The ABM Treaty

In 1992 the Fylingdales radar system was significantly changed. An upgrading of the base was announced in 1985 after the US Space Command (based in Colorado Springs) decided that the three mechanical radar dishes (enclosed in huge ‘golf ball’ like radomes) would be replaced by an electronically steerable Large Phased Array Radar (LPAR).

The contract for the work was eventually awarded to Raytheon who also upgraded the system at Thule in a similar fashion in 1987. Despite increasing opposition locally and nationally in the U.K., work on the new system started in August 1989 and it became operational in October 1992.

fylingdales-2It cost around £200 million, of which the US paid 70% (for the radar technology) and the UK 30% (for the operating infrastructure). The LPAR is a three-faced truncated pyramid-shaped structure about 32 metres high set on a building 7 metres high and 36 metre long on each side. Each face is about 40m across and contains an array of 2,560 aerials (circularly-polarised `Pawsey stub’ antennae), each of which produces a transmitter power of 340 Watts, giving an overall mean power output of 2.5 Megawatts. The new radar has a similar output power and the same 3000 mile range as the old one. The building houses the operations rooms and support equipment.

A communications dish was also mounted on top of the modernised radar building in a dome about 1.3 metres in diameter. The access road connects the base from the A169. A 3-metre high security fence 105 metres square surrounds the building at a distance of about 35 metres. The break up of the Soviet Union has meant that the US military have had to search for a new “enemy” to justify the enormous expenditure on this type of system. The new radar at Fylingdales covers a 5000 km wide range and is unique in having three active faces and a full 360 degree coverage.

The strategic importance of the base was emphasised in January 1999 when a new high security electric fence was erected.

The Fylingdales upgrade was met with opposition, as many considered it to breach the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT). The US and the USSR signed the ABMT in Moscow on May 16th 1972. Its aim was to decrease the risk of war by limiting anti-ballistic missile systems on both sides. The idea was to preserve some balance in the ability of each side to destroy the other by curtailing the development of ABM systems designed to locate and destroy incoming nuclear weapons.

This was the practical application of the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) which was applied while SALT I and SALT II negotiations attempted to curb the nuclear arms race and take effective measures to reduce strategic arms. The Treaty restricts the anti-missile defences to a hundred fixed land-based interceptor missiles at a single specified site in each party’s national territory.

The Soviet Union built a primitive ABM system around Moscow while the United States built an ABM system that used nuclear missiles to defend a missile silo field at Grand Forks, North Dakota. The US realised that the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) produced by the use of their ABM system, would subsequently wipe out radio communications over an enormous area of the continent. They therefore dismantled their system. The Soviets kept theirs.

The sections of the Treaty that were particularly relevant to the situation at Fylingdales at the time (as part of a possible ABM targeting system) are as follow:

  1. In Article II of the Treaty, the parties undertake: “Not to give missiles, launchers or radars, other than ABM interceptor missiles, ABM launchers or ABM radars, capabilities to counter strategic ballistic missiles or their elements in flight trajectory, and not to test them in ABM mode.” Article III, revised by a Protocol agreed in 1974, permits two large phased-array ABM-guidance radars (PARs) and up to 18 smaller ones inside the designated area.
  2. By Article VI, the parties bind themselves not to give ABM capabilities to non-ABM systems or to test such systems “in an ABM mode”. Each agrees that “radars for early warning of strategic ballistic attack”, shall be located “along the periphery of its national territory and oriented outward”.
  3. Article VII permits replacement and modernisation of ABM systems or components, subject to the other treaty provisions.
  4. Article VIII and IX provide for the dismantling of any excess ABM systems and components, beyond the Treaty limits and forbid any transfer of ABM systems or components to other sites.
  5. An Agreed Statement D, appended to the Treaty, states:

” … the parties agree that in the event ABM systems based on other physical principles and including components capable of substituting for ABM interceptor missiles, ABM launchers, or ABM radars are created in the future, specific limitations on such systems and their components would be subject to discussion … and agreement … “

