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Pentagon Opts for Sea-Based Missile Defense Radar
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Wade Boese

Shelving earlier Pentagon plans to build an advanced missile defense radar on a remote Alaskan island, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) awarded a $31 million contract August 1 to Boeing to begin development of a sea-based X-band radar for missile defense testing.

MDA wants the floating X-band radar, which is designed to track and discriminate among warheads, decoys, and debris in outer space with high precision, operational by September 2005. MDA estimates that completing the project will total $900 million.

The August 1 contract only covers activities during the first phase of a four-part program. During the initial phase, which lasts until October of this year, Boeing will do preliminary design work and reserve construction materials for building the sea-based platform.

Congress will need to authorize funding for the radar, which will be done through reprogramming existing money rather than requesting new funds. In other words, MDA is not planning to ask for additional money to pay for the radar, but will take funds from other missile defense projects.

MDA decided to pursue a sea-based version of the radar rather than building it on land because the sea-based version’s mobility would enable more varied testing of proposed missile defense systems, according to an MDA spokesperson. The official explained that the sea-based version would be capable of testing 13 different intercept trajectories, whereas various land-based locations would be limited to tracking objects in up to five scenarios at most.
The Pentagon might still build an X-band radar on land as part of a deployed missile defense system, but no deployment decisions have been made, the spokesperson said.

MDA will, however, upgrade the existing Cobra Dane radar, a less precise radar than an X-band radar, on Shemya Island at the western tip of the Aleutians for use in testing missile defense systems. The upgrade is scheduled to be finished by September 2004.
During the Clinton administration, Pentagon plans called for building an X-band radar on Shemya. Department of Defense officials pushed President Bill Clinton to authorize starting construction at Shemya before he left office, but he declined in September 2000.

Building a sea-based X-band radar was not part of the Clinton administration’s missile defense plans. A sea-based radar would have violated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which is now no longer in force following the June 13 U.S. withdrawal. (See ACT, July/August 2002.) The ABM Treaty ruled out, among other things, development, testing, and deployment of sea-based components for defenses against strategic ballistic missiles.

Posted: September 1, 2002