In a climate of sensational reporting, the Los Angeles Times published two articles last Sunday (Article 1, Article 2) after an “investigation” of the Sea-Based X-Band Radar (SBX). The piece stitches together quotes from largely non-governmental sources, a US STRATCOM Commander who retired eight years before the SBX was deployed, and a discredited ex-Missile Defense Agency Director who was removed from his position by the Secretary of the Army and the Under Secretary for Defense Acquisition Technology and Logistics after an Inspector General investigation on toxic and abusive leadership. As a result, this article contains serious misrepresentations and misinformation about the SBX, and demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the system’s purpose, value and importance to U.S. national security against the current threat and continued missile defense development.
Since its first operational deployment in 2007, the SBX has successfully participated and contributed as a key asset to 13 real world engagements. These include being the central fire control sensor during the shoot down of a toxic satellite by a U.S. Aegis BMD Ship in 2008 (Burnt Frost), the defense of the United States against North Korea’s test launches, most notably in 2012 during North Korea’s Taepo Dong II test, and again in response to North Korean provocations in 2013 where the SBX’s dwell time was doubled at the request of the Combatant Commanders.
Not only does the SBX deploy operationally at the will of the Combatant Commanders from PACCOM, NORTHCOM and STRATCOM, it is also is a key part of MDA’s testing architecture. SBX was the main fire control sensor for the last successful Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) intercept test FTG-06b in June of last year. According to the DOD’s 2014 DOT&E report, SBX performed nominally in all aspects for that test. In total, it has participated in 11 MDA flight tests, six ground tests, 3 U.S. Navy tests and 16 U.S. Air Force tests. These critical tests continue to help develop both current and future missile defense systems to become more capable and reliable. Each test provides additional information that enables continuous improvement to the system and architecture involved. These tests were:
GMD Flight Test Events:
FTG-02 (2006) FTG-05 (2008)
FTG-03 (2007) FTG-06 (2010)
FTG-03A (2007) FTG-06a (2010)
FTX-02 (2007) FTG-07 (2013)
FTX-03 (2008) FTG-06b (2014)
Ground Test Events:
GTI/GTD-02 (2007) Fast Aim (2013)
GTI/GTD-03 (2009) GTI/GTD-04B (2011)
GTI/GTD-04B (2011) GTI/GTD-04E (2014)
Joint Navy Events:
JFTM-01 (Events one and two)
GT- 194, GT-196 , GT-197, GT-198 (all 2008)
GT-195, GT-199 (2009) , BVT-01 (2010)
GT- 200 (2010), GT-201 (2010)
GT-203 (2012), GT-207 (2013)
GT-208-1 (2013), GT-209 (2013), GT-211 (2014)
GT-214 (2015), GT-215 (2015)
As the country’s most powerful X-Band discrimination radar, and for its mobility as a sea-based platform, it continues to be used in different realistic testing scenarios with different missile defense systems across the Pacific that other deployed land, space or sea and air-based radars would not be able to do because of location, sensor capability, and mission set. The SBX’ s value is the gathering of critical discrimination information of a ballistic missile threat cloud as it travels through space for precise targeting of the interceptor and providing a kill assessment post-intercept. More exactly, the SBX performs precision discrimination between threatening and non-threatening objects within the missile complex and provides engagement quality data to the GMD Fire Control system for guiding the GBIs. SBX discrimination contribution to targeting through debris, decoys and countermeasures to locate the warhead dramatically increases the reliability of the current 30 GBIs deployed in Alaska and California to intercept ballistic missiles from North Korea, thereby reducing the amount of interceptors needed from a limited supply and increasing system confidence to the warfighter operator.
The article begs the question of why U.S. Combatant Commanders would continue to deploy the SBX repeatedly over the past 9 years if it was such a flawed system or “flop” as the LA Times article phrased. There have been close to ten years of testimony by U.S. Combatant Commanders in support of their mission to defend the U.S. Homeland with the SBX. These highly merited individuals have commanded the operation of the SBX, understand its strategic value and its capabilities. They have ordered SBX’s deployment on 13 different occasions, and continue to deploy it to for the defense of the United States, validating both its strategic value and mission as a critical part of the defensive architecture for U.S. homeland defense.
