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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 3, 2006

Radar staying longer than planned

By Kirsten Scharnberg
Chicago Tribune

The giant radar, so powerful it can tell which way a baseball is spinning 3,000 miles away and so cutting edge it has been billed as the nation's best chance at comprehensive missile defense, came to Pearl Harbor for what was advertised as a quick stopover for minor repairs.

That was eight months ago.

Now, even as the weeks pass and the price tag creeps toward $1 billion, the Sea-Based X-Band Radar shows little chance of making the voyage to its intended port in Alaska considered the optimal location for monitoring potential North Korean missile launches until at least this fall.

Even more, a recent independent assessment lists dozens of concerns from naval and defense experts about the design and administration of the radar vessel, a cornerstone in the Bush administration's oft-criticized push to fast-track the development of a yet-unproven ballistic missile defense system.

Among the findings:

  • The sensitive radar known as the SBX is mounted atop a vessel that might need to be towed to safety in the event of rugged Alaskan seas, but its one towing bridle likely would be underwater and impossible for a rescue ship to use anytime waves reached more than 8 feet.

  • Although the SBX may be hundreds of miles from support ships, it lacks a quickly deployable rescue boat in the event of a man overboard, it does not have a helicopter landing pad certified for landing most U.S. Coast Guard and Navy rescue helicopters, and its crews have not been trained "for heavy weather or cold weather operations."

  • And, ironically, the X-Band, considered one of the nation's foremost technologies in defending against foreign missiles, has minimal security itself. The vessel is protected by a security detail with a handful of small-arms weapons. Critics speculate that it is vulnerable to attack by enemy nations or terrorists.

    The Missile Defense Agency, the arm of the Department of Defense that is responsible for the radar, has said it has addressed or is addressing most concerns raised in the independent assessment. But the problems that have plagued the SBX since it was unveiled as part of the administration's nearly $43 billion missile defense system have led critics to dub it "Son of Star Wars," a moniker drawing on President Ronald Reagan's unrealized dream of developing a space shield that could stop enemy missiles.

    The Bush administration has faced significant skepticism about its missile defense goals. The president in 2002 ordered that a missile defense system be operational within two years, though the technology was considered shaky.


    Those who had questioned whether it was wise to put a radar as intricate as the X-Band on a vessel bound for some of the world's roughest waters only had their arguments bolstered this year when the massive SBX was damaged during its first long ocean voyage, from the Gulf of Mexico to Hawai'i.

    "That radar is absolutely packed with sensitive electronics, and ... salt water, wind and waves don't go well with sensitive electronics," said Philip Coyle, who as assistant secretary of defense from 1994 to 2001 was the Clinton administration's chief weapons evaluator.

    "The bottom line is that the designers of this system didn't begin to contemplate the realistic conditions under which the X-Band would have to operate."

    The SBX's radar sphere a 27-story white globe that looks like a giant golf ball is mounted atop a sea-based, partly submersible oil rig. Its high-frequency radar is intended to detect the launch of missiles from hostile nations and then guide U.S. missiles to intercept the threat.

    The SBX is to be based in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, an ideal place from which to monitor the trajectory experts believe a North Korean missile would take en route to the U.S.

    This summer, North Korea did a test launch of its missiles and is feared to have missiles that could reach U.S. bases in Japan, the American territory of Guam and potentially Hawai'i or Alaska.

    But the Aleutians lie in a portion of the Bering Sea where winter weather can be so violent that the islands have been nicknamed "the birthplace of winds." Although virtually all experts agree the SBX is a rugged vessel, many worry that some of its designs fail to take into account conditions routinely present around Adak Island, Alaska, the radar's destined home.

    They raise a number of concerns: There is no refueling station for rescue or resupply aircraft, despite the fact the SBX routinely could be up to an eight-hour helicopter flight from a Coast Guard station; the emergency communication system depends on satellite communications that can occasionally fail; vital backup electrical systems on deck are not protected from water or cold; the propulsion system will not allow the vessel to move quickly.

    An official said recently that the Missile Defense Agency was "taking to heart" the dozens of recommendations made in the independent assessment.

    Chet DeCesaris, deputy program manager for the agency's ground-based missile defense program, said the vessel is getting certified for Coast Guard and Navy rescue helicopters to land on it, its crew has been training in cold-weather operations, and damage incurred during the voyage to Hawai'i has been repaired.

    "The overriding thought in the assessment was that the SBX is a robust vessel," he said, adding that the converted oil rig the radar is mounted on was designed for service in the harsh conditions of the North Sea.


    He said the agency was studying whether to implement other major changes, such as adding a second bridle to increase chances that the SBX could be towed away from a violent storm. But he argued that a permanent mooring platform would be built for the SBX within about a year and there was a "low risk" that a storm would significantly damage the vessel before that.

    "I don't think, I know, there is no risk going up there for the winter," DeCesaris said, adding that should a storm arise that is significant enough to threaten the radar, the SBX would be "taken anywhere in the world" to ensure its safety.

    Despite the setbacks, DeCesaris insisted the SBX would be in Alaska sometime in November. Previously the Missile Defense Agency had assured Congress that it would be in place by late summer, and some experts have said a move in late fall will be difficult because of the early arrival of winter in Alaska.

    "I increasingly suspect it may not ever leave Hawai'i," said Coyle, the former assistant secretary of defense.