NOTE! The following is a work of fiction. It was written to describe the sequence of events as they might have happened should an Airborne Soviet incursion of this type taken place.
by: Clive Beckmann
The Dewline weapon system was conceived and created at the beginning of the Cold War. It was intended to provide NORAD with a minimum of 4 hours of advance warning of a Soviet over-the-pole bomber attack. But it turned out to also be a powerful deterrent to such an attack. Imagine the Soviets planning an attack while knowing their hand would be tipped 4 hours before the first bomb fell. The Dewline must have worked well in this regard because they never came!!
It’s probably been hypothesized in countless conversations over the years what it really would have been like had the Soviets really decided to come. What follows is a fictional scenario that tries to show the first half hour of action as it occurs in the surveillance room of a Dewline station. Of course, in a real attack, this same scene would have been played out all across the Dewline.
Scenario: Circa 1967. A southbound flight of aircraft is detected by Alaska Dewline site, Pow-2. The adjacent sites are Pow-1 (80 miles to the west) and Pow-3 (80 miles to the east).
Military Time 0903Z: Ben, the radar console operator at Pow-2, has been on duty for about an hour, watching the trace on the lower beam radar scope go ’round and ’round. He’s alone in the surveillance room, surrounded by darkness that aids him in viewing any air traffic that may appear on the scope.
He’s sipping hot coffee to stave off the drowsiness that comes with the hypnotic effect of watching the never-ending rotation of the trace, and the faint hum of the ventilation fans that cool the electronic equipment in the room. The scope he’s watching is about 18 inches in diameter and has an edge-lit overlay that shows a georef grid. The grid allows him to pinpoint the location of any air traffic appearing on the scope. The scope presents a radar picture with a radius of 162 nautical miles and, owing to the late hour, is devoid of any air traffic.
Ben doesn’t hold high hopes for any events that may break the monotony of the next several hours of radar watch. The local time is a few minutes after midnight and all of the commercial over-the-pole flights for the day have already transited his area of coverage. The usual flight of three B-52s with their nukes have spent their allotted time orbiting at their fail-safe points near the north pole and have returned south. And at this hour, the local air taxi pilots have called it quits for the day.
Ben’s thoughts wander to his upcoming vacation. He dreamily pictures the surf rolling onto the beach at Waikiki, his intended destination. He misses the lower-48 and all the delights he’s been doing without while at Pow-2. Especially the women. He hasn’t seen one since his arrival on-site. He’s been on the job for nearly six months and he eagerly anticipates the end of this stint. He will now enjoy a month of rest and relaxation before returning again to the north slopes and another 6-month tour. He knows that he’s ready for a break because he has been displaying all the symptoms of “bushiness,” the cabin-fever kind of malady that manifests itself through moodiness, short temper, and various forms of antisocial behavior.
0907Z: Ben is suddenly jerked back to reality by a bright glint of light at the top of his scope. Leaning forward in his chair, Ben scrutinizes the small glowing slash (or “paint” in radar jargon) preserved by the retentivity of the display. How odd… could this be a false paint caused by anomalous propagation, or perhaps an interference spike caused by an adjacent radar site? Well, he’d know when the trace came around again, 48 seconds later. No need to go off half cocked and call the adjacent sites before he was sure of what he was seeing.
The trace finally came around and Ben was surprised to see the paint repeated, but now positioned several miles closer in range. This was definitely an aircraft return and it demanded his immediate attention. Reaching over to the panel at his right elbow, Ben pressed down two of the dozens of switches to activate the “private” hotlines to the two adjacent sites and, cradling the handset between his ear and shoulder, sang out,
“Hey, Pow-1 and Pow-3, are you guys awake?”
Both sites responded within seconds.
“Pow-1 here. This is Mel.”
“Pow-3. George here. Why are you disturbing me at this ungodly hour?”
Ben: “I think I have a southbound coming down in georef Charlie-Lima-Alpha-Mike-32. Keep an eye out in that direction… you should be seeing him in another coupla sweeps”.
George: “Roger, will do”.
Ben grabs his plastic speed calculator and begins determining the speed of the track. After several more sweeps he determines it to be 400 knots.
Ben: “Boy, this guy is hauling ass! Do you two see him yet?”
Mel: “No, he must not be within my range yet”.
George: “Yeah, I got ’em now. Nice strong paint… must be up at least flight level 300.”
Ben: “Yeah, I agree. Well, I’m gonna let the NCC know… must be one of the B-52s from that earlier cell… decided to linger for a while. Or maybe a new commercial flight from Europe.”
0911Z: Ben now has 4 glowing paints showing on his scope. This is enough to determine the track speed and direction. He dials this information into his SURTAC message composer, inserts a track number, and presses the button that causes the track to be sent via teletype to the NCC at Murphy Dome, 400 miles to the south. The teletype monitor behind him begins rhythmically thumping out a copy of the transmitted SURTAC message. Then he pressed down another switch on his panel, this one for the “party” hotline to Murphy Dome.
“Hello, Murphy, Pow-2 here,” he intoned into the handset.
Murphy: “Murphy here, go ahead.”
Ben: “I just sent you a southbound track… did you get it?”
Murphy: “Yes, it’s coming up on my board right now. Standby for flight identification.”
The USAF guy at Murphy now goes through his checklist of items to positively identify the track that Ben has sent. He first checks his local list of anticipated flights. Finding no flight correlation, he calls AMIS (Air Movements Identification Service) at the FAA FIR (Flight Identification Region). But they have no info either that correlates with Ben’s track.
Murphy must assign a classification to the track within minutes of receiving Ben’s inputs. The usual classification is Friendly since most flights correlate with a previously filed flight plan. But in this case, Murphy cannot assign Friendly and therefore must assign Unknown, pending actual identification of the track.