In addition, all of the previous MDA Directors, from the conception of SBX to today have testified every year before Congress in support of continued funding for the system.
“[The]SBX is fulfilling a very important role today and on the Pacific with all of the testing that we do and for a surge capability that we provided to the — to the Northern Command commander when the situation arises.” – VADM James Syring, SAC-D MDA FY 2016 Budget Hearing.
Prior to his promotion to MDA Director, LTG (ret) O’Reilly was the MDA executive responsible to develop GMD, which includes SBX. Throughout his time, he had many years to testify in Congress against the SBX or resign if he believed this program was wasteful. Instead, he consistently approved budget requests for the SBX program, even as the Director:
“In addition to this budget request for GMD, there are other significant midcourse defense development activities to enhance GMD’s contribution to the BMDS in our proposed FY 2010 budget [including the] development and operation of the Sea-Based X-Band radar.”– LTG Patrick J. O’Reilly, SASC Hearing on MDA FY 2010 budget, June 16, 2009.
“We also are requesting $177.1M in RDT&E funding for the Sea-Based X-band (SBX) radar in FY 2012 for software upgrades to improve its discrimination capability.” – LTG Patrick J. O’Reilly, FY 2012 MDA Budget Request.
“Finally, we will continue to increase the capability of the Sea- based X-Band Radar, or SBX, but we have cost-effectively limited its operation to flight testing and operational contingency support, under the control of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet.” – LTG Patrick J. O’Reilly, SASC Hearing on MDA FY 2013 Budget.
The following are eight specific points from the LA Times article that particularly misinform its readership on the SBX:
1. “Of the SBX radar, Montague said: ‘It should of never been built.'”
The U.S. Combatant Commanders repeated use of SBX in real world engagements over the past nine years and congressional testimony strongly refutes this statement.
2.“SBX met standards for commercial ships – but agency officials had failed to take into account the Coast Guard’s stricter standards for vessels destined for the kind of hazardous conditions found in the Aleutians.”
In Jan-Feb of 2007, SBX conducted sea trails into the Bering Sea during the harshest part of winter, prior to the completed upgrades required by USCG, as reported in the LA Times article. During that transit to Hawaii, the SBX sailed through a storm that produced 60 foot waves and wind gusts well over 100 mph. The SBX sea floating platform is the substructure of a North Sea Oil Platform that was built to withstand harsh sea weather of the North Sea that rivals the seas in the Northern Pacific. The SBX has sustained up to 75 foot waves with 100 mph winds while still being able to operate its sensor. Modifications that were made to the SBX were to add redundancy and robustness of shipboard systems to enable sustained operations in addition to its other mission as a testing platform.
3.“SBX’s powers of magnification belied a fundamental shortcoming. The radar’s field of vision is extremely narrow: 25 degrees, compared with 90 to 120 degrees for conventional radars. Experts liken SBX to a soda straw and say that finding a sequence of approaching missiles with it would be impractical. “It’s an extremely powerful soda straw, but that’s not what we needed,” said Harvey L. Lynch, a physicist who served on the National Academy of Sciences panel. In the event of an attack, land-based early warning radars could, in theory, identify a specific point in the sky for SBX to focus on. But aiming and re-aiming the giant radar’s beam is a cumbersome manual exercise. In combat conditions, SBX could not be relied on to adjust quickly enough to track a stream of separate missiles, radar specialists said.”
Having a “soda straw” is what is needed to accurately discriminate the debris, countermeasures and decoys from the warhead. The conventional radars currently deployed with wider breadths of 90 to 120 degrees cannot give the accuracy in discrimination that the SBX does. Nevertheless, SBX was never intended to operate on its own. Real world U.S. BMD operations and doctrine requires multiple forward based radars in the Asia-Pacific theater as well as Early Warning Land Based Radars in Alaska and California to cue the SBX for its “extremely narrow vision” for discrimination of the ballistic missile threat cloud in determining the warhead among the debris. Two forward based TPY-2 X Band US Army Radars deployed in Japan are persistent sensors for search and initial tracking of a North Korea missile threat for the SBX. Two to five Aegis BMD ships out of the Pacific Fleet and 7th Fleet with Spy-1 radars are transferred to the command of NORTHCOM to provide flexibility and additional coverage for early warning and tracking of the final flight stages of North Korean ballistic missile threats and to cue the SBX. The C2BMC gathers all these radar feeds including the Early Warning Land based radars and provides the SBX with the best track to cue its X-Band radar. Neither the spaced based early warning nor the early warning radars in Alaska and California have the needed capability to discriminate the ballistic missile cloud in defining the warhead for exact targeting of an ICBM warhead. It is the SBX that has that invaluable capability.