The difficulty with the terms of the Treaty lies with dealing with new or “modernised” equipment that may carry out more than one role. The Reagan administration accused the Soviet Union of breaking the Treaty by constructing a large phased-array radar at Abalakova, near Krasnoyarsk, in central Siberia. The coverage of this radar included most of eastern Siberia and was very difficult to reconcile with the “oriented outward” requirement of the Treaty for early warning radars. Also, the site was hundreds of kilometers from the Soviet border, and was therefore inconsistent with the “along the periphery” requirement. If the Abalakova radar was for early warning of missile attack, its location would have been in breach of the Treaty. Interior siting for a large radar enables a wider ocean area to be watched than would a coastal location “along the periphery”. Nowadays, any nuclear missile attack is likely to come from submarines but the Treaty does not cater for systems intended to give early warning of this.

The Soviets responded that the Abalakova radar was a space-track radar and therefore exempt from the limitations placed on early warning radars. However, it would not have added much to the Soviet satellite-tracking capabilities already in existence and its location and construction were more suitable for an anti-satellite weapons system. Even so a study by the British Joint Intelligence Committee considered that, while the Soviets may have a “case to answer”, it was “unlikely” that the radar had been designed for ABM missile guidance. In 1985 the Soviets offered to stop work on the PAR at Abalakova if the US abandoned the upgrading of the radars at Thule and Fylingdales. The US rejected the offer.

The PAR systems completed at Thule in 1987 and Fylingdales in 1992 were said to have breached the Treaty in a number of ways. Even though the US disputed this, it seems clear that the spirit of the Treaty had been broken by a disturbance in military balance. The Treaty, which was of unlimited duration (Article XV.1), allowed for the “modernisation and replacement” of an existing ABM system component (Article VII). However, before “modernisation” Fylingdales and Thule were BMEWS not ABM systems and the Treaty placed restrictions on the deployment of large radars for “early warning of strategic ballistic missile attack” (Article VI.b). Since May 1972, large radars for this purpose (i.e. not for ABM battle management or ABM testing, and not primarily for tracking space objects or monitoring arms control agreements) could only be deployed by either party “along the periphery of its national territory and oriented outward” (Article VI.b). This was certainly not the case for Thule or Fylingdales.

Under Article IIIb, the installation of a PAR System meant that Fylingdales became an ABM system component of a United States operation. However, the MoD argued that the new system was an up-date of the old mechanically steered radar system, not a new one. They claimed that was not a new facility as it was on the same site (although not in exactly the same position) as the old system, and made use of the same infrastructure – such as power supplies, stores, medical facilities, police and fire stations, messes and other facilities.

The US had also been criticised for its “Cobra Dane” PAR in the Aleutians. They responded by stating that this particular system was for space-tracking, intelligence and early warning. The US “Pave Paws” PAR system is also set some way back from the coast – and their wide field of view over the continental United States means that they could also be used for ballistic missile defence. However, the US justified the positioning of these radars by referring to their role against Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles.

The argument as to whether or not Fylingdales broke the ABM Treaty soon became academic. The US National Defense Act and the continuation of the Star Wars programme both required that the Treaty be radically altered if not scrapped and indeed, on December 13 2001, President George W. Bush gave Russia notice of the United States’ withdrawal from the treaty.

Further Upgrade for Missile ‘Defence’

Soon after the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the US announced that a second upgrade to the BMEWS radars would be required in order for them to function as an integral part of the US Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) or “Star Wars” programme. The British government had agreed to this upgrade – although At the time there was some disagreement between the MoD and the Foreign Office. The MoD realised that the UK defence system is so linked to and dependent on US military systems that, in order to keep our submarine based nuclear weapons system operational there would be no choice but to comply. However, the Foreign Office was concerned about the destabilising effects of breaking the ABM Treaty and the fact that other European governments had expressed grave concerns and objected to the US going ahead with their Star Wars Programme.

The NMD role for Fylingdales became one of tracking and identification rather than just detection. The upgraded radar is used to provide midcourse target tracking information on inbound missiles to cue X-band radars in the continental United States.