Detecting the Nuclear Attack

This topic is the first of four pages giving an overview of the Cold War public warning system in the United Kingdom which closed down in 1991. Please us the navigation tabs above to read the other overview sections.

Missile Attack

Fylingdales RADAR Station

Fylingdales Old Radar Station with 3 radomes

This is the familiar sight of Fylingdales, Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) station during the Cold War period. Constructed during the early 1960's as part of a chain of radars protecting the USA. The famous radomes were replaced in 1992 with an upgraded system consisting of a pyramid construction housing a phased array radar.

Detection Pattern

BMEWS Detection Pattern

Each of the three radomes contained a rotating radar head each with a range of about 3000 miles. One scanned at an angle of 2.5° above the horizon and another at 5° above the horizon. A missile launch would cut through both of these beams in turn. The third radar would track the object and calculate its trajectory. Many separate objects could be tracked simultaneously.

Situation Display Console

Fylingdales Situation Display Console.

Fylingdales Situation Display Console at the Radar Museum, Neatishead.

If the calculated trajectory and other characteristics were thought to indicate it to be a missile the Situation Display Console would have warned of the impending attack. The BMEWS system at Fylingdales was one of three operated by the United States as part of their early warning system. The three stations were connected back to the USA via a series of tropospheric scatter radio links.

The left hand table leg of the situation display contained a phone console. The bottom right button is marked 'MOD' and connected the console operator to the Ministry of Defence (MOD), Strike Command at RAF High Wycombe. The top right button marked 'UKWMO' connected with the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation (UKWMO) at Preston. If the expected target was in the U.K. the console operator would have used these phone links to communicate the bad news

Aircraft Attack

During the Cold War, radar techniques developed at a pace. The original WW2 radar stations were superseded by the ROTOR radar sites in 1952-53. By 1955 ROTOR had been abandoned for a system of Master Radar Stations. Later these were replaced by the Linesman / Mediator system. It is beyond the scope of this web site to explore the development of the UK land based radar systems. It is sufficient to say whatever system was in place it would detect approaching hostile aircraft resulting in the scrambling of UK fighters to investigate. Had these hostile aircraft not turned away from the UK an Attack Warning would have been issued.

Four Minute Warning

Either BMEWS at Fylingdales or one of the RAF radar stations would have contacted Strike Command at High Wycombe or the 'standby' UKWMO centre at ROC Preston. At either location a senior member of the UKWMO would issue the public Attack Warning RED warning via the HANDEL system which is described in detail on this web site. Unless the attack was launched from a submarine close to our shore it was expected to be able to issue the public with a 4 minute warning of an impending attack. Some commentators have suggested that a 3 minute warning was more realistic.

Detection Failure

If the first nuclear device had managed to slip through undetected by BMEWS or Radar its detonation would have been spotted by the Royal Observer Corps (ROC). The information about the unexpected strike would have been fed back via the UKWMO communications network to Preston Sector Headquarters and Air Defence Operations Centre at RAF High Wycombe so it could issue the Attack Warning for the rest of the country via the HANDEL system.