The Cold War (1946-89) was a global conflict that prompted the construction of increasingly complex military technological systems spanning large geographic areas. In the early 1950s, the United States constructed an aircraft early-warning radar network across Alaska that extended east along the arctic perimeter of Canada and Iceland. By the end of the decade, when the threat of aircraft carrying nuclear bombs was replaced by the threat of missiles armed with thermonuclear warheads, the United States began constructing a ballistic missile early-warning network to detect inter-continental ballistic missiles launched from the polar regions. In the 1970s, in response to the threat of sea-based ballistic missiles, the United States constructed another radar warning system with coverage for the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf and Caribbean coasts. The design, construction and operation of all of these radar systems represented important technical accomplishments for the United States and contributed significantly to the strategies and outcomes of the Cold War.
In the mid-1990s, the US Air Force began to evaluate the historic significance of these defensive aircraft and missile warning systems and to explore cost-effective ways of preserving their legacies. This chapter describes these systems, the process and context used to evaluate their cultural significance, and the actions the US Air Force has taken to document their historic contributions.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States developed several Arctic-region aircraft warning radar systems to detect polar flights by Soviet Union bombers. These radars were some of the first technical systems developed and deployed during the Cold War, and they represented an important strategic shift. The initial confrontations between the Soviet Union and the United States in Europe between 1946 and 1948 were left behind, and a more global nuclear stand-off characterized the remainder of the era.
During the Second World War, the US Army had developed and deployed radar stations in Alaska: the stations were concentrated in the Aleutian Islands to support the Pacific Campaign. At the end of the Second World War, the threat to America switched from the Pacific to the Arctic North, and the Alaskan military was