FAIRBANKS — The Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency plan to spend nearly $70 million to upgrade a radar site at the far end of the Aleutian Islands that has been in use since 1976 and which has seen its primary mission change to warning of ballistic missile attacks against the United States.

The radar, named Cobra Dane, remains a part of the nation’s missile defense system even with the advent of other advance-warning components, including the Long Range Discrimination Radar being built at Clear Air Force Station.

The primary mission of the Cobra Dane radar site was intelligence gathering until 1994, though it did have secondary missions of warning of missile launches and tracking objects in space. The Air Force stopped using the site for missile warning in 1994, and for five years ceased using it for space surveillance.

That all changed in 2004, when the Missile Defense Agency upgraded the site to incorporate it into the nation’s missile defense system, which includes the ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely, other ground-based systems and systems based at sea. The site is once again also used for space surveillance.

The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan agency of Congress, issued a review earlier this month that noted the radar site “faces growing sustainment challenges” but that the Department of Defense plans to resolve them through upgrades.

The planned upgrades at the radar site, located on Eareckson Air Station on Shemya Island, involves three components. 

“The Air Force has identified that it no longer has vendors that manufacture some critical parts, and failure of any of the three systems could result in Cobra Dane not being available to meet mission requirements,” the report states. “As such, the Air Force determined that it could sustain these three systems more effectively if they were redesigned.”

Although the radar installation is more than four decades old, the site remains a part of a system that includes the Long Range Discrimination Radar at Clear Air Force Station, about 80 miles south of Fairbanks; the Space Fence at Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands; and the Pacific Radar.

The funding for the Cobra Dane upgrades is separate from funding for the operation and regular maintenance of the radar. A January 2018 report by the Air Force to Congress stated that the Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency would spend $278.6 million on operations and maintenance from fiscal 2019 to fiscal 2023, according to the GAO report.

The Cobra Dane radar has a 95-foot diameter phased array that provides the ability to track and record data on as many as 120 objects simultaneously, according to information from the Air Force Space Command. It faces Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and that nation’s Kura Test Range.

Contact Editor Rod Boyce at 459-7585. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMeditor.