By David Willman
Trying to fashion a shield against a sneak missile attack, military planners gambled on costly projects that flopped, leaving a hole in U.S. homeland defense.
Leaders of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency were effusive about the new technology.
It was the most powerful radar of its kind in the world, they told Congress. So powerful it could detect a baseball over San Francisco from the other side of the country.
If North Korea launched a sneak attack, the Sea-Based X-Band Radar — SBX for short — would spot the incoming missiles, track them through space and guide U.S. rocket-interceptors to destroy them.
Crucially, the system would be able to distinguish between actual missiles and decoys.
SBX “represents a capability that is unmatched,” the director of the Missile Defense Agency told a Senate subcommittee in 2007.
In reality, the giant floating radar has been a $2.2-billion flop, a Los Angeles Times investigation found.
Although it can powerfully magnify distant objects, its field of vision is so narrow that it would be of little use against what experts consider the likeliest attack: a stream of missiles interspersed with decoys.
SBX was supposed to be operational by 2005. Instead, it spends most of the year mothballed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
Expensive missteps have become a trademark of the Missile Defense Agency, an arm of the Pentagon charged with protecting U.S. troops and ships and the American homeland.The project not only wasted taxpayer money but left a hole in the nation’s defenses. The money spent on it could have gone toward land-based radars with a greater capability to track long-range missiles, according to experts who have studied the issue.
Over the last decade, the agency has sunk nearly $10 billion into SBX and three other programs that had to be killed or sidelined after they proved unworkable, The Times found.
“You can spend an awful lot of money and end up with nothing,” said Mike Corbett, a retired Air Force colonel who oversaw the agency’s contracting for weapons systems from 2006 to 2009. “MDA spent billions and billions on these programs that didn’t lead anywhere.”