A Radar Unit's Journey Reflects Hopes, Snafus In Missile Defense

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Wall Street Journal
November 28, 2006
Pg. 1

After $50 Billion Under Bush, Program Shows Successes, But Rig Is Stuck in Hawaii
By Jonathan Karp
PEARL HARBOR NAVAL STATION, Hawaii -- Towering over this historic site is a radar precise enough to track a baseball hurtling through space at 15,000 miles an hour. But the vessel carrying the radar has sprung leaks and blown out electrical circuits.
Such mundane problems have kept this vital part of the nation's defense against missile attacks stuck in the wrong harbor. If all had gone according to plan, the $950 million radar rig, known as SBX, would be operating now off the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and ready to defend against threats from North Korea. Instead, after a three-year odyssey from Norway to Texas and around South America, the 28-story-high converted oil platform is in Hawaii, 2,000 miles and months away from its final destination.
The journey of SBX is a microcosm of the Defense Department's unfinished missile shield, a dream since Ronald Reagan's 1983 plan dubbed Star Wars. Under President Bush the U.S. has poured nearly $50 billion into the program. The Pentagon says it has put the system on alert more than 10 times and the U.S. already has a "limited" ability to shoot down enemy warheads. Yet the program's high-tech breakthroughs are at times undermined by technical snafus, and real missile defense always seems off in the future.
One big step forward came in September, when U.S. military personnel using satellite sensors, radar and long-range interceptor missiles that are part of the real missile shield shot down a test warhead in space over the Pacific. The success went some way toward answering critics in Congress who have demanded tests that resemble real-world situations.
For defense contractors and the Pentagon, which is spending $9.3 billion this year on missile defense, the September test was a vindication. "The last 10 months have been extraordinary in terms of accomplishment," says Patrick Shanahan, a vice president at Boeing Co., principal contractor on the system that includes SBX. "I think the program has reached its stride."
Mr. Shanahan was brought in to fix the system in early 2005 after interceptor missiles failed to leave their silos in two consecutive tests. The problems prompted the Pentagon to dock Boeing $107 million in contract fees.
Critics nowadays generally concede the feasibility of knocking missiles out of the sky. But many believe the idea is either too expensive or too error-prone to make it worth rushing into operation.
North Korea's recent moves have lent urgency to the debate. The Communist state tested a long-range missile in July and exploded a nuclear device in October, although its tests showed it has yet to master the technology.
The original Star Wars concept conjured up images of space-based launchers blasting Soviet nuclear missiles out of the sky. Today, that idea is on hold, partly because of concerns about militarizing space. The Bush administration's main missile-defense system has ground sites in Alaska and California, where 13 interceptor missiles stand ready to be fired.
The Boeing system calls for early-warning radar to get a first glimpse of the enemy missile launch. An interceptor missile is then fired. As it flies, this missile is supposed to receive the exact coordinates of the enemy missile and, if all goes well, the two will collide in space. It's the equivalent of hitting a bullet with a bullet.
The system lives or dies on highly accurate radar to pinpoint the attacking missile's trajectory. That's where SBX, or sea based X-band radar, comes in. It's an advanced form of X-band radar, which emits a concentrated high-frequency beam to collect images.
Officials say SBX can not only produce detailed images of incoming warheads but also distinguish a decoy from the real McCoy. The Pentagon hopes to capitalize on SBX's mobility -- it sits on a self-propelled converted oil rig -- to deploy it closer to perceived threats and shave critical minutes off response time. At a top speed of 10 knots, though, SBX would take a while to reach a faraway global hot spot.
The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency oversees several other missile-defense systems that complement the program led by Boeing. For defense against shorter-range threats, Lockheed Martin Corp. is directing the Aegis system, which fires interceptor missiles from ships. It has done well in tests. A separate Lockheed project to build improved satellites that detect enemy missile launches is emerging from years of performance problems and cost overruns.