Aiming the SBX is not a “cumbersome manual exercise,” it is computer driven and has tremendous processing power that can slew or adjust to multiple fronts within seconds. It can rapidly search small volumes while simultaneously resolve objects contained in multiple target complexes. The SBX’s slew of moving towards different objects is far superior and quicker than the forward based X-band radars, Spy- 1 radars or land based early warning radars. SBX maintains custody of tracks by automatically slewing the radar until the object is destroyed or flies out of the radar range. SBX also has the capability to slew between multiple “streams of attacking missiles”. With the ballistic threat from North Korea coming from relatively the same location on earth and if your sensor is located in the middle of the Pacific, it does not need to swivel 180 degrees or 260 degrees, and can dwell on more than one target, it provides the ultimate centering battle space to engage early with interceptors with time to engage, access and engage again if necessary. In these dynamic combat conditions, the SBX is made to adjust quickly enough to track a stream of separate missiles coming from North Korea providing the exact targeting data to the interceptors in California and Alaska.
4. SBX’s limitations make it “irrelevant to ballistic missile defense,” said David K. Barton, a physicist and radar engineer who took part in the National Academy review and who has advised U.S. intelligence agencies. “Wherever that beam can be pointed, it can cover whatever is within it,” Barton said. “But obviously that isn’t going to cover the whole Pacific for a stream of attacking missiles that are separated by many minutes…. Even if there are only four missiles, [an adversary] could separate them.”
The tracking and queuing support from forward based sensors for the SBX, as well as the processing power of the SBX to shift quickly between missiles coming from North Korea, means that SBX does not need to “cover the whole Pacific” on its own to accomplish its mission. The SBX also integrates with the Early Warning Radars in Alaska and California in processing threat information. SBX is not a tracking radar, it is a discrimination radar. The Early Warning Radars are not discriminating radars to the degree of the SBX, they remain fundamentally search and tracking radars. SBX maintains custody of tracks by automatically slewing the radar until the object is destroyed or flies out of the radar range. The SBX also has the capability to slew between multiple “streams of attacking missiles.”
5. “A panel of the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, after a two-year review, reached a similar conclusion in 2011: “The importance of achieving reliable midcourse discrimination cannot be overemphasized.” To address this vulnerability, the U.S. had installed one land-based X-band radar in Japan in 2006, and a second was added in 2014. The two radars are well positioned to detect launches from North Korea. Yet both would lose track of U.S.-bound missiles after about 930 miles because of Earth’s curvature. Barton said that to give rocket-interceptors enough time to knock out enemy missiles, U.S. radar would have to track the incoming weapons continuously after launch, “from cradle to grave.”
The two land based X-band radars installed in Japan are not midcourse discrimination sensors, and are only meant to provide initial tracking and cueing information for incoming North Korean ballistic missiles and passing that information to C2BMC and the SBX. The only midcourse discrimination radar the United States has is the SBX. The U.S. BMD systems in operation today with forward based sensors have the mission to cue the SBX to enable it to provide discrimination to the interceptor. The SBX with its forward based cues from land and sea based sensors has proven capability to provide accurate discriminating information for intercept which without having complete tracking from cradle to grave. Having cradle to grave gives the system more reliability and confidence but it would require persistence and a high volume of sensors of which a space based constellation would be seen as a goal if resources were unlimited. There are gaps between forward based sensors, SBX and land as well as sea based sensors in the Pacific due to the curvature of the Earth.
6. “During a 2007 test, “SBX exhibited some anomalous behavior,” requiring “adjusted software,” the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation Office said in a report. The report said SBX had not served as the primary radar for any test in which an interceptor had managed to destroy a target.”
