By 1st Lt. Stefan Wladyka
6th Space Warning Squadron
CAPE COD AIR FORCE STATION, Mass. — Cape Cod, Mass., is typically associated with summer vacations, wildlife and picturesque views. Less widely known is that amidst the Cape’s tourist attractions and scenery is an incredible heritage of strategic warning spanning five decades.
During the 1950s, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed the Whirlwind computer system, which consolidated data from several radars throughout Cape Cod, to demonstrate the ability to integrate and display threat information in real-time. This was known as “The Cape Cod System” and became the proof of concept for the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, the first integrated strategic warning system of the Cold War.
SAGE stations built in ‘defense sectors’ around North America automatically consolidated data from radars in each sector to provide warning of incoming bomber attacks. One such radar was at North Truro AFS, Mass., not far from today’s Cape Cod AFS. As the threat of ICBM and sea-launched ballistic missiles increased, the United States met the challenge by constructing early warning radars, including the Pave Phased Array Warning System radar at Cape Cod, home of the 6th Space Warning Squadron.
Nestled into the wilderness at the northern end of the Massachusetts Military Reservation near the “birthplace” of strategic warning networks and operational since 1980, this Pave PAWS radar, call sign “Cod,” has stood watch for ICBMs and SLBMs for more than 30 years. Although Cod watches for different threats than SAGE did, the concept of networking radars with a computer made timely integrated tactical warning and attack assessment possible.
The heritage at Cod isn’t just in the equipment and the location — many “Team Six” Air Force civilians and contractor personnel who now support the radar and installation operation and maintenance began their tours on Cape Cod decades earlier, serving the same mission while they were uniformed military members.
Under Strategic Air Command, Cod surpassed its initial goals in 1980. Exceeding 98 percent operational availability, Cod set a phenomenal record while standing on the shoulders of projects and systems that preceded it. This led to the Team Six motto: “Ever Aware.” The Whirlwind and SAGE designers might be amazed to find that during missile warning events, the radar and crews pass data and assessments to the Joint Functional Component Command for Space in less than 60 seconds.
Through the end of the Cold War, Cod’s “Team Six” supported the Space Shuttle missions, from the very first to the very last. Now under the operational control of U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space, Cod has taken an even larger role in space surveillance, tracking thousands of low-Earth orbiting objects including the International Space Station.
Along with sister sites in Alaska, California, North Dakota, Greenland and the United Kingdom, Cod’s “Team Six” maintains the vigil begun so long ago on Cape Cod, delivering “old time” strategic warning since 1953.