In secluded shipyards near Corpus Christi and Brownsville, Texas, government contractors are quietly building a mammoth piece of space-age weaponry.
The floating radar platform, the only one of its kind in the country, will stand 25 stories and weigh 4 million pounds. In theory, the radar will track incoming warheads so that remote rockets could destroy them.
The radar is a key component of President Bush’s missile-shield program.
The self-propelled semisubmersible radar platform costing more than $740 million has been under construction at the Amfels shipyard since June 2003.
Back-to-back launch failures in tests of the interceptor missiles meant to destroy incoming warheads haven’t stopped Pentagon brass from continuing with plans for the radar platform made up of two main pieces: the platform itself and the giant sphere that looks like Disney’s Epcot Center, which will house the radar.
Chris Taylor of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency said the two components would be assembled within 30 days at a Corpus Christi facility.
The shipyard is in the northern part of Corpus Christi Bay, about 15 miles northeast of Corpus Christi in the suburb of Ingleside, an industrial town dotted with chemical plants and shipyards. It is there that the radar component is being built.
The Sea-based X-band radar, or SBX, is named for the type of radar bandwidth it uses. It will hold the most powerful sensor capabilities in the country’s missile-defense system and be able to discriminate a hostile warhead from decoys, military officials say. “This radar is so capable that, if it were sitting in Chesapeake Bay, it could detect a baseballsized object in space over San Francisco,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told a House subcommittee this month.
It will tower more than 280 feet from its keel to the top of the dome and will displace nearly 50,000 tons of water when submerged and moving.
Its job will be to provide detailed missile-tracking information to the rest of the Pentagon’s ground-based missile-defense system. The advanced radar will be linked electronically to silos in Alaska and California that house the interceptor missiles, passing along information to those missile sites such as the trajectory of the incoming warhead. Based on that information, the interceptor missile would be launched.
The military plans to run mobility tests for the radar in the Gulf of Mexico before moving it toward the Pacific in May. The goal is to have the platform in southern California in September. By the end of the year, it is scheduled to be at its home port of Adak, Alaska.
Critics of the system would rather put the brakes on the entire system. “This is a very tight timeline that is geared to meet the White House’s goal of having an “˜initial’ deployment of a missile-defense system by the end of 2005,” said Victoria Samson, research analyst for the Center for Defense Information in Washington. “I’m not sure they’re giving themselves ample time to work out all the development details. I’d say that this is a project that should not be rushed. This particularly holds true for the SBX, as it is a tremendously difficult engineering and technology challenge.”