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

The Sunday Telegraph - - News - By Do­minic Ni­cholls DE­FENCE COR­RE­SPON­DENT

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’

feel like

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

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