SPECIAL REPORT: Exclusive tour of the SBX radar

Published: Nov. 22, 2011 at 7:15 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 23, 2011 at 4:12 AM HST
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Steve Braddom
Steve Braddom

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Nearly 30 years ago on March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan gave an historic speech from the Oval Office that would set a new course for the scientific community for decades to come.

"What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest on instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they could reach our own soil or that of our allies," said President Reagan.

Since Reagan first put forward the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), dubbed "Star Wars" after the popular science fiction movie, this nation has come a long way in missile defense. Of course, we have the capability now to shoot down an incoming missile threat, but first, we have to find it. And that's where the SBX-1, or Sea-based X-band radar comes into play.

"It's an unique asset, the only one of its kind in the world, said Lieutenant Colonel Steve Braddom, SBX project manager with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

The SBX-1 structure towers, 28 stories high.

"It's similar to a Nimiz aircraft carrier in its size, in its width and height. So, it's about 240 feet wide. And from the bottom of the keel to the top of the radome it's about 280 feet. It's only about 1/3 as long as a carrier, only about 330 ft long."

Inside this golf ball shaped radome, visible miles away from Pearl Harbor, is America's finest technology. The largest, most powerful phased array X-band radar in the world.

"And its mounted on a self propelled, semi-submersible commercial oil drilling platform. It has 4 electric thrusters and allows it to be propelled so we can position the SBX-1 any where we need in the Pacific Ocean to take advantage of a test situation or a particular threat or operation," stated Braddom.

It's so powerful say MDA officials, that the SBX-1 can track a baseball sized object in space some 3,000 miles away.

In 2008, the SBX-1 helped destroy a defunct spy satellite which was feared to release toxic hydrazine fuel if it fell to the Earth. SBX-1 tracked the satellite which was located about 150 miles above the earth, traveling at 17,000 miles per hour. SBX-1 then gave the information to the USS Lake Erie which launched a modified missile without a warhead to impact the satellite and destroy the fuel compartments deemed a threat.

The SBX-1 radar is just one of many eyes, or sensors within the Ballistic Missile Defense System. Enemy warheads are designed to throw off tracking systems, but the SBX works against it.

"SBX's key role is not only to acquire and track," said Braddom, "but to be able to discriminate a warhead from the decoys that may be associated with it and communicate that information back to the ballistic missile defense systems command and control."

Then the war fighters determine how to intercept it, whether from a missile launched at sea or on land.

It takes about a hundred people to secure, operate and maintain the SBX radar which is activated only at sea. To stabalize the structure, the SBX ballasts down about 30 feet, submerging it to allow its four main thrusters maximum ability to stabalize the structure to improve its ability track the target object, even in bad weather.

Inside the radome, said Braddom, "The entire antennae mount, that 4.8 million pounds that's inside the radome can actually rotate and elevate to make sure we can see and track a missile as it follows its course."

What's even more fascinating about SBX-1 is that the radome itself is not solid. It's covered by a very thin, specially designed, kevlar-strength material that protects the radar within.

Lt. Braddom said, "It's a pressurized dome. The fabric is held up by air pressure. The dome itself weighs a little bit more than 17,000 pounds."

The $1 billon piece of hardware took two years to build and costs about $150 million a year to operate. Since 2005, SBX has undergone numerous tests, development and upgrades to increase its capabilities. And now the Department of Defense's Missile Defense Agency, which develops and acquires missile defense technology, is ready to hand it over to the Navy for use within the Pacific Command.

"Right now, we're building up to the transfer which will occur in many steps," said Braddom. "First the transfer of the vessel itself, which is what brought us into Pearl Harbor, to complete those activities." The transfer will take place of the course of the next few months. It's not known when the vessel will head back to open waters. MDA officials say that for security reasons, they don't officially release the departure date of the vessel in advance.

The Navy will actually run the missions of the SBX-1, while the radar itself will continue to be operated and maintained by MDA contractors. The radar was designed and built by Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems for Boeing Company, which is the prime contractor on the project for MDA.

So, when the SBX-1 comes into port, you can tell your friends they don't have to go to Hollywood, to check out a real..."Star Wars" attraction.

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