SBX-Missile Defense Out to Sea?

(Missile Defense Agency)

By Armen Keteyian and Michael Rey

The photograph at left is the most iconic image we have of a pretty photogenic piece of equipment. Late afternoon at Pearl Harbor, the American flag flutters over the Arizona Memorial. And in the background, as if we need any more of a stark reminder, looms the future of the defense apparatus of the United States.
The parts of the SBX-1 are as impressive as they look: nearly 28 stories tall it sits on two pontoons each the size of a Trident submarine and can chug along at 12 miles an hour on the open sea. It is that vessel that will be deployed in the Bering Sea so that it can pick up a missile launched from North Korea and activate the defense system that will shoot it out of the sky.
But as we kept finding in our reporting, the great parts of the SBX-- the incredible x-band radar, the sturdy North Sea oil platform on which it sits, and the good men and women of the Missile Defense Agency—might not add up to the perfect whole.
With documents obtained by the Project on Government Oversight the CBS News Investigative Unit found a host of issues with the SBX that still remain unresolved, just ahead of its activation in the waters off Adak Island, Alaska.
- Beyond questions raised in our CBS Evening News story about plans to stick it in some of the most unforgiving weather in the world, if the SBX has a single point of failure, according to sources within Missile Defense, it is The Dove. The Dove is the large support vessel, 279 feet long, which travels with the SBX, delivers personnel, supplies and fuel to the radar platform. Though the SBX has a helicopter platform, military and Coast Guard helicopters won't land there. So the SBX uses a single crane to lift people and material off the Dove. According to the Coast Guard letter obtained by CBS News, there are regularly waves as high as 30 feet many days out of the year. There are concerns that the Dove will not be able to maneuver close enough to the SBX to re-supply without colliding or injuring crew men in those conditions.
Other potential problems include:
-Fuel spills: the Dove carries 600,000 gallons of diesel fuel and the SBX carries 1.2 million gallons. If both vessels spilled their fuel in the pristine waters off Adak Island, it would be the second largest fuel spill in Alaskan history. Second only to the Exxon Valdez. How likely is a fuel spill? According to incident reports obtained by the Investigative Unit, the Dove spilled 3-5 gallons of diesel during fueling operations on December 9th. It happened near Hawaii and the system was shut down when crewmembers saw a growing oil slick. That's not a lot of fuel by Exxon Valdez standards but the spill occurred in ocean conditions with 12-foot swells, relatively calm compared to conditions in the Bering Sea.
-Security: As a source within the Missile Defense Agency said, "Trying to defend a billion dollar asset with rifles, shotguns and 50 cals is ridiculous." The SBX will be protected around the clock by about a dozen lightly armed security contractors. Can the SBX defend itself from a direct attack by a bomb-laden boat?
-Anchors: when General Henry "Trey" Obering does decide to send the SBX to its operating area near Adak Island, Alaska, it will likely find that its moorings, the system of anchors and lines that will keep it in place, have not yet been built. The SBX will have to keep its thruster engines going full-time to keep the platform in place. There are questions about whether there will be enough power generated onboard the SBX to run the thrusters and flip on the radar as an active part of the ongoing missile testing program.

In the end these are all issues that the Missile Defense Agency is addressing in its sea trials of the SBX near Hawaii and eventually Alaska. And as we did in our segment on the Evening News, we end here with a quote from our interview with General Obering, the man ultimately responsible for making this thing work and spending more than one billion dollars to do it.
"I think that it's a very good security investment for this country. And I think that if we can stop one…hit, one nuclear weapon from detonating on an American city, I think we will pay that back many, many times over with respect to that investment."