A Giant 'Golfball' for Missile Defense

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Marco Garcia / AP

With the USS Arizona Memorial in the foreground, the Sea-Based X-band Radar (SBX) is seen, Monday July 16, 2007 in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The military's $900 million, 28-story-tall missile defense radar is back in Hawaii from its remote base in Alaska for renovations.

Last Friday morning, Colonel John R. Fellows watched from his Honolulu hotel room as what appeared to be a giant golf ball pulled into Pearl Harbor. The white dome, encasing the powerful military radar of which Fellows is in charge, was returning from a week at sea. "It just came in while I was sitting here," said Fellows, who works for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The Sea-Based X-Band radar was, you could say, right on time.

Or, you could say it was about two years late. Designed to keep an eye out for rogue missiles flying toward the United States, the SBX had been scheduled to report for duty in Alaska in early 2006, but a series of structural repairs and upgrades have kept it in warmer waters. For over a year, the nine-story radar that sits atop a self-propelled Norwegian oil platform has been coming and going from Pearl Harbor for fixes and tests — a delay critics see as symptomatic of an agency under pressure to deliver a national missile defense system that is still more fiction than fact.

The SBX certainly looks like something out of a 1960s precursor to Transformers, its round, white head ready to make a mechanical turn, sprout legs and stand up, streaming seawater and begin terrorizing the good people of Honolulu. But the 280-foot high, $900 million gizmo will soon be scanning the horizon for enemy threats, joining the growing suite of land-, sea- and space-based technologies that the MDA claims is the nation's first functional national missile defense system. Since President Ronald Reagan initiated his Star Wars program, about $100 billion has been spent on U.S. missile defense. We don't have an invisible shield protecting us, but we do have two ground-based interceptor batteries in California and Alaska aimed roughly in the direction of North Korea, and plans to build more in central Europe aimed at Iran.

The SBX program has already touched many parts of the globe: The radar's prototype was built in the Marshall Islands; its semi-submersible converted oil rig platform was designed in Norway. The two parts were assembled in Texas, its 50,000 tons hoisted onto a ship, and sailed 15,000 miles around the tip of South America (it was too big to use the Panama Canal), arriving in Pearl Harbor in January 2006. Its ultimate destination is the more challenging waters of Adak, a farflung outpost in Alaska's Aleutian island chain, famous for terrible weather and 100-foot waves. The MDA claims the SBX is powerful enough to spot a flying baseball in San Francisco from New York, and more importantly, to tell the difference between a real missile heading for America and a decoy.

Whether or not such an exquisite piece of intelligence equipment should be on the open ocean is another question. The upside is mobility; the downside is salt water, wind and waves. Shortly after arriving in Hawaii, the MDA ordered an assessment of the radar's rig, which resulted in a $27-million to-do list before it could be declared operational. Improvements include everything from rethinking the platform's ballast system to installing anti-slip surfaces on its decks. In short, at the time when it was originally supposed to be in service, the vessel was not fit for the open sea — and that much was obvious even in Hawaii, not the harsh Bering Sea. "When you read that report, you have to wonder what the people who designed the thing where thinking," says Philip Coyle, a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information (CDI) and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration. "It's like you've hired a contractor to build a kitchen, and they've forgotten to build a stove that doesn't catch on fire." Still, the SBX has, in fact, spent about a month in Alaskan waters to test its ruggedness in rough weather, from which it emerged unscathed.

Fellows, the radar's project manager, says the upgrades are in line with getting any complicated vessel ready for action, pointing out that the Navy takes a year to "shake down" — or test — a new ship to work out all the kinks. "When you go out and shoot a rifle, you have to go out and calibrate it to make sure its tuned and performing how you want it to," says Fellows. "Is it perfect yet? No. That's why we continue to work with it." As far as the MDA is concerned, SBX is an evolving layer in a work in progress, better to have deployed in an emergency than sitting in a Texas shipyard. "We have a system in place for the first time in our nation that will defend against simple threats from rogue nations. We continue to make the system more robust," he says.

But Coyle and others argue that the MDA's work-in-progress attitude towards its systems is a sign that the program is in over its head. "With massive projects you're always going to have something not quite right," acknowledges Victoria Samson, a research analyst at CDI. But, she says, the extent of the upgrades and repairs that SBX and a few other MDA systems have required are signs of an agency that is buying time to deliver weapons that the White House has asked for but may not yet be realistic. "It's giving [the program] a blank check to keep developing and never have to justify itself," Samson says.

When — and at what cost — the Sea-Based X-Band radar will finally be up and running in Alaska is hard to say. Right now, the target date is early next year, but to Col. Fellows, pinning these answers down is beside the point. Sitting in his hotel room watching the white dome near the Pearl Harbor memorial put the system's goals in perspective. "People in Hawaii understand SBX because that's what we're trying to do — prevent something from attacking us without forewarning," Fellows says. "If we had been able to stop that, history would have been changed."