- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2006

ELDORADO, Texas — Sheriff David Doran slides a key in a lock, pulls a door open, looks down and cautiously glances left and right. And then up.

“I always look for snakes,” the Schleicher County sheriff said. “This is a rattlesnake haven. I’ve seen them hanging out the door.”

Then he steps inside a building next to an odd pyramid-shaped edifice, carefully walks around some rodent droppings at the door threshold and steps back a generation into the Cold War and into what the Air Force called PAVE PAWS.

The nearly dozen desert tan-painted structures perched on the highest spot in this rocky, goat-raising county about 175 miles west of San Antonio cost nearly $200 million to build in the early 1980s, county Judge Johnny Griffin said. It was home to powerful radar devices installed on two of the three sides of the 10-story pyramid that dominates the cluster of buildings and juts into the horizon like some weird giant drive-in movie screen.

But in 1995, it was shuttered, a cost-cutting measure by the military because it no longer was needed. Other technology replaced it, and the Soviet submarine fleet was rusting in ports, no longer capable of hurling sea-launched ballistic missiles the radar was supposed to detect. Many of the station’s components were cannibalized and moved to a similar site outside Fairbanks, Alaska.

Now, more than a decade later, PAVE PAWS is still empty, still on the Air Force books, but merely an unidentified curiosity for motorists traveling nearby U.S. Highway 277.

Sheriff Doran and his deputies routinely travel the unmarked bumpy asphalt road leading to the site as part of their daily patrols in 1,311-acre Schleicher County, population 2,900. But that hasn’t stopped vandals from getting over fences topped with razor wire, from shooting out locks and door handles to try to get into some of the buildings, or using the paved parking lot bordered by goat and cattle ranches as a meeting place for illegal-drug deals.

Judge Griffin, who for the past 28 years has been the top elected official in Schleicher County, thinks the property could be used for legitimate purposes.

“If they made a hay barn out of it, it would be better than what it’s doing. I think the county could get in the alfalfa hay business and use that and fill it up,” Judge Griffin said. “It’s got to have some use of some kind. It just seems absolutely stupid to me that we can just have such a cavalier attitude toward a $183 million taxpayer facility.”

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

The Texas station was one of four PAVE PAWS installations, the first going active in 1979 at Cape Cod, Mass. The “PAVE” was what the Air Force calls the “program name for electronic systems.” The “PAWS” is an acronym for “Phased Array Warning System.” Unlike the traditional mechanical spinning-disk radar, PAVE PAWS used a physically fixed antenna and aimed it electronically by controlling the timing of signals it sent and received.

In 1983, the Schleicher County site was selected. Its proximity to Goodfellow Air Force Base, 40 miles to the north in San Angelo, didn’t hurt. The base provided support and the radar site helped remove Goodfellow from a Defense Department base-closure list.

Eldorado went active in 1987, primarily monitoring the middle and southern Pacific Ocean areas and sending its data to the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station near Colorado Springs — headquarters for the nation’s air-warning network.

When it became clear the operation was closing, Judge Griffin said he went to Austin to see then-Gov. George W. Bush and asked if something could be made of the place to benefit his area, maybe a training or vocational center. Nothing happened.

Ken Spain, spokesman for Rep. K. Michael Conaway, a Republican whose 11th District covers all or parts of three dozen West Texas counties, including Schleicher, said the Air Force is keeping the property in case “conditions change” that would necessitate its reactivation.

“However, reconstituting the mission would be considerably challenging since all hardware except the site’s diesel generators were transferred,” he said.

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