works there never has to go outside," Havens said.

No matter the challenge, be it weather, wildlife or total force integration, the Airmen and guardsmen of Clear AFS continue to thrive and provide protection and space situational awareness for America and its allies on the North American continent.