84th RADES mission expands far beyond Hill AFB

  • Published
  • By Maj. Michael Radle
  • 84th RADES Operations officer
As a small, selectively manned Air Combat Command tenant unit at Hill Air Force Base, the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron (84th RADES) is frequently confused with the 84th Combat Sustainment Wing or is thought to be a flight under the 388th or 419th Fighter Wings. Let me clarify that misperception.

84th RADES can trace its lineage back to the Army Air Corps' 1940 deployment of the first aircraft detection radar in the Panama Canal Zone. The Air Force first established the unit as the 7th Radar Calibration Flight in 1948 at Hamilton AFB, Calif., where it also had an Electronic Counter Measures mission with its own B-25 and B-29 aircraft. The squadron lost its aircraft when it moved to Hill AFB in 1959 and was redesignated as the 4754th RADES. It was redesignated as 84th RADES in 1987. While Hill AFB is now its main base, the squadron now has three operating locations integrated into each of the nation's three Air Defense Sectors.

Today, the 84th RADES personnel continue its radar mission, albeit in a new format. As the nation's only long range radar evaluation unit, personnel evaluate, optimize, integrate and monitor fixed and mobile long-range radars for both the Department of Defense and federal operational communities. Personnel analyze and evaluate a network of 250 radars that are connected to the Eastern, Western and Alaskan Air Defense Sectors, NORAD, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Administration. Prior to 9/11, the RADES mission was limited to 50 coastal and Canadian border radars supporting the nation's perimeter defense mission. After 9/11, RADES integrated 200 additional long range interior radars into its network. Today, the squadron's area of responsibility runs from the northern Canadian border to South America and from the western coast of Alaska to the eastern coast of Iceland. Personnel accomplish this mission through two very unique flights.

As most of the nation's radars are unmanned, the 84th's engineering flight designed and built both a network and software allowing 24/7 remote monitoring, analysis and archiving of live radar data. With access to individual radars, members can track radar health and determine which radar needs to be repaired and when. It is because of these high quality tools that the squadron is known around the world as the industry standard in radar performance and monitoring software. In addition, the squadron monitors and archives flight tracks of every aircraft flown in the United States -- that's over 700,000 commercial flights a month according to the Department of Transportation. This capability is irreplaceable as it is a definitive source for aircraft mishap investigations as well as support for search and rescue operations and aircraft recovery missions. The squadron is credited with saving the lives of five people involved in aircraft accidents as well as the successful prosecution of one individual who attempted to fake his own death by sending a mayday call and then bailing out of his aircraft. Additionally, the radar data collection and filtering capability was very useful in the detection of ultra lights used for drug smuggling across the border from Mexico. The 84th's obstruction analysis team also works with the FAA, DHS and NORAD to identify impacts of commercial construction projects (new building developments, cell towers and wind turbines) on a radar's ability to detect aircraft. Last year alone, personnel analyzed the effect of over 15,000 wind turbines on the national radar picture.

When the squadron goes to the field, it's the responsibility of Operations Flight to optimize a radar's performance. While its personnel perform scheduled and as-needed optimization on each radar, most of the workload is in support of FAA radar upgrades and modifications. One such effort is the Common Air Route Surveillance Radar -- an upgrade to 81 radars by replacing 1950's era circuitry and vacuum tube technology with 21st century solid state components. The squadron also supports the mobile TPS-75 radars both in garrison and deployed. Once the mobile radar is deployed and set up, 84th RADES teams optimize the radar performance in a manner consistent with the Joint Forces Air Component Commanders requirements. In each case, its field technicians spend 12 to 16 hours on site each day for 14 to 20 days, gathering, analyzing and optimizing the radar to deliver peak performance.

So the next time you fly or deploy, you can be assured that a squadron of experts stationed at Hill AFB is providing the Air Defense Sectors and JFACC with the air picture needed to maintain air sovereignty and prosecute violators of that sovereignty.