At Thule Air Base, Greenland, 695 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the ice has broken, and the once-yearly resupply and construction season has begun under 24 hours of daylight. Renovations have begun on half-century-old dormitories, and favorite sundries such as Lucky Charms cereal keep morale high for the 141 Airmen and Guardians who help to assure America is safe from attack over the polar ice cap.
A heavy fog permeated the base on a recent afternoon, delaying outbound flights during the busy transition season, when service members rotate after a one-year stint at the northernmost Air Force base in the world and one of its most austere operating locations. But with the summer ice thaw, the base’s port is accessible to supply ships for a short three-month window.
Airmen and Guardians at Thule balance the responsibilities that come with a vital missile warning and missile defense mission with the mental resiliency required to sustain minus-12-degree average winter temperatures in total darkness, or days at a time indoors during deadly snowstorms between September and May that sometimes give little warning before a mandatory shelter-in-place.
At Thule, high morale helps keep the lights on.
“We’ve got to keep the lights on and got to keep the mission on, and nobody wants to freeze to death in the winter,” installation commander and 821st Space Base Group commander U.S. Space Force Col. Heather L. McGee told Air Force Magazine by phone from Thule in the final week of her command.
McGee’s role as installation commander includes supporting the missile defense and space surveillance missions of the 12th Space Warning Squadron and the tracking station operated by the 23rd Space Operations Squadron, Detachment 1.
“Thule is truly a unique and exciting place to be, and part of it is within the group, the family that we have here,” McGee said.
“You can think of me as like the mayor of a town,” McGee said of the base community that includes up to 450 contractors and civilian and military personnel from Denmark, Canada, and Greenland. “We provide all the support functions so that space mission can function, so the scientists can come up here and do their research, and so the Space Force and Air Force can project power, or project forces, from this unique Arctic location.”
Most personnel at the 821st Space Base Group Serve oversee the contractors who maintain base operations and repair equipment. Other Airmen and Guardians handle communications, personnel, medical services, logistics, civil engineering, air traffic control, aircraft and vehicle maintenance, weather, and security forces.
McGee said the tight support network and powerful mission give Airmen and Guardians a sense of purpose.
“It’s very remote, but we do have a very important mission, and I think it just gives people a real sense of accomplishment to be here,” McGee said.
Service members pass their personal time achieving personal and professional goals. Many have trained for triathlons and Ironman competitions or completed advanced degrees online. Every day are different social events and intramural sports coupled with access to a state-of-the-art gymnasium, pool, and a new hockey rink.
Summer temperatures ranging from the 30s to 50s encourage service members to get outdoors for “Thule Trippin’,” activities that include running, hiking nearby Mount Dundas, and riding all-terrain vehicles.
Even the simplest American creature comforts motivate service members.
“Today, we are offloading cargo,” McGee said during a July 8 phone interview. “A lot of our bulk food came in today, and that’s always exciting to get, so we got some supplies like cold cereal, which we didn’t have for a while.”
Cheerios, Lucky Charms, and Rice Chex made the shipment, along with material for a dormitory renovation and soon, a $3 million backup generator to prevent power loss in the winter.
“The base was built in 1951, so some of these buildings have been around since then,” McGee said.
Renovations will modernize the dorms to improve the quality of life of Airmen and Guardians.
Perhaps one of the most important changes that happened during McGee’s tenure was the beta test by the Air Force Research Laboratory to install satellite internet by accessing the polar-orbiting low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites of the OneWeb constellation.
“Because we’re so far north, the connection is really good. So, these terminals have enabled a much faster—for Thule standards—internet connection,” she said, noting that service members are no longer frustrated trying to take online classes. “It’s a huge morale booster when you can download a TV show or talk to your family.”
Critical Data for Decision-Makers
Retired Col. Stuart Pettis, a Thule commander from 2015 to 2016 when the base operated under the Air Force’s 21st Space Wing, said the most important element of the 254 square-mile Thule Defense Area is a 13-story phased-array radar 12 miles north of the base.
“It’s kind of like a cube with one side mashed in a little bit, and that’s the array face,” Pettis explained of the radar operated by the 12th SWS. “It has all these little antennas. They work together to pulse out energy that’s in a wave form that goes out, and that’s the radar.”
The radar looks out over the North Pole and provides the initial ground-based warning if any potential missile attacks were to be launched from Russia. The Thule radar would confirm data gathered by Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites that would first detect a missile launch.
Thule is home to many of the missile defense sensors of Space Delta 4 and command and control sensors of Space Delta 6, providing those capabilities for North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
Thule’s data can provide the Secretary of Defense valuable minutes in the event of a crisis.
“The data is critical because it provides warning time so they can make decisions,” said Pettis, who now oversees Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education programs at the Air & Space Forces Association.
“When I was there, I had no discipline problems because everyone was very motivated, and it was a really neat culture,” Pettis added. “It’s a great opportunity. They’re going to get a lot more responsibility there than they might have at a big base.”
McGee said that in her year, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond and commander of U.S. Space Command Army Gen. James H. Dickinson both visited to underscore the importance of the mission and location.
“Dickinson went to 12th 1SWS and even climbed up on the roof there and was really engaged in what we were doing here and very interested in our mission and our infrastructure,” McGee said.
For all the challenges of being away from home and family at the frigid top of the earth, McGee said her final few weeks have been reflective.
“This is a hard assignment, a year here. It’s hard,” she said. “I started feeling a little sad that a lot of things that we do as a group, I’m like, ‘Well, I’m not going to see these people anymore. I’m not going to be around them.’”
McGee feels deep bonds with the 141 Airmen and Guardians she worked closely with the past year at Thule. She also feels a deep sense of accomplishment helping them meet their goals for the next assignment, next promotion, or getting a coveted job.
“I’m going to miss leading and being a part of this team because it is really a unique, close-knit, very professional team that’s very engaging, and helped me get through my time here without my family because they’ve been like a family to me,” she said. “People here, they’re passionate about what they do. They’re dedicated. It takes a very resilient Airman or Guardian to be up here, and the people that are here are truly knocking it out of the park.”
Editor’s note: This story was corrected at 12:15 a.m. Eastern time July 12 to reflect that squadrons under the Thule installation commander’s authority are not based in Colorado; and to clarify the nature and ownership of the command and control sensors at Thule.