The overall goal is "layered defense" -- getting several shots at the enemy projectile before it hits American soil. The Boeing system that was tested in September is the crucial middle layer. It has the broadest time window to succeed, but still only minutes. A missile could complete its journey from North Korea to the U.S. mainland in 20 minutes.
Shrouded in a 10-story-high dome, the SBX radar sits atop the semisubmersible oil rig like a giant golf ball on a tee. The Teflon-coated, Kevlar-like fabric of the inflated dome is designed to withstand winds up to 150 miles an hour. Inside, the radar soars toward the roof, its octagonal face covering 4,100 square feet. It swivels on a circular track and can tilt skyward.
The radar, built by Raytheon Co., contains 45,000 electronic modules that transmit and receive data. SBX's radar can send multiple beams in different directions, changing their aim in fractions of a second. That lets the radar track several objects at once and compensate for the rig's movement in ocean swells.
The Pentagon originally figured it would put X-band radar on land and picked out a site on Shemya Island, a speck of rock at the western tip of the Aleutians. But the radar program stalled during the Clinton administration, which feared that building elements of a national shield would breach the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
In 2001, President Bush pulled the U.S. out of the treaty, and the Pentagon soon began developing the X-band. The Pentagon, following an idea of Raytheon engineer David Greeley, at first chose to put X-band radar at sea merely to collect test data on missile trajectories from different angles. Officials liked the idea so much that they made sea-based radar a permanent part of the system.
Boeing bought a Russian-built rig in Norway in 2003 and towed it to Brownsville, Texas, to install engines and adapt the vessel for the 2,200-ton radar and a crew of 100. Around that time, the Pentagon announced it would base the radar in Adak, in the middle of the Aleutian chain, and set the end of 2005 as the target date for its arrival. SBX would be moored in a sheltered port that doesn't ice over and would be well-located for tracking Asian missile launches.
Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, a staunch advocate of missile defense, nevertheless questioned the wisdom of having such a valuable sensor floating in the treacherous North Pacific. "I hope your people are nautical enough to know what you're doing," he told Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, then Missile Defense Agency director, at a Senate hearing. The general replied that he had reviewed a century's worth of local wave patterns and had confidence in SBX's naval architects and Boeing.
SBX progressed through the next two years despite mishaps in other parts of Boeing's program. In December 2004, a flawed line of software shut down the test launch of an interceptor missile. Two months later, a mechanical support arm failed to retract, again stranding the interceptor missile in its silo. "This was not rocket science," says Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, who had recently become director of the Missile Defense Agency. Dismayed by the mishaps, Gen. Obering toughened the testing plan and drove a shake-up in program leadership at the Pentagon and Boeing.
By late 2005, it looked as if SBX might come close to meeting its target for arriving in Alaska. After trials in the Gulf of Mexico, it was hauled 15,000 miles around South America -- the rig is too big for the Panama Canal -- and it arrived in Hawaii in January of this year. The trip to Alaska seemed around the corner, but in March, alarms went off in SBX's engine room. A leaky valve caused water to flood into SBX's pontoon. The rig had to return to Pearl Harbor for repairs to the flaw, which an independent panel later called a "major casualty."
Then in June, an electrical fault tripped circuit breakers, forcing SBX back into port for two more weeks of repairs. Such problems are typical during the initial "shakedown" phase of a new class of ship, says Tom Alexiou, Boeing's SBX program manager. Most important, adds Paul Smith, a Boeing radar manager, there haven't been major issues in the "far more complex" task of integrating the radar with other ship systems.
In fact, the radar was performing well enough that the Pentagon diverted SBX from its tests to free it up to monitor North Korea's missile launch in July. Then it delayed SBX's preparations for Alaska again so the radar could participate in a test on Sept. 1, the most important U.S. missile-shield trial to date. In the test, an "enemy" missile with a real warhead fired from Alaska was destroyed by an interceptor missile launched from California.
Floating off the California coast, SBX successfully tracked both missiles and their warheads as they collided, says Brig. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, who oversees the ground-based missile-defense program. It was a "watershed event," he says, because it shows SBX could do its job once it's hooked up to the missile shield's command structure.