The Crazy Tech Behind America’s Arctic Missile Defense

So, we found a bunch of huge sci-fi satellite dish things…on the top of a mountain…in Alaska…and they look like this! And we just figured out why they’re there and what they do…and it’s really weird! Hey everyone, Amy here. Our friends at Seeker went on a shoot to Alaska recently, and they came back with a story that we just had to tell on DNews. It’s about a huge, ambitious military project called White Alice. By now the whole thing is barely a footnote in the history of the Cold War…but 60 years ago, it was revolutionary for the military, and for Alaska. In order to get why White Alice was so important, you have to understand a few things about Alaska. First: it’s huge, it’s empty, and it’s wild. In the mid 1950’s, it was home to just 215,000 people, spread across an area that’s twice the size of Texas. That made modern communication a pretty big hassle. Stringing telegraph or phone lines between cities meant crossing hundreds of miles of rugged, usually frozen terrain. The huge distances made radio communication flaky; even high-frequency signals fritzed out when the Northern Lights appeared! This was all a big problem because, during the Cold War, the US military needed good comm networks in Alaska.

Pearl Harbor was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and the government feared a far-North sneak attack from the Soviets…remember, Alaska and Russia are 53 miles apart at the Bering Strait. It’s such a narrow divide that the region became known as the “ice curtain”. The US and Canadian air forces set up a series of radar listening posts along the Arctic Ocean, but they needed a way to relay information across the state, and fast. And that is where White Alice came in. Beginning in 1955, the Air Force and Army built a network of communications hubs that used a very new technology to connect with one another. Phone calls and other data were transmitted via microwaves, beamed into the air, bounced off the Earth’s upper atmosphere, and back down to a receiving site. Each hub had two sets of dishes: one set for receiving a signal, and another for broadcasting it back out to the next hub. The process, called “tropospheric scattering”, had (and still has) a lot of advantages over other technologies.

First, bouncing signals off the upper atmosphere means that hubs don’t need a clear line of site to communicate…which is a useful thing in a mountainous place like Alaska. This way, White Alice sites could be 200 miles apart. The signal could also support multiple phone calls at the same time, something few other systems could manage. And, crucially for the military, it was secure. Once a signal is beamed out, it can only be received at one exact spot – making it next to impossible to intercept the signal along the way. All in all, the military built 22 tropospheric scattering sites across Alaska, eventually spending around $300 million dollars. And it wasn’t alone. Similar networks sprung up around the world – the US even connected Hawaii to the Philippines through the Pacific Scatter System. But it might have had the biggest impact on Alaska, uniting the new state in ways that no other technology could have.

But…before White Alice was even complete, a new technology arrived to replace it. In 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. US development of satellite communications ramped up, and by 1967, just 8 years after the network’s completion, the government began to divest from the very system it built. Interestingly, White Alice remained in use until the late ‘70s as a civilian phone network. And today, the military still uses tropo scattering networks here and there…because they’re still really secure. But this remains the era of satellites. Now, the reason we have all this footage is that the White Alice hub outside of Nome still stands today…it’s one of the last tropo scattering sites in Alaska to escape demolition.

The electronics there are long dead, but the structures themselves still serve a final purpose: they’re unmistakable landmarks, visible for miles. And they still help hunters and travelers out on the tundra find their way home to Nome. Like I mentioned earlier, this story came out of a much larger trip to the Bering Strait – and the Seeker Daily team has a great video about how the whole world might need the Strait soon. To watch that video now, click here. And as always, thanks for watching..