0913Z: Murphy: “Pow-2, we’re gonna make this guy an Unknown pending identification. Begin sending 2-minute tells until further notice.”
Ben: “Roger, Murphy, will do.”
Had the track been classified as Friendly, Ben would have submitted follow-on SURTAC messages every 5 minutes but in this case Murphy wants more frequent data inputs. A “tell” is military radar jargon for sending track inputs, i.e., “telling” information on the track.
Ben follows established procedures for Unknown tracks and summons Al, the maintenance technician, to the radar console to assist him with the increased workload that this incident will cause. As the radar console operator, Ben must fill in a log sheet that shows all communications and events that transpire during his watch. Al now becomes a second radar console operator and takes over the duty of keeping the log up to date. This allows Ben to concentrate on watching the Unknown track and doing timely submission of SURTAC track messages. Al also begins monitoring the progression of the Unknown track on the second radar scope, which gets it’s inputs from the upper beam radar.
0918Z: Murphy: “Pow-2, we’ve just scrambled fighters out of Galena. They’ll do a flyby of the Unknown flight to establish a positive ID. You should see them coming up in your south quadrant in a few minutes.”
Ben: “Roger that, Murphy. Whoa… what’s this? Hey Murphy, I’ve just detected a second southbound flight about 20 miles behind the first. Do you want a separate track number initiated on it?”
Murphy: “Roger that, Pow-2. Give me 2-minute tells on the new one as well. Based upon my last contact with AMIS, this one’s going to be Unknown too.”
Ben: “OK, Murphy, Wilco.”
Ben: “Al, do you see a second flight coming down about 20 miles behind the first one?”
Al: “Yep, just got ’em.”
Ben: “Initiate a new track on him, 2-minute tells, Unknown. Also, I seem to be getting interference with my radar video. I wonder if these guys are jamming. Do you suppose this is a planned USAF mission to see if we’re on our toes tonight?”
Al: “No, I don’t think so. They’d not have scrambled fighters if this were a mission. Hey, I’m beginning to get interference as well. But I can still see the paints.”
Ben: “Can you manage to generate an ECM report to Murphy? I’m getting kinda busy here on my side.”
Al: “OK, I’ll do it.”
Al pulls down one of the many documents kept at the radar console and accesses the part for generating ECM reports. This report must be encrypted and then transmitted by voice to the NCC. The encryption is required because if hostile forces are monitoring our wideband communications circuits, they won’t learn the effectiveness of their jamming from our report. Al must generate and pass this report while continuing to send 2-minute tells on the second flight.
0923Z: Ben notices the northbound fighters appearing on the bottom of his scope.
Ben: (on the “party” hotline to Murphy) “Hey Murphy, I’ve got a northbound flight now.”
Murphy: “OK, I want you to initiate a track on them as well and give me 2-minute tells, classification Friendly.”
Ben: “Wilco, Murphy.”
Between the 2-minute tells on the original track, and voice communications with Murphy, Ben is approaching the limit of his performance to handle his pertinent tasks. Al has generated the ECM report and is passing it via the “party” hotline to Murphy. With the log duties and his own 2-minute tell, he is at the limit of his performance too.
0925Z: Ben hears an incoming air/ground radio call on the radar console speakers.
Fighter Aircraft: “Hotpoint Control, this is Flight Leader, do you copy?” (Hotpoint is the tactical call sign for Dewline station BAR Main, 160 miles east of POW-2. Because of the altitude of the fighters, Ben is able to hear the radio transmission, but not the response from Bar Main.)
Ben: “Did you hear that, Al? The fighters must be requesting intercept vectors from Bar Main.”
Al: “Yep, that’s my guess.”
The Dewline Main sites had a resident USAF officer who was a qualified intercept controller. As soon as Ben’s initial track was classified as Unknown, the Murphy Dome NCC would have called the Bar Main radar console operator, alerting him to summon the controller to the radar console in anticipation of the controlled intercept.
Ben hears more air/ground radio traffic on his radar console speakers.
Flight Leader: (to the controller at BAR Main) “Roger, Hotpoint, requesting vectors to bogey.”
Flight Leader: “Roger Hotpoint, copy heading 065. Turning now.”
Ben: “Al, what the heck is going on?! This is beginning to sound a lot like the real thing!”
Al: “That’s a fact! Wow…. I’m getting jammed big-time now. Must be spot jamming… I can’t see any tracks at all on my scope.”
Ben: “Yeah, same on my scope. It’s definitely spot jamming. OK, let’s both send “lost contact” reports on our SURTAC message composers so Murphy knows our status. Looks like we can no longer be of service by providing the location of these tracks.”
Al: Yep, guess so. But we’ve already accomplished our mission. The NCC knows there’s someone coming!
0930Z: Ben hears air/ground radio traffic on his radar console speakers.
Flight Leader: “Hotpoint, we’ve sighted the bogies… they’re Russian Bear bombers! I’m seeing the red star on the tail!”
Ben: “Christ, Al !! Is this it?!”
Al: “Oh, man…!”
0932Z: Ben hears a call from Murphy Dome NCC on the radar console speakers.
Murphy: “Pow-2, do you copy?”
Ben: “Roger, go ahead Murphy.”
Murphy: “Your tracks have been both reclassified as Hostile. Confirm copy.”
Ben: “Roger, Murphy, I copy. But we’ve lost contact with the flights. ECM message to follow.”
Murphy: “Roger, Pow-2, I understand.”
At this point, the Dewline weapon system has functioned as intended and has successfully alerted the NORAD command that a hostile force is inbound. Presumably, CinC Norad would have provided permission to engage the southbound flights and and the fighters would have moved in for the kill.