The 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron is becoming a more prominent blip on a worldwide screen. More organizations are learning of the squadron's expertise and capabilities to assist with various missions outside its primary mission -- that of keeping the skies over the United States friendly and safe.
From search-and-rescue mission assistance to evaluating the impact of wind turbine energy farms sprouting up around the country, the team of less than 90 military, civilian and contract personnel in the 84 RADES is extending the range of their scope to adjust to changing needs.
"Before 9/11, the squadron evaluated and optimized 47 long-range radars," said Lt. Col. David M. Conrad, 84 RADES commander, "primarily along the eastern and western borders of the continental United States, as well as some in the southern regions to primarily counter drug activities, and also in northern Canada and Alaska to watch for potential attacks that would come across the pole.
"Since 9/11, our mission has quadrupled. We are now looking at more than 240 radars."
Those radars comprise a network of primarily long-range radars but also include several strategic short-range radars within the continental United States that are connected to the eastern and western air defense sectors. The squadron optimizes this radar network in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Agency and Department of Defense to assist with the FAA's mission to promote safety in commercial air traffic and with the Department of Defense's mission to ensure national security.
"DoD's mission is to look for aircraft that are not cooperative and potentially hiding in and amongst the large quantity of commercial air traffic," said Conrad. "We, as a squadron, serve a unique capacity within the Department of Defense and, potentially in the federal space. We are the only squadron that we know of that is tasked and has the mission of evaluating and optimizing long-range radar and long-range radar coverage for the warfighter."
The 84th RADES has been supporting that mission as an associate unit of Hill Air Force Base for more than 50 years. The squadron is part of the 505th Operations Group at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., which is part of the 505th Command and Control Wing at Hurlburt Field in Florida, which is an ACC wing of Langley Air Force Base, Va.
Conrad said the squadron supports other agencies and their missions as well.
"Because we are recording radar data around the clock, we are often called upon to support safety investigations and, in a real-time sense, a search and rescue situation.
"If an aircraft goes missing, we can look at the data and potentially find that aircraft and that track of interest, then project a better path or location for the search and rescue teams. The phrase we often use is, 'We take a search area from miles to meters,' because we use the search capability of the radar versus the aircraft's communication with the radar, since the aircraft's beacon could be compromised somehow. The radar's search capability does not need the aircraft to do anything; it receives returned energy from the aircraft and creates a point on the radar display for that aircraft."
In 2009, the 84th RADES assisted in 50 search-and-rescue efforts, two of which occurred on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Of those 50 efforts, the squadron was credited with one save where the individual was found alive.
"We have had at least one credited save per year for the past few years," said Conrad.
Another aspect of the radar squadron's mission getting public recognition is its analysis of radar obstructions --- particularly wind turbines.
"There is a large proponent base for developing and constructing wind turbine farms," said Conrad. "Unfortunately, though, any large structure that is built high off the ground can potentially obstruct a radar. Because a wind turbine is a large structure with a moving turbine blade, it is exactly what a radar is designed to detect. If these turbines are built within a long-range or short-range radar's line-of-sight, it could affect coverage. We work with DHS to quantify the impact to radar coverage for each proposed structure build, and DHS and DoD will make the determination of whether or not we can tolerate the loss of coverage within that specific area. The federal government will then integrate those recommendations into the ultimate decision as to whether or not the development can proceed or deem the development as a hazard to air safety or DoD interests."
In 2009, the 84th RADES reviewed more than 10,000 proposed wind turbines. The squadron also reviews proposals for cellular towers, solar array towers and high rise buildings.
"Due to the word getting out about how good our experts are at assessing these impacts, we get constant requests from other areas around the world asking about what support we can provide for them," said Maj. Mike Radle, 84th RADES Operations officer. "Our focus is primarily the continental United States, so we work with NORAD and our ACC managers with those worldwide requests. We are consistently involved with NATO and work closely with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and their efforts to assess wind turbines and their impacts to long-range radars. We have only a few personnel in our obstruction evaluation cell, but their reach and impact is very far and critical in where we go from here in the DoD and the U.S."
Delegating worldwide requests also frees up the 84th RADES to focus on its other tasks, such as upgrading equipment that is more than 50 years old.
"We are directly supporting the replacement of technology from the 1950s with today's technology -- that is a major change, and it is one that is vital in U.S. national defense," said Radle.
The radar upgrades are a combined effort of the FAA, ACC, DoD and DHS, and 84th RADES is currently supporting two major radar upgrade programs.
"The first is the Service Life Extension Program that is modernizing 68 interior continental United States long-range radars; a substantial upgrade to those old legacy radars," said Conrad. "It is just starting its deployment, with Cedar City, Utah, becoming the third site to be upgraded this year.
"The second upgrade will affect the FPS-117 radars that are predominantly in Alaska and the northern border of Canada, among other worldwide locations. As we look at upgrading those systems to potentially extend their lifespan, each upgraded radar will receive a subsequent evaluation and optimization to maximize the search capabilities of the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security, along with the FAA to optimize their beacon capabilities and enhance their management of commercial air traffic. We are also trying to improve the radars to help minimize the impact of newly built structures, like the wind turbines."
Being a member of the 84th RADES involves more than watching a rotating dial on a screen.
"It's a lot of work that these people do, but they are the best at it and they do a phenomenal job every day," said Radle.