Earth & Conservation

The Crazy Tech Behind America's Arctic Missile Defense

Mysterious remnants of an old military project perch on top of remote mountains in Alaska. Why are they there? What is White Alice?

In 1955, the U.S. Army and Air Force built a network of communication centers that used a brand new technology. Phone calls and telegrams were transmitted through microwaves that shot up into Earth's atmosphere and bounced back down to a receiving site. Each center had a dish for sending signals and one for receiving them.

The technology is known as "tropospheric scattering." The project was nicknamed White Alice.

In the 1950s, Alaska was home to a mere 215,000 people spread across an area twice the size of Texas. As you might imagine, this made advanced communication a bit difficult. Remember, this was the era before cell phones, and stringing telephone lines across hundreds of miles of frozen terrain wasn't exactly economical, or effective, for that matter. The expanse of the tundra even made radio communication spotty and unreliable.

This was a particularly perplexing conundrum because during this time period, the Cold War was in full force. Americans needed reliable communication, especially in Alaska, which is only 53 miles from Russia across the Bering Strait. Pearl Harbor had happened very recently, and the U.S. government feared a similar attack on Alaska was possible from the Soviets.

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This technology actually had many advantages that other communication technologies at the time did not. It could support multiple phone calls at once and most importantly, it was very secure. Once a signal was sent out it could only be received in one location, making interception near impossible.

The military built a total of 22 tropospheric scattering sites across Alaska, costing around $300 million. But in 1967, only eight years after the network was completed, the government decided to move away from tropo scattering and began to focus on satellite communication instead. White Alice stayed active as a civilian phone network until the late 1970s, and the military still occasionally uses tropo scattering because of its reliable security, but most of these sites have since been demolished.

White Alice still stands today because of its structure, rather than its technology. The electronics inside are long dead, but the structures themselves are very visible landmarks. They help hunters and travelers find their way out of the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness, ensuring they make it back to Nome safely.

Read More:

BBC: The ice curtain that divides US families from Russian cousins Army revisits troposcatter communications technology as alternative to long-range SATCOM The White Alice Communications System

-- By Molly Fosco