RAF Fylingdales: What Does The Royal Air Force Station Do?

Founded more than five decades ago, the North Yorkshire radar site which provides a warning service for ballistic missiles.

RAF Fylingdales might not be one of the most well-known Royal Air Force stations but its role in keeping the UK safe is vital. 

Based in North Yorkshire, the site and its 350 staff provide a continuous ballistic missile early warning service to the United Kingdom and United States, monitoring the world's airspace.

The radar is maintained by the US, while the manpower at Fylingdales is provided by the UK.

It is one of three radar sites making up the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) - the other two are in Alaska and Greenland.

Fylingdales communicates and shares information with the two other sites, before it is passed on to the UK and US governments.

In the case of spotting a ballistic missile, personnel at the station have to check their systems are working and inform the authorities within 60 seconds.

In the event of a missile attack, it is likely they would be the target.

"If we were a target, we would've already completed our mission, so our mission would've already been done," said Flight Lieutenant Rich Weeks.

"That's the mindset of the people that work here."

RAF Fylingdales has been upgraded to be the eyes of the United States' controversial 'Son of Star Wars' anti-ballistic missile system (Picture: PA).

Five crews man the radar 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and are supported by around 50 other RAF personnel. 

RAF Fylingdales became operational in 1963.

Back then, it was home to three huge iconic 'golf balls' which housed its radar.

In 1992, a Solid State Phased Array Radar system at Fylingdales was declared operational to replace the golf balls.

The radar is made up of thousands of transmit-and-receive diodes positioned on either side of the building.

Individually, each diode has the power of a microwave oven and operators can direct the beam of radar wherever they want.  

The pyramid-shaped buildings have 360-degree radars - they can see 3,000 miles into space over most of North Africa, Western Europe, the North Sea, the Arctic and some of the Atlantic Ocean.

To provide such coverage it requires a lot of power - roughly the same amount as the nearby town of Whitby and as a result, an entire power station is based on the site.

RAF Fylingdales
The base was first declared operational in 1963 (Picture: MOD).

RAF Fylingdales' secondary role is to monitor and track thousands of objects in space.

Seventeen thousand man-made objects orbit the earth at around 17,500 miles per hour and a crash in space could cause serious damage to British infrastructure.

Mobile phone services, television, the internet are just a number of things that rely on satellites in space and an incident involving one of them could cause major disruption.

Meanwhile, any object re-entering Earth's atmosphere could also cause problems.

Personnel at RAF Fylingdales track and detect objects to try and prevent any collisions.

From North Yorkshire, the team can identify objects that are on a collision path with important infrastructure, including the International Space Station [ISS].

The team can call the ISS and inform it slow down or speed up in order to avoid a collision.

Corporal Sonia Campbell, part of the RAF Fylingdales team, said: "While you are sleeping in your bed, we're watching space making sure that everything is safe."

The RAF Red Arrows display team fly over RAF Fylingdales as they help mark the 50th anniversary of the early warning station which dominates the skyline between Whitby and Pickering, high on the North York Moors (Picture: PA images).

RAF Fylingdales' role in monitoring space comes as the UK begins to branch its military out into the atmosphere above.

In July 2019, then-Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt announced a £30m investment to launch a "small satellite demonstrator", designed to feed high-resolution video into the cockpit of a fighter jet.

It was also confirmed that the UK would become the first partner to join a US-led international coalition to deter hostile actors in space.

Making the announcement, Ms Mordaunt said "science fiction is becoming science fact" and that "the sky is no longer the limit".

The US, among other nations, is also expanding its military space programme.  

The UK is also looking to strengthen its satellite radar capability - in July this year, the MOD applied for extra radar shelters at RAF Menwith Hill.

The site, like Fylingdales, provides communications and intelligence support services to the UK and the United States.

The MOD's planning application proposed three more golf ball structures, also known as radomes, in addition to the 34 already at the station.