A history of the White Alice Communications System

In the early 50’s, during the height of the cold war paranoia, a number of Air Force radar stations were built along the coast and in the interior of Alaska to warn of incoming enemy aircraft attacks, and for control of responding US fighters. These remote Aircraft Control & Warning (AC&W) radar stations were connected to headquarters and the control center at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage by HF and VHF radio systems that proved less than adequate for the job.
         At the request of the Air Force, Western Electric Company, a division of  the Bell System, was tasked with designing and building an improved communications network-thus was born the White Alice Communications System. White Alice also consolidated other government communications systems such as the FAA and the Alaska Communications System.
        The trademark of the White Alice system was the large, square, black ‘billboard’ antennas scattered across the Alaskan landscape, like some kind of modern Stonehenge built to honor the radio gods. These large antennas were part of a new type of communications called Forward Propagation Tropospheric Scatter, or Tropo for short. Able to span distances over one hundred miles, Tropo was an ideal medium for crossing the vast distances of  bush Alaska. These 60-foot monoliths of technology also brought modern communications to many remote towns and villages in the Alaskan bush for the first time. Prior to White Alice, the Alaska Communications System provided communications to the larger bush communities via short-wave radio.

The original 25 White Alice stations required three years to construct, with the first station becoming operational in 1956. The first call was placed over the first completed link November 29, 1956. The White Alice system was completed and placed in full operation on March 26, 1958.

By the late 50’s, fear of aircraft attacks by the Soviet Union shifted to fear of missile attacks by the Soviet Union. To provide advance warning against these missile attacks, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) was developed. Several BMEWS stations were built around the world, including one at Clear, south of Fairbanks. To provide communications for BMEWS, a TD-2 microwave system was built from Clear along the Alaska Highway and into Canada. A second TD-2 microwave system was built from Clear to the existing White Alice station at Wasilla, Neklasson Lake. The Tropo system was extended from Bowsell Bay through Southeast Alaska to Smugglers Cove on Annette Island and through the Aleutian Islands to Shemya. Although these expansions had project names, such as the Rearward Communications System and Bluegrass, they were all operated by the White Alice contractor and for all practical purposes were considered part of the White Alice System. Although it was a military system, during the entire 20-year life of White Alice, it was operated and maintained by civilian contractor personnel; first by Federal Electric Company, then RCA Service Company and, finally, by ITT Arctic Services.

Until 1969, the 6 Aleutian Dewline sites had been manned by the Air Force who operated both the radars and the Tropo communications links. In 1969, the Air Force shut down the radar at these sites (except Cold Bay) and the White Alice contractor assumed operation of the remaining Tropo links. BMEWS had rendered the Aleutian DEW redundant.

 In 1968, the beginning of the end for White Alice appeared on the horizon-satellite communications. Bartlett earth station was built at Talkeetna, about a hundred miles north of Anchorage. Although rudimentary at first, satellite technology rapidly advanced until by the mid 70’s, satellite communications terminals were being installed at the AC&W sites and the White Alice stations were being shut down. By the late 70’s, White Alice was history; the only remaining operating tropo link was the Boswell Bay to Nek Lake shot, which operated until the early 80’s.

Today, the remaining AC&W sites have a new radar (Minimally Attended Radar) that is remotely controlled over satellite links from the ROCC at Elmendorf. The radar stations now have only a few maintenance personnel on site and the remote communications stations are mostly unmanned. A mission that used to require thousands of personnel, both military and civilian, on the remote sites is now being accomplished with just a handful of people. In my opinion, all our eggs are now in one basket, but Communism is dead and the Ruskies are our buddies, so not to worry. (See note 1 below)
           Many of the White Alice stations have been torn down. The demolition of these facilities, in many cases, is costing as much as the original construction costs. The sites that remain are crumbling reminders of a once cutting edge communications system that is now considered just an ancient horse and buggy technology. Like the now silent, rusting antennas, we who worked those sites are rapidly fading into history.

 

NOTES ON THE MEANING OF THE NAME ‘WHITE ALICE’

 

Military projects are usually given a two-name acronym and Western Electric documents indicate that the terms ‘alice’ and ‘white’ selected for this project and had no real meaning- the acronym was just two words.  Although the term ‘Alice’ had no meaning, it is generally conceded that ‘White’ referred to the frozen north. 

At the time, there was an actress still living named Alice White (picture), so the acronym was reversed to White Alice. (I don’t really know if that is true or not but it makes a good story.)

Sometime later, someone came up with the definition of ALaska Integrated Communications and Electronics for the term ‘Alice’. Whether it was someone in the Air Force or the WACS contractor, I have never heard.

 


 

ALICE WHITE

Note 1:
Prior to retiring in 2007, I worked for ten years at the Brewster Earth Station in north-central Washington state on the communications system for the Boeing Sea Launch project (www.sea-launch.com). Sea Launch is a consortium of Boeing and Russian and Ukranian missle companies that launch satellites into orbit from a floating platform. Many of the components of the launch vehicle were used in the Soviet ICBM's that were aimed at the U.S. A number of the Russian and Ukrainian missile technicians and engineers on Sea Launch are the same Soviet engineers that developed and maintained those ICBM systems. Good thing the Soviets are now our buddies and haven't learned any of our rocket secrets from this project. (Boeing was fined several million dollars by the U.S. Government for technology transfer.)