RAF Saxa Vord
|RRH Saxa Vord|
|Unst, Shetland Islands in Scotland|
|Type||Remote Radar Head|
|Area||8 hectares (20 acres)|
|Owner||Ministry of Defence|
|Operator||Royal Air Force|
|Controlled by||No. 1 Group (Air Combat)|
|Radar type||Lockheed Martin AN/TPS-77 (Type 92) Air Defence Radar|
|In use||2006 – present|
|Occupants||Radar Flight (North)|
Remote Radar Head Saxa Vord or RRH Saxa Vord (aka RAF Saxa Vord), is a Royal Air Force radar station located on the island of Unst, the most northern of the Shetland Islands in Scotland. As of July 2019 it is once more a fully operational radar station, after closure in 2006. The station's motto Praemoneo de Periculis ('Premonition of Peril') reflects its role. RAF Saxa Vord is further north than Saint Petersburg in Russia, and on the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. The station was named after Saxa Vord, which is the highest hill on Unst at 935 ft (285 m). It holds the unofficial British record for wind speed, which in 1992 was recorded at 197 mph (317 km/h) — just before the measuring equipment blew away.
The island of Unst has played an important part in the defence of the UK since the outbreak of the Second World War. By 1945, there were two radar sites on the island — one on Saxa Vord hill, and the other at Skaw on the east coast. This latter is the older, being built in 1941, and was part of the Chain Home radar network as part of the defences of the RAF Sullom Voe flying boat base. Skaw closed in 1947.
As part of the post-war ROTOR radar network, Saxa Vord was selected as the site to host a new long-range radar as the northernmost point in a network of radars covering the entirety of the British Isles. As part of upgrades carried out for ROTOR, Saxa received new radars, the AMES Type 14 medium-range search radar, and associated AMES Type 13 height finders.
While these were being built, a dramatically more powerful system was entering prototype use, the AMES Type 80. The Type 80 had an effective range over 200 nautical miles (370 km; 230 mi), covering the entire Shetlands and a significant portion of the Norwegian Sea. The coverage was so vast that there was much less need to tie together multiple stations to provide a wide-area view, and the ROTOR system began to be progressively downgraded to individual Master Radar Stations.
Installation of Saxa's Type 80 began in 1955, but was blown 50 yards (46 m) off its mountings by winds gusting to 177 miles per hour (285 km/h) in January 1956. A new antenna design capable of handling winds of this magnitude was designed as the Mark II, and replaced the original later that year. No. 91 Signals Unit officially formed up at Saxa Vord on 27 September 1957, was declared operational on 5 October 1957, and in 1960 was visited by Queen Elizabeth II.
During this period the Type 14 was retained as a backup system until September 1964, whilst the Type 13 remained the primary height finder until 1978/79. The Type 80 was lost when it was blown away on 26 January 1961 and rebuilt inside a new radome. At the time, Saxa Vord consisted of three sites: the domestic site, the technical site (with the radars) and the married quarters called Setters Hill Estate (SHE). In the early days, the site was shared with the Royal Navy which worked in the Admiralty building.
While the system was being built, serious concerns emerged over the introduction of the carcinotron, a new type of radar jammer that rendered the Type 80 almost useless. A new network using anti-jamming radars was introduced, the Linesman/Mediator system. In the new network, there was no point in Saxa attempting to remain operational against jammers, so it retained its Type 80 while other stations in the chain were upgraded with the new AMES Type 84 and AMES Type 85. The idea was that jammers operating against Saxa would still indicate enemy action, thereby fulfilling its early warning mission and preparing the new sites further south for action.
Linesman ran into significant delays, and entered service in limited form in 1973, years later than planned. By 1976, the Type 80 had been in operation for decades and was long overdue for a replacement for maintenance reasons alone. This led to the introduction of a AMES Type 96 (Marconi S649), which had two radar aerials mounted back-to-back, one operating at D band and the other at F and E bands (three transmitters/receivers in total). The decades-old Type 13 was replaced by the newer Plessy HF200 in the height-finder role. These were operational in 1979 and the Type 80 was finally retired later that year.