The SBX had just been deployed and operational in 2007, and it performed three tests in March- the FTX-02, in May the FTG-03 and in September the FTG-03. In, two of the tests, the SBX achieved its objectives and the other test the target did not fly. On SBX’s last test in 2007 it achieved all of its mission objectives as it acquired, placed in precision track and discriminated threatening object, observed intercept of warhead by a U.S. interceptor. These tests are designed to push the thresholds of the systems and do naturally require adjusting and upgrades to the software. The report of 2007 statement does not take into account the future years beyond 2007 to include the SBX’s performance as the primary radar for the “Burnt Frost” toxic satellite shoot down the following year in 2008. It’s most recent test last June with a successful intercept FTG-06b, the SBX was the primary radar and other testing events. SBX has been a key sensor in all of the 13 world engagements it has been tasked to do over the past nine years. Over the history failed interceptor tests, the primary root causes have not been placed upon the SBX but on other elements of the system and test bed and in many of those fail to intercept tests the SBX performed its mission.
7. In a June 2014 test, an interceptor destroyed its target, but SBX’s “hit assessment” did not reach commanders in control of the system, according to a report by the Pentagon’s evaluation office. In an attack, an immediate and accurate hit assessment would be crucial.
The report by the Pentagon’s evaluation office for this June 2014 test stated that SBX correctly provided the “hit assessment” information to the Fire Control of the GMD system. The Ground Midcourse Fire Control (GFC) of the GMD System did not communicate the information to the commanders in control of the system at C2BMC. This would not be a fault or error of the SBX.
8. SBX was never based at its specially prepared Alaskan berth. In 2012, it was downgraded to “limited test support status.” In 2013, the radar sat idle in Pearl Harbor for more than eight months, records show.
During the SBX’s down time in 2013, it was undergoing USCG recertification, and scheduled maintenance of its thrusters that propel it through the ocean. All military ships and seaborne platforms undergo this kind extended maintenance time in port, including aircraft carriers, submarines, and destroyers. This does not mean these assets do not work properly or are not valued. In 2014, SBX spent 209 days at sea. It has been at sea for a total of 1841 days, averaging 205 days a year since its initial deployment.
Strategically, the Adak location was not the right decision for the permanent location for the immediate threat from North Korea. Moreover, Adak lacks adequate infrastructure support, and didn’t provide good access to testing events. Honolulu provided the ideal location for support and quick access to defend Hawaii, Guam and the western United States. It also provides easy access for test events in the Pacific that span from Hawaii to Kwajalein Atoll.
In the initial discussions prior to the decision to acquire the SBX, there were numerous studies for the most cost effective sensor for midcourse discrimination among land, air, space and sea platforms for the defense of the United States from North Korea. There were three main factors that the sensor had to perform; 1) Be an active critical operational element of the missile defense architecture, 2) have survivability against the threat, and 3) be used regularly in the infrastructure for the test bed for missile defense. There was not any better, or more cost effective sensor solution than the SBX for what its mission set is and what the SBX has done for the national security of the United States homeland and the development of U.S. missile defense systems.
The LA Times and its readership should have the opportunity to know from this “investigative” article is that the SBX is an absolutely critical asset to the confidence and reliability of the Ground Based Missile Defense system commanded by our NORTHCOM Commander to defend and protect the lives of citizens that live in Los Angeles, the western states, and Hawaii from the North Korean nuclear ballistic missile threat. The LA times should be advocating for increasing the SBX missile defense sensor discrimination capability and persistence in operations as the North Korean threat continues to modernize and evolve rather than misinform the public about the true, demonstrated capability of the SBX to help defend our way of life and our lives.
The SBX’s operational deployments out of Hawaii enhances the nation’s ability to defend the West Coast and Honolulu from North Korean nuclear ballistic missiles than if SBX had never been built or if it had been stationed in Adak. In the near future, the United States will have to acquire and deploy additional long-range midcourse discrimination radars for the Pacfic, allowing the NORTHCOM Commander the option to shift the SBX to the Atlantic waters off of the Northeastern United States in the event a new rogue state ballistic missile threat materializes from the East and Iran continues its long-range ballistic missile development and modernization
History has shown that our western most states and territories are often under the greatest threat, and we must ensure that history does not repeat itself.