It was recently revealed (in a newspaper) that a key components of American ballistic defense has numerous problems and most important one is its inability to detect a real warhead that is hidden in a swarm of decoys. The Department of Defense responded that the reporters had misinterpreted how the radar in question worked and the article erred in saying the $2.2 billion SBX was in storage and unusable. It was pointed out that while the SBX has a narrow focus, this is necessary to enable it to determine which warheads in a swarm are real and which are decoys. The SBX knows where to aim its narrow beam because other radars with a wider field of view spot the swarms first and then SBX sorts out where the real targets are for GBI to destroy. That is how the system was designed.
The SBX was originally presented as one of several radars used with the GBI (Ground Based Interceptor) anti-missile system. The GBI and SBX has been tested shooting down missiles simulated long range Iranian or North Korean ballistic missiles. For these tests the GBI is launched from California, while the target missile was launched from Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, far to the west.
SBX is installed on a floating platform that can be towed to wherever it is needed. SBX is based (or “mothballed” as the media interpreted that) in Hawaii but, as the Department of Defense pointed out, has been towed out to different parts of the Pacific 13 times since it became operational in 2006.
The basic GBI system consists of a powerful radar system that enables the 12.7 ton GBI ballistic missile interceptors to deliver a 64 kg (140 pound) "kill vehicle" that will intercept a ballistic missile before it begins its descent into the atmosphere. The GBI kill vehicle can maneuver to destroy the incoming missile, while avoiding decoys because of information provided by SBX. The U.S. has installed GBI systems in Alaska and in California.
The GBI can receive target information from a variety of source, but the main source is a large X-band radar and space based sensors (that can detect ballistic missiles during their initial launch.) The U.S. has 30 GBIs in service and plans to build 14 more by 2017 for the GBI system based in Alaska. Each GBI costs over $100 million and can intercept ballistic missiles launched from as far away as 5,000 kilometers.
The articles that criticized SBX also point out that three other systems (Airborne Laser, Kinetic Energy Interceptor and Multiple Kill Vehicle) that have cost $8 billion have all failed and been written off. That’s not entirely true. Most modern weapons (smart bombs, guided missiles, electronics) spent decades going from early failure to eventual success. In wartime this process is speeded up but in peacetime the defense industries make quite a lot of money by nurturing along the development effort at a very profitable pace.
The Air Borne aircraft based laser system was the most expensive (over $5 billion) “failure” but the Department of Defense pointed out that much valuable data was obtained from work on this and with new technologies the Airborne Laser would eventually work. That can be said of any failed weapons development project and the Department of Defense does not like to discuss the growing number of such failed projects. Outside observers, with experience with equally expensive civilian projects, point out that many in the Department of Defense have admitted that many of these projects failed because of mismanagement and the Department of Defense has been unable to fix, much less really address, these personnel problems.