Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates denied permission for the U.S. Northern Command to use the Pentagon's most powerful sea-based radar to monitor North Korea's recent missile launch, precluding officials from collecting finely detailed launch data or testing the radar in a real-time crisis, current and former defense officials said.
Jamie Graybeal, Northcom public affairs director, confirmed to The Washington Times that Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, the Northcom commander, requested the radar's use but referred all other questions to the Pentagon.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Mr. Gates' decision not to use the $900 million radar, known as SBX, was “based on the fact that there were numerous ground- and sea-based radars and sensors in the region to support the operational requirements for this launch.”
SBX, deployed in 2005, can track and identify warheads, decoys and debris in space with very high precision. Officials said the radar is so powerful it could detect a baseball hit out of a ballpark from more than 3,000 miles away, and that other radars used by the U.S. would not be able to provide the same level of detail about North Korea's missile capabilities.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, who until recently headed the Missile Defense Agency, said the SBX would have gathered data other U.S. systems could not.
“The sea-based X-band radar is clearly without a doubt the most powerful and capable sensor in all of our missile defense inventory,” he said. “It is three or four more times powerful than other radars” in Asia, including Aegis-equipped ships, a Cobra Dane early warning radar in Alaska and a small X-band radar in northern Japan, he said.
Gen. Obering noted that the SBX was used by the U.S. Strategic Command to track a falling satellite and guide U.S. sea-based missile interceptors that destroyed it in February 2008.
Current and former defense officials offered other factors that likely affected the decision, ranging from the fact that the radar was undergoing maintenance about the time of the launch to concerns about provoking the North Koreans.
One current and two former specialists in strategic defenses said the administration rejected the request because it feared that moving the huge floating radar system would be viewed by North Korea as provocative and upset diplomatic efforts aimed at restarting six-nation nuclear talks.
Those talks do not appear likely to resume any time soon.
Reacting to U.N. condemnation of the April 4 launch, North Korea said Tuesday that it would “never participate in the [nuclear] talks” and would restart its plutonium-yielding nuclear reactor. The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said North Korea had ordered U.N. inspectors to leave the reclusive communist country.
According to a senior military official involved in continental missile defense, Gen. Renuart initially sought to use the SBX out of concern that the anticipated launch was aimed at the United States or allied territory.
However, Obama administration civilian policymakers accepted North Korea's claim that the rocket spotted by intelligence satellites being fueled at North Korea's Musudan launch complex was a space launcher with a satellite, and not a missile, the official said. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations.View Entire Story
Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.
He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.
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