RAF Fylingdales History
The story of Fylingdales and the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System as a whole began on 4 October 1957. The nation awoke that morning to hear on their early morning news bulletin the 'bleep' 'bleep' 'bleep' of Sputnik I - the first man-made earth satellite to be put into orbit launched by the Soviet Union. This event had a dramatic effect because it illustrated that the Soviets had the potential to make a missile attack on the West launched from within their own land mass. With the launch of Sputnik I, the threat suddenly and dramatically changed and because there were no current means of stopping an incoming missile, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning system was conceived to allow retaliatory strikes to be launched. The ability to warn of an attack and to respond rapidly brought peace through deterrence.
The Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) was designed by the USA to give the radar coverage necessary to counter an inter-continental missile attack. In 1960, two stations were completed and became operational at Thule, Greenland, and at Clear, Alaska, both of which were operated by the United States Air Force. To complete the radar coverage for the United States and to give cover to the British Isles it was decided, by joint agreement, to build a third station in Great Britain.
A site on the Yorkshire Moors was selected and construction work began in 1960. The site became fully operational in 1963 and after years of continuous combined operation RAF Fylingdales still monitors for incoming missiles and conducts surveillance of all other objects in low earth orbit around the Earth.
The original radar housed in the golf balls had a diameter of some 84 feet. The radar was capable of detecting objects out to about 3 000 miles using a peak power of 5 Mega Watts. Not only was it large and powerful, it was also extremely heavy: each scanner weighing about 112 tons. Nonetheless, these large mechanical radars were successfully maintained for over 28 years with only 13 hours of unscheduled unserviceability during that period. However, by the mid 1980s the overall radar system at RAF Fylingdales needed modernization because it was becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain. The UK and US governments announced their agreement to modernize the mechanical system on 22 May 1986. The US Administration awarded the contract for the radar to Raytheon Company on 30 June 1988, whilst the contract for the construction of the buildings was placed in the UK and awarded to John Laing (Yorkshire) Ltd in July 1989. Construction work began the following month and continued apace, helped by the good weather of the 1989/90 winter. Some 90 local firms benefited from this work either as suppliers of goods or as sub-contractors. At the peak of building activity some 350 people swelled the work force at RAF Fylingdales.
The Fylingdales Solid State Phased Array, or SSPAR as it is usually called, is very different from the ‘golf balls’, although the job it does is the same. The current radar has no big dishes that turn, indeed no moving parts at all. Instead, the SSPAR uses changes in electrical phase to steer the radar beam. The SSPAR searches out to some 3 000 miles continuously looking for missiles. Whilst carrying out this role, it also is able to track some 800 separate objects simultaneously and, as a result, the space surveillance capability has been greatly enhanced.
Following agreement from the Secretary of State for Defence in 2003, the US Department of Defense (DoD) undertook to upgrade the SSPAR with the latest technologies to improve the radar’s missile tracking capabilities. This would allow the US Missile Defence Agency (MDA) to utilise the information produced by the radar for US Missile Defense purposes. Testing and acceptance of the Upgraded Early Warning Radar (UEWR) – as it is now called – took place in mid-2007, and formal certification of capability to support the fourth mission of US Missile Defense is expected in the near future.
Archaeology and the Historic Environment
A fire on Fylingdales Moor in the summer of 2003 revealed extensive, previously unknown prehistoric and 20th century military training remains. It seems that the uplands during the Mesolithic were used in regular seasonal movement from the south and coast to the uplands with hunting of aurochs and reindeer. Worked flint tools have been found such as at Lilla Rigg close to the boundary of RAF Fylingdales.
Forest clearance and seasonal use of the uplands continued from the Stone Age circa 4000 BC through to the end of the Anglo-Saxon period in 1066 with construction of distinct monuments such as barrows, banks and ditches on watersheds as seen around RAF Fylingdales. These seem to mark out areas of land tenure and possibly a move to a more ranked social order.
At Lilla Howe, there is a fine Christian Cross marking the grave of Lilla, chief minister to King Edward of Northumbria who saved the King’s life by throwing himself between his master and an assassin, receiving fatal wounds from a poisoned dagger.
During medieval times, sheep grazing on the moors would have been important because so much wealth was based on the wool trade. The Old Salt Road known locally as The Robin Hood’s Bay Road, which crosses over Snod Hill near RAF Fylingdales, was a trade route between inland areas and the coast. In more recent times, the area was used for training during World War 1 and an artillery range was established across the moor in the 1950s. The Cold War history and architecture of RAF Fylingdales is increasingly recognised by English Heritage and the Ministry Of Defence. Considerable effort was made to record the structures and function of the now demolished ‘Golf Balls’.
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