In the end, the missile failed to put a satellite into orbit, although the missile traveled farther than in previous North Korean tests.
Former defense officials said the failure to use the SBX precluded the U.S. from gathering finely detailed intelligence and electronic signatures on the North Korean missile - information that could be useful in guarding against a future rocket launch aimed at the United States or one its allies.
Regardless of whether it was a missile or space launcher, “the technologies that overlap between a ballistic missile and a space launcher are incredible; everything you need for a ballistic missile can be tested out with a space launcher,” one of the former defense officials said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because the information he possesses about the SBX's capabilities is not public.
Another official with direct knowledge of the SBX's capabilities said that if it were deployed in New York harbor it could track a baseball hit out of San Francisco's AT&T stadium, some 3,000 miles away.
Prior to the April 4 test, military and Obama administration leaders issued conflicting statements on how the United States would respond to a test of the rocket that the Defense Intelligence Agency had identified as a long-range Taepodong-2.
Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, initially said the Pentagon was set to shoot down the missile using missile defense interceptors based in Alaska.
However, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told CNN on March 25 that the United States had no plans to shoot down the missile but instead would raise the issue with the United Nations. “We're not talking about anything like that,” Mrs. Clinton said when asked what circumstances would prompt the Pentagon to shoot down the North Korean rocket.
North Korea's government had declared - after stating that the rocket was a space launcher - that it would view the use of missile defenses against the rocket as an act of war.
The SBX radar, built on a large floating oil rig platform and normally based at the remote western Aleutian island of Adak, about 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage, was undergoing maintenance in Hawaii in early March.
The senior military official involved in continental missile defense said it would have required suspending the work to get the SBX sailing “so we asked [for it to be moved] pretty early, and preparations were begun.”
“As it became more clear that this was a space launch attempt and SBX would not have added any to the capabilities we needed to monitor a space launch, we canceled our request to allow refit to continue on timeline,” the senior official said.
Defense officials said that in addition to monitoring the Taepodong-2 launch, Gen. Renuart wanted the SBX radar in place to provide a real-world test of the new missile defense system.
Missile defense critics have criticized the Bush administration, which began deploying the current system earlier this decade, for not conducting realistic testing of the system.
President Obama has said he wants to make sure that U.S. missile defenses work properly before continuing support for the program.
Philip Coyle, a former Pentagon weapons testing specialist who has been critical of missile defense testing, said the SBX is technically a better radar than any system in Japan.