THE Cold War might be consigned to the history syllabus, but high on the North York Moors, a huge radar base continues its 24-houra- day, 365-days-a-year vigil, looking for deadly ballistic missiles heading our way.

RAF Fylingdales, which dominates the skyline between Whitby and Pickering, is celebrating half a century of vigilance.

The remote station has other roles, including keeping a close eye on everything floating around the Earth – from old pieces of rocket to the International Space Station – but it is first and foremost a lookout for ballistic missile attacks.

Fylingdales was built at the height of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union and went operational on September 17, 1963.

The famous phrase, the four-minute warning, has its origins in the time Fylingdales and its sister stations in Greenland and Alaska would have provided governments to respond to missile attack, although experts now disagree on the number of minutes the system would have given the West to decide what to do.

It was constructed on a former wartime mortar range by the United States but operated by the RAF. Despite a substantial US military presence at the remote location, it remains a British-run base.

When it was built it consisted of three huge ‘golf balls’ which were tourist attractions in North Yorkshire for two decades.

As radar technology evolved, the three white radomes were replaced between 1989 and 1992 with a single metallic pyramid.

This houses the solid state phased array radar which is still used today. This radar, the only one of its kind in the world, looks out into space – 3,000 nautical miles in all directions – picking up objects as small as an apple and deciding what they are.

Fifty years after the early warning station at RAF Fylingdales was built as the first line of defence against impending nuclear devastation, commanders say their primary mission has not changed.

According to the RAF, the base has three distinct missions: warning of ballistic missile attack, space surveillance, and supporting the United States’ controversial missile defence system.

Station chief Wing Commander Rayna Owens says: “RAF Fylingdales has been a ballistic missile and early warning radar site since 1963 and is delighted to be celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The importance of this mission endures and some would say is even more important.

“The UK consciousness of space and our reliance on it is growing, as is that of the department. RAF Fylingdales is key to this growing understanding.”

Wg Cdr Owens adds that many staff – 400 people work at the base – have been living and working at RAF Fylingdales for more than 20 years.

“This provides a unique perspective and a strong connection to our community.

“We are exceptionally proud of the work my team has put into this tribute to the last 50 years and we look forward to the next 50 years.”

Since the 1960s, the RAF has stressed that the information gathered at Fylingdales in relation to missile attacks and space surveillance has been shared equally between the US and UK governments.

The base has long been the focus of anti-nuclear protesters, who reject the official line that it is purely a defensive installation.

Campaign groups like CND say the role of Fylingdales makes Yorkshire a primary target for attack.

While the base’s work to track missiles has often attracted headlines over the years, its space surveillance role largely went unnoticed until the 2011 release of official Ministry of Defence documents.

These showed Fylingdales was at the front-line of Britain’s efforts to identify UFOs. In one case, the base was called in to investigate reports from 17 witnesses across southern England of a cigar-shaped object with lights covering its base.

Some of the sightings claimed the UFO was white with a clearly visible exhaust, others that it was orange with a white cockpit.

One even suggested the object may have exploded.

Investigators eventually concluded that the UFO may have been space debris reentering the earth’s atmosphere and burning up.

The base’s presence in North Yorkshire has regularly proved controversial.

In 2003, a senior US Air Force scientist caused alarm when he said he would not buy a house near the North York Moors base because its radiation could pose a serious health risk.

Dr Richard Albanese told a BBC documentary he feared phased array radiation from the radar may have carcinogenic properties that science has yet to understand.

He based his fears on an investigation at an almost identical base on Cape Cod, in the US, where an unexplained cluster of rare cancers has been found in the community.

The claims prompted the Scarborough, Whitby and Ryedale Primary Care Trust to commission research, which concluded the base did not pose a serious health risk.

The base again made the news when witnesses claimed a big cat was found dead on a nearby road in 2004. One delivery driver claiming he saw the body being loaded into a car, possibly used by MoD police.

A book on big cat sightings claimed staff at the base saw the creature, which was kept in a vault at Fylingdales, although the MoD rubbished the report.

The sight of the base’s huge radar tower – often cloaked in fog – in its remote moorland location is one few motorists passing by Fylingdales will forget.

What happens within its walls is equally shrouded in mystery, but the MoD asserts that its constant vigil is as relevant and important as it was in 1963.