Take a look inside Pearl Harbor’s giant golf-ball shaped radar

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Published: Mar. 2, 2023 at 4:37 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 3, 2023 at 4:50 AM HST

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Expect to see a giant golf ball structure at Pearl Harbor until it disappears before you notice.

Inside the white dome is the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Sea Based X-Band Radar ― SBX-1 for short. The MDA says it’s the world’s largest, most powerful mobile radar of its kind.

Media got a tour of the 280-foot-tall customized oil rig that can be partially submerged to maintain stability during rough seas and winds of more than 100 miles per hour.

The 2,400-ton radar can be rotated in a matter of seconds ― an engineering marvel.

“We can look in any direction, we mechanically slow it,” said MDA SBX product manager Bob Dees. “We can also lift it all the way up to look straight up.”

About 72 crew members operate the vessel and rotate on and off every 9 weeks. They just completed their longest deployment yet ― 662 days at sea -- and have been at Pearl Harbor for a few months for maintenance and about $70 million of upgrades. The MDA would not disclose an exact departure date, but said it would be in the “near future.”

While other early warning radars can detect missiles, the MDA says SBX-1 can see targets more clearly to determine if it’s an actual threat.

“We look at the shape, look at the characteristics and could look at a lot more details,” Dees said.

Once a threat is identified, usually by satellite, radars in Japan, Alaska and California work together with SBX-1 on precision tracking and data is sent to military operation stations on shore.

“We have to see it in time that they can figure out that they want to shoot it, initialize the interceptor and get it launched, so that it can intercept before it gets to where it does some damage,” said Dees, who explained the advantage of a mobile, sea-based radar is its ability to track a missile’s trajectory from any part of the ocean and adjust to the curvature of the Earth.

“We’re the long range part that can be reset, if they want to beef up coverage for an area or increase the time that they have for command and control and engagement to get more shots off or more decision time.”

Dees says the MDA is developing and testing new technology to adapt to evolving threats and more advanced ballistic missiles.

“Threats are getting more precise. They’re adding decoys and jammers. They’re adding things that make it harder a depressed trajectory means you’ve got less time to watch and engage the target,” Dees said. ”Long range hypersonic cruise missiles that fly lower, and you can’t see them as far over the curve of the Earth.”

While plans for a land-based radar system in Hawaii have stalled, MDA says SBX-1 and existing infrastructure are able to protect the state and the continental U.S.

“Very high levels of government are talking about what’s the right architecture mix between overhead sensors, ground based radars on land and surface radars on ships,” Dees said.