Throughout its history, Alaska has been an enormously important strategic location for the U.S. military. In fact, in World War II, the government built early warning radar systems whose purpose it was to monitor the Soviet Union. If the USSR launched an attack, Alaska was the first line of defense in its path. Many of these systems are now abandoned. However, with upgrades, some remain. Those that weren’t upgraded were either demolished or replaced with something even more interesting. Here are the top five coolest military installations in Alaska.
1) Naval Special Warfare Cold Weather Detachment
Credit: SPC Jeff Parks
Southwest of Anchorage, and four miles away from Kodiak town proper, the Naval Special Warfare Cold Weather Detachment (NSWCWD) specializes in training Navy SEALs in cold weather survival and advanced forest and coastal tactics. According to Erika Manzano, mass communication specialist for the Navy, candidates sent here spend 48 hours in the mountains, with only fire and a knife to aid them, and navigate through the rough terrain and frigid conditions. After that, they swim 500 yards in 34-degree ocean water only to rewarm themselves once on shore. Designed for the most elite military personnel, the NSWCWD is a one-of-a-kind facility.
2) Campion Air Force Station
Credit: United States Air Force
The early 1950’s saw tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union running high. Fearing a missile attack, the government built an air defense system in Alaska. Ten defense radar stations were to comprise it. Campion Air Force Station was one of them. Its construction completed in 1951. From there, on the north bank of the Yukon River in Galena, Alaska, Campion employees guided interceptor aircrafts to any bodies detected on their radars. Years later, when the USSR fell, Campion was classified obsolete and abandoned. Today, Galena’s local landfall takes its place.
3) Northeast Cape Air Force Station
St. Lawrence Island
Credit: Radomes, Inc.
A part of that same air defense system was the Northeast Cape Air Force Station (NCAFS). Nestled on the treeless St. Lawrence Island between Siberia and Alaska, NCAFS is by far the hardest to reach place on our list. Besides its radar surveillance duties, it also housed Morse code intercept operators and Russian linguists who collected messages and various electronic signals from the USSR and forwarded them to the National Security Agency (NSA) for analysis. Shortly after the Cold War, NCAFS fell victim to budget cuts and sat abandoned for decades.
Before it was a military installation, however, Northeast Cape’s building site was used by Yupik families as a traditional camp site. Following demolition, hazardous materials were left behind and St. Lawrence Island’s inhabitants developed health problems, predominately cancer. Yupik activist Annie Alowa advocated to clean those materials up. The State of Alaska, however, determined there was no connection between cancer rates and the facility.
4) Site Summit
Anchorage Borough, Alaska
Credit: Brian VanderVort
As you leave Anchorage on the Glenn Highway, towards Eagle River, you may notice a bright star on a mountanside in the distance. This is the Site Summit Christmas Star. It shines year-round as a reminder that Site Summit is still there. Site Summit is not only the only preserved historical facility on our list, it’s also the best preserved Nike-Hercules missile site in the state. Nike Hercules missiles provide medium- and high-altitude air defense.
Around 265 Nike sites were built, but today, few remain. Nike Site Summit is one of those few. It was built in 1957, and remained active until 1979. Originally, it provided air defense in conjunction with Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Today, while the most sensitive military material has been removed, the battery control area, the missile launch pad, and magazines, places to store ammunition, still stand. Located just 40 minutes outside of Anchorage, local non-profit “Friends of Nike Site Summit” conducts tours of the grounds.
5) Clear Air Force Station
Denali Borough, Alaska
According to militarybases.com, Clear Air Force Station is one of the most strategically important military installations in the U.S. With such an impressive resume behind it, it’s easy to see why. Besides housing radars to detect submarine-launched ballistic missiles, it also provides Space Surveillance data for Air Force Space Command. As a part of the United States Space Surveillance Network, Clear tracks, catalogs, and identifies any bodies orbiting our planet: both active and inactive satellites and all manner of space debris.
Initials plans listed for it to be a gunnery range, but by 1958 it had grown to be a Clear Missile Warning Station, a radar site much like Campion. By 1966 it was a multi-radar surveillance facility. Just four years ago, an outside corporation won a $125 million dollar contract to upgrade the site’s technology once again. The contract period runs until Sep. 17.