Leaders of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency were effusive about the new technology.
It was the most powerful radar of its kind in the world, they told Congress. So powerful it could detect a baseball over San Francisco from the other side of the country.
If North Korea launched a sneak attack, the Sea-Based X-Band Radar — SBX for short — would spot the incoming missiles, track them through space and guide U.S. rocket-interceptors to destroy them.
Crucially, the system would be able to distinguish between actual missiles and decoys.
SBX “represents a capability that is unmatched,” the director of the Missile Defense Agency told a Senate subcommittee in 2007.
In reality, the giant floating radar has been a $2.2-billion flop, a Los Angeles Times investigation found.
Although it can powerfully magnify distant objects, its field of vision is so narrow that it would be of little use against what experts consider the likeliest attack: a stream of missiles interspersed with decoys.
SBX was supposed to be operational by 2005. Instead, it spends most of the year mothballed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
The project not only wasted taxpayer money but left a hole in the nation’s defenses. The money spent on it could have gone toward land-based radars with a greater capability to track long-range missiles, according to experts who have studied the issue.
Expensive missteps have become a trademark of the Missile Defense Agency, an arm of the Pentagon charged with protecting U.S. troops and ships and the American homeland.
Over the last decade, the agency has sunk nearly $10 billion into SBX and three other programs that had to be killed or sidelined after they proved unworkable, The Times found.
“You can spend an awful lot of money and end up with nothing,” said Mike Corbett, a retired Air Force colonel who oversaw the agency’s contracting for weapons systems from 2006 to 2009. “MDA spent billions and billions on these programs that didn’t lead anywhere.”
The four ill-fated programs were all intended to address a key vulnerability in U.S. defenses: If an enemy launched decoys along with real missiles, U.S. radars could be fooled, causing rocket-interceptors to be fired at the wrong objects — and increasing the risk that actual warheads would slip through.
In addition to SBX, the programs were:
• The Airborne Laser, envisioned as a fleet of converted Boeing 747s that would fire laser beams to destroy enemy missiles soon after launch, before they could release decoys.
It turned out that the lasers could not be fired over sufficient distances, so the planes would have to fly within or near an enemy’s borders continuously. That would leave the 747s all but defenseless against antiaircraft missiles. The program was canceled in 2012, after a decade of testing.
The cost: $5.3 billion.
• The Kinetic Energy Interceptor, a rocket designed to be fired from land or sea to destroy enemy missiles during their early stage of flight. The interceptor was too long to fit on Navy ships, and on land, it would have to be positioned so close to its target that it would be vulnerable to attack. The program was killed in 2009, after six years of development.
The cost: $1.7 billion.
• The Multiple Kill Vehicle, a cluster of miniature interceptors that would destroy enemy missiles along with any decoys. In 2007 and 2008, the Missile Defense Agency trumpeted it as a “transformational program” and a cost-effective “force multiplier.” After four years of development, the agency’s contractors had not conducted a single test flight, and the program was shelved.
The cost: nearly $700 million.
These conclusions emerge from a review of thousands of pages of expert reports, congressional testimony and other government records, along with interviews with dozens of aerospace and military affairs specialists.
“The management of the organization is one of technologists in their hobby shop,” said L. David Montague, a former president of missile systems for Lockheed Corp. and co-chairman of a National Academy of Sciences-sponsored review of the agency. “They don’t know the nitty-gritty of what it takes to make something work.”
This leads, he said, to programs that “defy the limits of physics and economic logic.”
Of the SBX radar, Montague said: “It should never have been built.”
Retired Air Force Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command and a member of the National Academy panel, said the agency’s blunders reflected a failure to analyze alternatives or seek independent cost estimates.
“They are totally off in la-la land,” Habiger said.
Full article: The Pentagon’s $10-billion bet gone bad (LA Times)