How to Find a Lethal Object

Sea-Based X-Band Radar entering port in Hawaii

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Sea-Based X-Band Radar entering port in Hawaii
Sea-Based X-Band Radar entering port in Hawaii

In tandem with the defense budget hearings this past week in Congress, the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance held an open roundtable discussion on Missile Defense Sensors. This is a key component that drives confidence in the nation’s missile defense capability, with notable experts at the United States Capitol who emphasized the universal fundamental axiom “If you can’t see it, you can’t hit it.”

This event was based on the notionally simple, yet technologically complex sensors that are the vital component of successfully finding and tracking a lethal object – namely, a nuclear warhead – at hypersonic speeds in space among a widening cluster of debris, countermeasures and decoys created by release of the warhead payload and space junk during and after the rocket’s last stage burnout.

To achieve the highest confidence and to reduce the number of interceptors needed (shot doctrine) from a limited supply, a firing solution provided by sensors must tell the interceptor precisely where it needs to be, what time it needs to be there, which way it needs to look and exactly what it needs to go after. This kind of precise firing solution is required to successfully do a hit to kill, metal on metal, kinetic energy intercept with centimeter scaled precision at closure rates at over Mach 20.

In today’s U.S. missile defense architecture, designed primarily against the ballistic missile threat of North Korea to the United States, there remains gaps in sensor coverage, sensor persistence and sensor discrimination. These gaps directly affect the reliability of the 30 currently deployed ground based interceptors in Alaska and California.
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The United States does have persistent tracking sensors forward-based, but they get flown over early in a ballistic missile’s flight. Consequently, they do not have the capacity or capability to track the missile from birth to death.

The only designed, developed and deployed long rang discriminating sensor for U.S. homeland defense today is the Sea-Based X-Band Radar (SBX). Built as a testing platform and home-ported in Hawaii, the SBX has to be put out to sea and positioned correctly. This takes tremendous amount of valuable time prior to a possible launch. The SBX is not considered a persistent sensor, nor can it provide discrimination information for North America from its base in Hawaii.

The SBX does serve today to defend Hawaii when it’s put out to sea, in its discrimination capacity against North Korea. At close to $25 million a month to operate when deployed, it remains a key testing platform and in emergency situations with lead time provides long-range discrimination against North Korea. With North Korea’s recent pattern of “no notice” launches and its development of road-mobile ballistic missiles, not having a persistent long-range discriminating radar for Hawaii and North America is a serious national security challenge for the United States.

It is of absolute necessity for the best defense of the United States to acquire, build and deploy a persistent Long Range Discrimination Radar, to be placed in Alaska in protection of North America, in order to track, discriminate and find lethal objects coming across the vast areas of the Pacific towards the United States.


By Riki Ellison, Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA) Chairman and Founder