By Sharon Watkins Lang
USASMDC/ARSTRAT Historical Office
For many years the odd shaped domes that once housed the Multifunction Array Radar, or MAR, at White Sands Missile Range was the home of the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility.
Being the first radar of its type, the MAR’s significance is lost today, but 50 years ago on Sept. 11, 1964, the MAR accomplished its first successful track of a real target — a balloon for 50 minutes. During this test the track was intentionally dropped periodically and contact automatically reestablished several times.
Unlike earlier phased array radars, the MAR, developed as part of the NIKE-X program, was designed to perform, as the name implies, several functions. The prototype MAR I, with its multiple beams and electronic steering, would replace three of the four radars in the NIKE-Zeus system — the Zeus Acquisition Radar, the Discrimination Radar and the Target Track Radar.
In surveillance mode the MAR would perform search detection and threat verification, scanning the entire coverage area in less than 20 seconds or as one reporter noted, “the MAR will be capable of operating so fast that it will appear to look in every direction at once.”
When a threat was identified, the MAR computer would automatically switch to engagement mode. A precision tracker was assigned to each threat or target position as additional scans performed verification tracking or target discrimination and identification.
Unless otherwise directed, the MAR would automatically perform verification tracking on any targets detected by the search beam.
Built for an estimated $100 million, Bell Telephone Laboratory operated the MAR from July 1964 through September 1967. The MAR was housed in a multi-story concrete and steel dome with two acres of floor space above and below the ground. On either side are two smaller domes with transmitters.
As described in a 1964 article, the domes of the MAR “look as if they were made with a giant ice cream dipper. The sides of two of the domes are pierced with the radar’s ‘eyes.’ These resemble the face of a round waffle iron studded with rod-shaped projections.”
The rest of the complex included an additional small radar atop the receiver is used for radar checkout. They are then surrounded by a clutter fence designed to decrease the interference caused by radar beams reflected off the ground.
Speaking to a group in Sacramento, Calif., later in September, President Lyndon Johnson extolled the capabilities of the new radar, explaining that it “will literally look around the curve of the earth, alerting us to aircraft and especially missiles within seconds after they are launched.”
It was anticipated that the MAR would almost double the 15-minute warning time provided by the Distant Early Warning System. Meanwhile in October 1964, Lt. Gen. Charles B. Duff, commander, Army Air Defense Command, described the MAR as the “foundation” of the NIKE-X system which, “makes possible a greater kill probability and greatly increase the capacity of the system.”