By Graham Earnshaw
KWAJALEIN ATOLL, North Pacific, Aug 30, Reuter – Fifteen minutes after a Soviet satellite is launched from central Asia, this U.S. base is already trying to determine what sort of satellite it is — weather, communications or spy.
Kwajalein, a lonely atoll 4,000 miles (6,400 km) west of the U.S. mainland, has more sophisticated radar and communications gear than just about any other place on Earth.
Ask questions about what’s going on, and very often you come upon the brick wall of: “Sorry, that’s classified.”
But Kwaj (rhymes with dodge) is certainly one of the most important U.S. military facilities around the world, a fact attested to by the near constant presence nearby of a Soviet spy ship, known almost affectionately here as “Brand X.”
The base’s most spectacular function is missile-testing. The missiles are fired at this, the largest lagoon in the world, mostly from Vandenberg Air Force base in California, travelling the distance across the Pacific in just 30 minutes.
The missiles hit the lagoon at a frightening speed of 15,000 miles per hour (24,000 kph) as radar sites along the lagoon’s rim pin-point their exact position.
Officers declined to discuss the accuracy of the missiles, but said there was no risk to the 2,500 Americans and 10,000 Marshallese people who live on islands sprinkled around the lagoon, about 75 miles (120 km) long and 20 miles (30 km) wide.
Kwaj is also involved in the development of space-based weapons, does communications work for the U.S. space agency NASA and performs unspecified tasks for the U.S. intelligence community.
Part of its intelligence work clearly involves the satellites.
The commander of the Kwajalein missile range, Lieutenant-Colonel Joe Girlando, told Reuters 1,000 satellites were monitored each week, including anything launched by the Soviet Union.
Girlando said one method used to check on the Soviet satellites is “radar imaging” in which the sensitive equipment on Kwajalein determines their shape, thereby giving some clue as to their function.
“You can image some pretty small objects, but some of that stuff is pretty classified,” he said.
“We’re in an embryonic stage of imaging,” added systems engineer Stuart Fields. “How far along we are is classified.”
“We are not here for intelligence, we’re here because of the location,” Girlando added.
“We don’t process the information we get, we just collect it and send it back raw for the users. We don’t know what it means, and we never see the end result.”
Location is the key for at least two reasons.
Kwaj sits right under the traditional launch corridor for Soviet satellites being sent into orbit, while the empty stretches of ocean between California and Kwajalein make this the longest, and probably safest, of all U.S. missile ranges.
A base spokesman said that around two dozen missiles are fired at Kwajalein every year, some of them Minuteman missiles which can carry multiple warheads.
“A random missile is picked, pulled from the silo, the warheads taken out and replaced with instruments, then fired,” said the spokesman. “This tests how well the missile has stood the test of time and its accuracy.”
The U.S. navy sometimes fires Trident missiles from submarines off California at Kwajalein and the MX/Peacekeeper missile tests of recent years have all used Kwajalein as a target.
Kwaj already has around 2,500 Americans — military officers, scientists and their families — but the numbers could swell from next year if research programmes for the “Stars Wars” Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) survive the budget negotiations in Washington, Girlando said.
“For the next two or three years, depending on how the budget goes, we will be very busy here,” he said.
With the U.S. presidential election rapidly approaching, there is also the question of what attitude the next administration will have to the Star Wars programme championed by President Reagan.
Kwajalein, although an important military base, has no garrison and no armaments beyond the small arms the police carry, said U.S. Army spokesman Pat Robbins.
If there was a war with the Soviet Union, Colonel Girlando said, Kwajalein would play no role whatsoever.
“I’d say we’d all go fishing,” said systems engineer Fields. REUTER GAE WM NNNN