We are watching: inside Britain’s nuclear-missile warning base
RAF radars in the North York Moors scan the skies for surprise attacks and debris from space
NESTLED in a quiet corner of the North York Moors, just off the A169 south of Whitby, sits one of Britain’s more peculiar conservation areas.
It is strange neither for the great crested newts it protects nor the grass snakes ready to bite any over-inquisitive labrador, but for the large slabs of stone contained within, protruding 100ft above the scrubby grass.
Welcome to RAF Fylingdales, home to Britain’s ballistic missile early warning system; a three-sided, eight-storey monolith capable of tracking 800 space-based objects at a time.
Radars at the site have been staring, unblinking, into the skies since the first “golf balls” were installed in 1963, watching for incoming nuclear missiles from the-then Soviet Union. The equipment has changed over the years (the balls were replaced in 1994 by the current flat structure), but the mission has stayed the same. With 360-degree coverage, from three degrees above the ground to almost straight up, and 2,560 active radar elements on each face, the Solid State Phased Array Radar places an electromagnetic “dome” over the Earth. Along with sister stations in Alaska and Greenland, any missiles, satellites or other space-based objects are detected, tracked and catalogued. But it has its limitations.
“We can see a can of Coke 3,000 miles away,” says Wing Commander Al Walton, the base commander. “But we can’t tell if it’s diet or full fat,” he admits.
A crew of five is permanently on watch, scanning the screens for activity. The station’s motto, Vigilamus – “We Are Watching”, has never been more appropriate: there were 572 ballistic missile launches in 2018, and the capability is increasingly fielded by proxy forces.
Due to the curvature of the Earth, the radar will not immediately see most missile launches. Other assets, usually far out in space, will cue RAF Fylingdales that something is out there. But once an object passes into the Fylingdales “dome” the system calculates the geometry, predicts an impact location and starts a clock running.
The crew commander then has 60 seconds to inform the UK Space Opera- tions Centre (SpOC), based in RAF High Wycombe, Bucks, that they have a contact and all radar systems are working correctly. The SpOC will make an assessment before deciding whether to warn London of an imminent strike.
A message is also sent immediately from RAF Fylingdales to whichever of Britain’s nuclear-armed submarines is on patrol. The Royal Navy does not comment on the nation’s strategic deterrent, so it is not known what orders the submarine has been given in the event that it hears nothing more from the UK after the initial warning of a possible inbound nuclear attack.
As well as watching for incoming nuclear missiles, RAF Fylingdales also monitors the 1,535 working satellites and nearly 15,000 pieces of debris in orbit. “Space is open to those who can reach it,” says Group Captain Steve Blockley, the fantastically titled director space, head of the SpOC. The Sunday Telegraph is the only media to have been inside the SpOC.
“Everyone in the military, in some form or other, is reliant on space,” says Gp Capt Blockley, “be it for targeting, communicating or getting to work.”
But space is becoming cluttered as the cost for commercial launches has dropped in recent years. There were 86 commercial launches in 2017, which delivered 298 new payloads into orbit. Companies such as SpaceX increasingly have to look for gaps in the debris and rely on systems such as Fylingdales’ to keep track of all the space junk.
Collisions can be catastrophic. In 2016, a fleck of paint travelling at 18,000mph is thought to have cracked a window on the International Space Station. The real fear is of debris – or an adversary – destroying the satellites the modern world relies on. Lasers can dazzle camera lenses, other satellites can be “sacrificed” through deliberate collisions, or missiles can be used to target systems in orbit – known as direct ascent anti-satellite attacks.
Fylingdales maintains a catalogue of what “normality” looks like in orbit. Any deviation from that could mean an attack has occurred or is in progress.
This unrelenting task of watching the skies is not just critical to the military; much of modern life would cease functioning without safe and assured use of space-based technology.
“For the military, if space got turned off it would be like going back to World War Two technology,” Wg Cdr Walton says.
“For millennials, it might going back to the Stone Age.”
‘We can see a can of Coke 3,000 miles away. But we can’t tell if it’s diet or full fat’
Inside the home of Britain’s ballistic missile early warning system, where radars can detect and track threats. Above left, the emergency trip console for the station