Satellites, space spatulas and ballistic missiles: Why RAF Fylingdales is more important than ever

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For the last five decades this imposing landmark rising from the skyline of the North York Moors has remained firmly at the heart of the nation’s security.

Selected at an unexceptional point in between Pickering and Whitby, RAF Fylingdales was chosen for its proximity to Russia.

The radar at RAF Fylingdales.

The radar at RAF Fylingdales.

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And since its opening in 1963 the threat to national security has grown ever more complex.

However, RAF Fylingdales has remained steadfast as the first line of defence - protecting not only the UK but America as well.

Originally it was the home of the striking golf ball radars which were replaced by the current three-faced structure 26 years ago.

MoD Police Officer Neil Williamson at the base and soon to retire from the force. PIC: Richard Ponter

MoD Police Officer Neil Williamson at the base and soon to retire from the force. PIC: Richard Ponter

That radar is the only one of its kind in the world, offering 360 degree coverage up to 3,000 miles into space using so much power the site needs its own power station to avoid causing surges on the National Grid.

The technology is such at RAF Fylingdales that a surprise attack on the UK cannot succeed.

Ballistic missiles are not the only focus of the radar which also monitors satellites and space debris.

As the world’s reliance on satellites in all aspects of life grows, from broadband to navigation to television, space becomes more and more congested.

Flight Lieutenant Rich Weeks at the base. PIC: Richard Ponter

Flight Lieutenant Rich Weeks at the base. PIC: Richard Ponter

The radar at RAF Fylingdales keeps track of more than 13,000 objects in space, from the International Space Station to a spatula dropped by an astronaut during a space walk, as well as over 4,000 satellites.

In 1965, two years after the radar started operating, there were just 555 pieces of debris in space.

Congestion means an increased chance of collisions, and the RAF can reroute live objects, or change their speed to prevent that from happening.

Warrant officer Chris Waller has worked at RAF Fylingdales for 17 of his 34 year career with the RAF.

He’s responsible for sustainment, the infrastructure, operations and upgrades of the radar as well as special projects between the UK and US.

“First and foremost our job is to protect the UK from ballistic missile attack,” he said.

“Hopefully so you can sleep well in your bed every night.

“There are more objects in space now, the satellites being put up are getting smaller and technology is improving but primarily we’re still watch keeping.”

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When an object enters the radar’s air space it generates a site report, giving the officers 60 seconds to decide whether or not it represents a threat.

Information is then sent to the Space Operations Centre at High Wickham where staff then relay it to operations in the US, and the UK Government. The station deals with six to seven site reports a year. Warrant Officer Waller explained: “We’ve dealt with no notice missile launches from Russia, you have 60 seconds to decide what to do.

“It doesn’t matter when, if it’s the middle of the night, you have to deal with it. Which is why training is so important, we practice procedures on a regular basis.”

The ever-changing global political climate makes the work carried out at RAF Fylingdales ever more important.

Andrew Logan, an executive officer at the station, said: “We’re more relevant now because where there used to be one, there’s now multiple threats. It makes us more influential politically.

“No one can launch a surprise attack - we are a deterrent. We know where every missile comes from”

With satellites more important than ever for daily life to function, and an increasingly volatile world, the work done inside the three-sided radar that keeps watch on the moors, has never been more important.

Facts and Figures:

The first ballistic missiles to hit a country were the V2 rockets in WW2 which decimated the south east of England.

Between 1944 and 1945 the UK suffered 1,115 impacts which killed 2,854 and injured over 6,000.

In the wake of the war, the US Government set up a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) across the northern hemisphere to prevent such devastation happening in their country.

The aim of the BMEWS is to provide uninterrupted ballistic missile early warning and space surveillance services to the UK and US government.

Radars were built in Greenland and Alaska in 1960 and 1961 respectively.

RAF Fylingdales was the final site to be built.