Is the radar designed to withstand the conditions of its destination?
HONOLULU -- 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 the historic port of Pearl Harbor for what was advertised as a quick stopover for minor repairs and a paint job.
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 actually making the voyage to its intended port in Alaska -- considered the optimal location for monitoring potential North Korean missile launches -- until at least later this fall.
Even more, a recent independent assessment obtained by the Chicago Tribune 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.
What was found
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 away from support ships, it lacks a quickly deployable rescue boat in the event of a man overboard, does not have a helicopter landing pad certified for landing the most common 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. Many critics speculate that it is vulnerable to attack by enemy nations or terrorist groups.
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 the majority of 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 derisive moniker drawing on President Ronald Reagan's unrealized dream of developing a space shield that could stop incoming 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 after tests showed the system often failed.
Proved their point?
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 sustained damage during its first long ocean voyage from the Gulf of Mexico to Hawaii.
"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.
He went on: "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. When you look at all the facts, you really have to wonder what the people who designed this thing were thinking."
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 powerful high-frequency radar, which makes detailed, long-range imagery possible, 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 most advanced missiles and is feared to have missiles that could reach U.S. bases in Japan, the American territory of Guam and potentially Hawaii or Alaska.
But the Aleutians lie in an unforgiving portion of the Bering Sea where winter weather can be so violent that the islands have been nicknamed "the birthplace of winds." Therein lie many of the concerns associated with the SBX.
Although virtually all experts agree the SBX is a rugged vessel, many worry that some of its designs fail to fully take into account conditions routinely present around Adak Island, Alaska, the radar's destined home.