Associated Press February 20, 2005
Military dismantling Cold War radar systems in Maine, Oregon
By Ryan Lenz
It's a dinosaur of the Cold War: a 3-mile-long radar system designed to detect Soviet bombers screaming across the Atlantic.
The Over-The-Horizon Backscatter Radar, often described as the world's largest radar, was developed over 25 years for $1.5 billion and occupies an area nearly twice the size of New York's Central Park. When operational, it could monitor a massive swath of ocean and warn of threats nearly 2,000 miles away.
Built in both Maine and Oregon, the radars picked up readings as far as 1,700 miles off both coasts. But like outdated warhead silos and other relics of the arms race, the military is scrapping the wire-and-steel monoliths.
"The world changed," said Steve Hinds, manager of the OTH-B radar program at Air Combat Command, which oversees U.S. fighter and bomber wings. "This will not be used for what it was intended. Ever."
The backscatter radars bounced a beam off the ionosphere, which sends a scattered signal back to the Earth's surface. They were so sensitive, they could detect changes in ocean currents, a useful tool for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which debated acquiring the radars for research.
The radar in Maine, nestled in the woods in a place that bears little resemblance to the Russian capital for which the nearby town was named, was operational for a mere year in the early 1990s before being mothballed.
Military officials had planned to install additional over-the-horizon radars to oversee other hemispheres, but only installations in Maine and Oregon were built before the program was scrapped in favor of more advanced Navy technology.
The Air Force maintained the ability to restart the radars to protect against a new threat before beginning to dismantle the facilities late last year. Other agencies also wondered if they could use the radar to detect ocean-bound drug shipments.
David Winkler, a historian with the Naval Service Museum, studied the radars for a report to the Defense Department on the legacy of the Cold War in the late 1990s. They were designed to deter countries with nuclear capabilities, he said.
"They are out there to deter anybody who has a bad day and decides to launch against us," Winkler said. "But who are we deterring now? al-Qaida?"
While many Cold War military installations have closed in the last decade - some military experts expect the factor to weigh heavily in this year's base closings - decommissioning the radar marks to some a change in homeland defense.
Winkler said the decision to tear down the radars is the last move in a shift from a Cold War posture to one more suited to keeping even the possibility of conflict off shore.
But not everyone shares the assessment that the radar is useless.
John Pike, a military expert with globalsecurity.org, said he is puzzled by the decision to dismantle the Backscatter radar during an age when nuclear proliferation remains a concern and countries like Iran and North Korea are developing long-range nuclear warheads.
"North Korea's missiles may or may not be able to get to the United States if they were launched from North Korea. But they could if they were launched by tramp steamers 1,000 miles off the coast," he said. "Korean cargo ships, each with one missile and one atomic bomb, would blend into the traffic."
Military officials counter that it's not defense they are leaving behind, it is a matter of how they are going to defend. New radar technology, including a relocatable version of the backscatter radar, have replaced the massive structure.
The Air Force in the months ahead plans to begin shopping the nearly 1,200 acres to industrial clients who could lease the land and benefit from such expansive, unencumbered landscape.
"It was a gracious piece of machinery. We saw it come and we saw it go, but it may have some other uses after all," said Dean Smith, Air Combat Control chief of quality assurance. "We haven't got that far yet, but there could be another tale here after all."
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