X-Band Versus Kim Jong-il

As North Korea continues its competition with Iran and Pakistan for the title of “most immediate threat,” reports from the Japanese media say that the next North Korean missile test could come on July 4 and be aimed at Hawaii.  

In response, the Obama administration decided to deploy a futuristic radar missile tracking system last Wednesday, specifically a Sea-based X-band Radar (SBX).

SBX looks much like a 28-story, 50,000-ton light bulb plopped on top of an oil rig, and that description is not that far from the truth. But the X-band radar is to a light bulb what a rock concert is to a whispered rumor.

Technically, the “oil rig” is a Russian-built CS-50 twin-hulled semi-submersible oil platform. And the light bulb? It’s a phased array X-band radar antenna so powerful that it can track a baseball hit in San Francisco from New York.

This whitish covering is a radome (radar-dome) that protects the radar antenna from harsh weather. Despite (or more likely because of) the advanced technology, it doesn’t require a huge number of people to run it. The crew on the SBX is only about 80 strong.

In the past, SBX technology and Aegis missiles have cooperated to destroy defunct spy satellites. The accompanying Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system (THAAD) intercepts enemy missiles in their final moments of flight.

The SBX will relay signals to a ground-based missile intercepting system on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Findings will be directed to a fleet of from 6 to 16 of the government’s 18 Aegis missile cruisers and destroyers.

The SBX is self-propelled, but larger ships are deployed to carry it across long distances. Its portability makes it unique. Most radars don’t provide the flexibility that its sea-basing does.  They’re not only expensive to build but also can’t be moved to face a new threat.

THAAD is one of two ground-based missile intercepting systems at the U.S.’s disposal. It consists of 8 missile launchers mounted to a flatbed truck. Cooperating with SBX in a recent test at Kauai, it knocked 5 out of 5 targets from their trajectory.

The SBX has been shuffling around Hawaii since 2006 and is a product of the Bush administration. Ironically, President Obama has called it “unproven” in the past. It just spent several weeks in Pearl Harbor undergoing maintenance.

The Obama administration recently cut $1.4 billion out of the missile defense budget.

The SBX is currently at sea in an undisclosed location near the Hawaiian Islands.

Many say that SBX is extremely delicate, cannot operate in rough waters, and requires careful and constant maintenance. In addition, THAAD failed a series of tests when deployed in the 1990s. THAAD has only been tested against short- and medium-range missiles, and has yet to be used against a long-range missile.

Despite the potential setbacks, Gen. James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that he is “90% sure” the U.S. could intercept North Korean missiles.

It can cost over $100 million to transport the vessel. SBXs are produced by the defense contractor Raytheon which makes a host of other military radars as well.

SBX uses high frequency and advanced radar signal processing to optimize performance and develop highly detailed coordinates and tracking. It can distinguish single missiles from clusters and assess whether or not they still present a threat after they have been intercepted.

“The SBX radar has deployed, away from Hawaii, to provide support. […] The ground-based interceptors are clearly in a position to take action. So without telegraphing what we will do, I would just say […] we are in a good position, should it become necessary, to protect American territory," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates — another relic of the Bush administration.

The world community is giving the appearance of tightening its grip on the transportation of nuclear weapons, though not — as usual — dealing with the tough problems that accompany it. Last Friday, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1874, which calls for the interception of ships carrying nuclear weapons to or from North Korea. (The problem is, of course, that it doesn’t authorize action, so any North Korean ships can only be searched with North Korea’s permission. Right.)

Shortly before the resolution was issued, the U.S. reported that it was tracking a suspected North Korean ship.

President Obama has pledged to adhere to the terms of the U.N. resolution.

Some experts argue that even North Korea’s most advanced long-range missiles could not reach Hawaii and that the unconfirmed planned launches alleged by the Japanese media may merely entail test launches east into the Pacific Ocean.

Pyongyang has not officially announced a missile launch.

With 28,000 troops in South Korea and the recent deployment of THAAD and SBX technology, the U.S. is apparently prepared to deal with the next North Korean launch.

Despite these snazzy new aquatic defense systems, primary anti-missile support for Hawaii would most likely come from Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.