Standing vigilant from the top of the world

  • Published
  • By Dave Smith
  • 21st Space Wing Public Affairs
Stretching from the confines of Thule Air Base, the northernmost U.S. military installation hundreds of miles above the Arctic Circle, a dirt road trails steadily upward and to the northwest.

Following the road for about a dozen miles across sparse, barren tundra resembling a moonscape more than any earthly land, a form comes into view in stark contrast to the profile of the hillside. Drawing nearer, an 11-story tall, phased-array radar system and its attendant structures reveal themselves. The place is Ballistic Missile Early Warning Site – I.

BMEWS is operated by the 12th Space Warning Squadron, a geographically separated unit of the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. The site is part of Thule AB.

The 12th SWS’s mission is to provide missile warning and missile defense, both priority I missions, said Lt. Col. David Ransom, the 12th SWS commander. A secondary mission is bringing space situational awareness to the fight, monitoring man-made objects in low-Earth and polar orbit.

“Day to day we stand on alert to detect any possible missile attacks,” Ransom said. “While we monitor for possible threatening missile attacks, we can also track space objects the size of a softball about 3,500 miles up from Earth’s surface. This critical information is up-channeled to Joint Space Operations Center … (and) is important if the object is starting to decay back into the atmosphere and impact the Earth or collide (with) another space object.”

The BMEWS radar operates around the clock, day and night every day of the year. A staff of about 70, consisting of officers, enlisted, and contract personnel operate the facility.

“During times of extremely harsh weather, common in the Arctic, crews may work extra shifts back to back,” Ransom said. “Shifts at 12th SWS can be very busy at times because of the strategic importance of our mission and location.”

At Thule AB, storm season lasts from mid-September to mid-May. During that time of severe temperature and weather, it is not unusual for the road leading to the BMEWS site to be closed. Phone, internet and mail service are cut off at times too.

“With 91 knot winds and extreme weather, we have to shut down the road,” Ransom said. “If we get good enough forecasts we can augment the crews. Basically we ask the next crew to come up early. When the road is closed (crews) have to stay there.”

The remote location is home to many types of interesting wildlife around the Thule AB area, including musk oxen, arctic foxes and arctic hares. One type of local fauna can even change the security conditions at the base.

“One time we went into lockdown because of a polar bear sighting,” Ransom said. “It lasted for about three hours.”

Working in close proximity for long periods of time, whether at the BMEWS site or on Thule AB, can bring Airmen closer together.

“Our squadron is our family,” Ransom said. “We don’t get to go home at the end of the day to our families, friends and lives. It can be a challenge.”

One way the 12th SWS tries to create a family atmosphere is eating lunch together. Ransom said even deployment doesn’t forge bonds as close as those formed at the top of the world. The group plays games, takes hikes and goes to the base gym together.

“One of the tightest units I have been part of is at Thule,” Ransom said. “You get that family feeling.”