THULE AIR BASE, Greenland — The U.S. armed forces’ northernmost base, one that provides key space surveillance and missile warning capabilities but costs more than $100 million a year to operate, is undergoing a major consolidation as budgets shrink and maintenance dollars become scarce.

The sprawling installation, some 1,200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle and about 100 kilometers from the nearest town, is so remote all of its supplies must come in via ship or aircraft. Electricity is provided almost exclusively by generators powered by costly jet fuel. 

Air Force leaders describe the base, which is ideally located to detect and track missiles flying over the North Pole, and to communicate with polar-orbiting satellites, as absolutely critical.

“This place is not going away,” Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said during a two-day visit here Jan. 27-29.

But Thule’s operating costs, which Shelton said are about 10 times higher than most other Air Force bases, are putting pressure on the service to continue shrinking the facility as a way to find savings. Today the base houses some 600 people, a small fraction of the 10,000 who lived here during its 1950s heyday as a strategic bomber base.

One of Thule’s primary assets is the Upgraded Early Warning Radar operated by the 12th Space Warning Squadron, which provides missile warning and tracking and also monitors some 1,900 Earth-orbiting objects as small as 10 centimeters across. Located about 20 kilometers from the base’s main village, the radar is five stories tall and makes up two sides of an oblong building.  

The radar’s missile warning data are sent via Wideband Global Satcom or Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites to ground- and sea-based interceptors operated by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. Using special algorithms, the radar data can be used to identify the type of ballistic missiles being used in the attack.

The radar also makes some  9,600 observations per day of objects in Earth orbit, or about 10 percent of the total made by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network, which includes ground- and space-based sensors, and data processing systems. Those data are fed into the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., which collects and processes all information from Space Surveillance Network sensors to support activities including satellite launches and in-orbit maneuvers.

Thule also hosts the Polar Orbiting Geophysical Observatory (POGO), which is operated by the 23rd Space Operations Squadron and provides command and control, and downlink services for polar-orbiting satellites. These include the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellites, which provide global atmospheric, oceanic, terrestrial and space environment information. 

The POGO site is undergoing a renovation after an antenna here failed in December 2012. A new antenna is expected to be installed in July and will provide additional capacity following operational testing now expected to begin in late October, said Maj. Joel Neuber. Because polar-orbiting satellites pass over the North Pole during each orbit, the site allows the Air Force to contact such spacecraft quickly if necessary.

“Polar-orbiting satellites are some of the most precious assets we’ve got,” Shelton said.

Space Command officials are taking a hard look at operations and maintenance budgets as they struggle to reduce costs and budgets shrink. Because of Thule’s high operating expense, it is a natural target.

“It’s tempting in these tough resource times to look at that [base] and say, ‘Well, that’s your most expensive, go after that one,’” Shelton said. “But it’s so unique, you can’t do without it. The challenge is, we’ve got to be there — how do we do that as efficiently as possible?”

For openers, the Air Force is planning to demolish 52,000 square meters of buildings here by 2016. With fewer buildings, the Air Force can cut back on basic heating and maintenance costs and save potentially as much as $30 million a year, especially under a new contract for base operating support. Demolition is expected to cost about $20 million to $50 million.

But leaders acknowledged that money would be hard to find.

“If you need to spend to save, then you can’t get it justified,” Shelton said. But he added, “We know this is a bill we will pay.”

In addition, the Air Force hopes to further trim Thule’s workforce by 100 contractors long term, said Jeffrey Allen, director of logistics, installations and mission support at Space Command.

But the savings plans are vulnerable, in part, to market forces. Many contractors at the base are paid in Danish krone, creating uncertainty because of fluctuating exchange rates. The price of jet fuel also wavers.

Already the base, which could go for as long as three years without a fuel shipment if needed, has seen a drop of roughly 15 percent in fuel consumption during the last five years, officials said  

Shelton makes an annual trip to the base, along with an Air Force band and several other high-ranking service officials, to help boost morale. In the winter, darkness covers the base for nearly 24 hours a day and families can only stay at the base for a short period of time. Shelton flies to Thule on a Boeing-built C-40 aircraft operated by the 932nd Airlift Wing, consisting of reserve and active-duty pilots, who routinely transport American elected officials and foreign dignitaries throughout the globe.

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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...