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Giant Floating Golfball in Treacherous Waters

Last Wednesday night, CBS Evening News featured the Sea-Based X-band Radar (SBX) platform which soon will make its way from Hawaii to the waters off of Adak, Alaska, its eventual home port. In addition to the SBX-1 Operational Suitability and Viability Assessment (pdf) which we first leaked to the Chicago Tribune over the summer, POGO provided CBS with new internal documents and information for its story. As CBS reported:

The price tag is at $1 billion and counting. This raises the billion-dollar question: Can the SBX not only detect a hostile threat, but do it in the Bering Sea, home to some of the most unforgiving weather in the world?

"All that electronics is out in the middle of the ocean, and salt water and waves and bad weather and all, and electronics don't go well together," [Phillip] Coyle [senior advisor at the Center for Defense Information] says.

In March, an independent study obtained by the ProjectOn Government Oversight called the SBX "rugged and suitable" for the mission, but cited a letter in which the Alaska Coast Guard command called the waters "inherently dangerous."


CBS News also obtained an internal document in which lead contractor Boeing asserts "ice accumulation could ... induce enough damage to the rigging to cause it to fall."

An internal Coast Guard communication, dated just last month, depicts a sense of anxiety about the project, warning of the "land mine potential" of any interview that questions "the system's suitability for operating in Alaska waters."

In sum, POGO has no doubt that the SBX has a superb radar and that the platform the radar sits on is fairly robust. We just wonder if the parts add up to a whole that Americans can depend on in the bleak environment of the north Pacific. Based on the government documents we've obtained, it seems that many in the government have the same question. For example, see the Missile Defense Agency's response to a letter from the U.S. Coast Guard earlier this year (pdf).

A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, entitled, "A Radar Unit's Journey Reflects Hopes, Snafus In Missile Defense," recounts Sen. Ted Steven's skepticism about the ability of the SBX to perform in the treacherous waters off of Alaska:

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.

Previously, the U.S. government planned to build the powerful X-Band Radar on Alaska's Shemya Island, where early warning radars already exist. Besides the fewer environmental problems, the land-based option had other advantages. As Lisbeth Gronlund, David Wright, George Lewis and Phil Coyle explain (pdf):

The SBX is smaller than the previously planned Shemya XBR. According to an MDA report, the SBX will have only 50–65 percent as many transmit/receive modules as the planned Shemya XBR, and a correspondingly reduced aperture, reducing detection range to 4,800 km (for the 65 percent populated SBX) rather than the XBR’s 6,700 km (MDA 2002, p. v). This reduction may not be significant, since a detection range of 4,500 km corresponds to a radar horizon altitude of about 1,500 km, which is roughly the maximum altitude of a long-range missile. However, the specified detection range is against a target with an RCS that is not publicly known. If the actual RCS is less than this value (for example, if stealth is used as a countermeasure), than the larger power and aperture of the XBR relative to the SBX might have been useful. In addition, the larger aperture and power of the XBR relative to the SBX will give it a higher signal/noise ratio against a specific target at any given range, and a narrower beam providing somewhat better tracking, resolution, and decoy discrimination capability. However, these differences are not large, and for the purposes of roughly estimating the capabilities of these systems, it appears reasonable to assume that the somewhat smaller size of the SBX relative to the XBR is not a significant issue. Other factors may be of more significance.


More importantly, since the SBX is viewed as a test asset, it has a number of serious deficiencies when viewed from the perspective of an operational system (MDA 2002). Unlike the planned Shemya XBR it does not have dual redundant electronics, so it is less reliable. Unlike the planned Shemya XBR, it will not be hardened against the electromagnetic pulse from a high altitude nuclear explosion. And it does not have the fiber optic cable connection that was planned to give the XBR secure communications.

POGO has heard that Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, approved the SBX for its winter shakedown departure yesterday afternoon.