When you're a kid in Little League, the first lesson your coach drills into you is to keep your eye on the ball. And what works on the sandlot goes double for missile defense: the better you can see the target, the higher your chances are of hitting it.That's why the Missile Defense Agency has been so hyped about its Sea-Based X-Band Radar, or SBX. The $815 million, 28-story, orb-like contraption has the ability, in theory, to tell which way a baseball is spinning -- from 3,000 miles away. That's the kind of vision any hitter would kill for. No wonder the SBX quickly became one of the centerpieces of the Bush Administration's revamped anti-missile strategy, after it took office.But there's catch. In order to spot the most incoming ICBMs, the radar's converted oil rig platform has to be positioned near Alaska's Aleutian Islands -- an "unforgiving [stretch] of the Bering Sea where winter weather can be so violent that the islands have been nicknamed 'the birthplace of winds,'" the Chicago Tribune tells us. And considering how bad the SBX was roughed up during "its first long ocean voyage," in the comparatively calm waters from the Gulf of Mexico to Hawaii, that isn't inspiring a lot of faith in the system's survivability. Scheduled to leave Hawaii after repairs eight months ago, the SBX won't head out to Alaska until "at least later this fall." Needless to say, the radar will miss the next round of missile defense testing, scheduled for this week.
"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..."[What's] more, a recent independent assessment obtained by the Tribune lists dozens of concerns from naval and defense experts about the design and administration of the radar vessel...Among the findings:- The sensitive radar... 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."This is no surprise and again demonstrates MDA's [Missile Defense Agency's] stubborn refusal to accept that engineering and logistical limitations can be just as damning as anything else the weapon systems can come up against," says missile guru Victoria Samson, with the Center for Defense Information. "What with Thursday's test of the GMD [Ground-based Midcourse Defense] system, it would've been nice to see how the SBX would play in there, which it would have done - probably - if it'd made it to Adak [Alaska] last year as planned. Instead, what we're getting from the GMD tests are conjectures because there are too many placeholders to make up for the actual components which are missing."