In 1984 the station was renamed from No. 91 Signals Unit to Royal Air Force Saxa Vord. The signals unit badge was adopted by the station and it continued with the motto of Praemoneo de periculis (Latin for I give advanced warning about danger).
By the time Linesman was operational it was considered outdated, much of the equipment was based on decades-old designs, and built using components that were no longer available. Even before it was declared operational the decision had been made to replacing it as soon as possible, A new system, IUKADGE, emerged during a several-year definition process. Under the new concept, the primary goal was mobility, allowing backup radars to be held offsite and then rapidly brought into operation if the main fixed-place systems were attacked. For Saxa, where such mobility would be of limited use given the geography, the updating of the radar was still valuable as the Type 96 was itself growing old.
In the late 1980s, this led to one of the six IUKADGE AMES Type 93s being earmarked for Saxa. This was part of NATO-wide upgrades and the funding for the new radar was provided from the NATO funding pool. A new radome was built to house on the old base for the Type 80, but construction was twice destroyed in 1989 by winds. On New Year's Day 1991/92, the radome was once again blown down, as well as the one protecting the Type 96, damaging that radar. Given the imminent arrival of the Type 93, it was decided not to rebuild the Type 96 dome and operate it in the open. It took 10 months to bring the system back to full operation in November 1992. The Type 93 was ready for operation in October 1993. The HF200 was removed in 1993, as the Type 93 was a 3D radar and did not need a separate height finder, and a backup was not considered important. The Type 96 remained in use as a backup system, which was often required as the Type 93 went through its teething period. The Type 96 was finally turned off in April 1995, and was removed over the summer.
During the IUKADGE era, Saxa Vord was a part of the Sector 1 of the UK Air Defence Region (the RAF covering most of NATO Early Warning Area 12, some 750,000 square miles). Sector 1 was the airspace north of the 55th parallel north. Being a Control and Reporting Post(CRP)/ Reporting Post (RP), it passed its radar picture and information (along with that of RAF Benbecula) to the Sector Operations Centre (SOC /CRC) at RAF Buchan, which also received information from the Danish site on the Faroe Islands.
Saxa Vord was also home to Shetland Radar, which provided a radar service to civilian helicopters flying from Aberdeen/Sumburgh and Unst out to the oil fields.
Downgrading to Remote Radar Head
While the upgrades were taking place, the Warsaw Pact was dissolving and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The number of intruder flights collapsed and there was no sign they would be returning. From around 2000 until 2 April 2004, the station operated as Remote Radar Head (RRH) Saxa Vord, operated from parent station RAF Buchan. On 2 April 2004, RAF Saxa Vord was upgraded from a Remote Radar Head to a full manned station, taking over control of the radar defences in the area. Buchan was intended to be downgraded to a Remote Radar Head.
In 2005, the RAF announced that RRH Saxa Vord would close. The Type 93 radar was approaching obsolescence and was increasingly difficult to maintain. It was considered that with a reduced threat, funding would be diverted to other defence priorities.
In April 2007, Saxa Vord's Domestic Site and the road up to the Mid Site were bought by Military Asset Management (MAM).
Reactivation as RRH
In September 2017, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that £10 million would be invested in Saxa Vord to reactivate the site as a Remote Radar Head. The move will provide better coverage of the airspace to the north of the UK, in response to increased Russian military activity. Work began in October 2017 to move a Lockheed Martin AN/TPS-77 L-band radar from RRH Staxton Wold in North Yorkshire to Saxa Vord.
During January 2018, Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier visited the site to inspect progress and the new radar reached initial operational capability. It was expected to reach full operational capability by the end of 2018.
Nobody will be permanently based at Saxa Vord, but regular visits will take place for maintenance purposes.
- Improved United Kingdom Air Defence Ground Environment – UK air defence radar system in the UK between the 1990s and 2000s
- Linesman/Mediator – UK air defence radar system in the UK between the 1960s and 1984
- List of Royal Air Force stations
- NATO Integrated Air Defense System
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