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.
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.
However, Mr. Coyle said one problem with the radar is that its resolution is so fine it needs to be "cued," or directed where to look. That may be a reason it was not deployed, he said.
"Both the [Government Accountability Office] and my former office have questioned whether this radar can survive the maritime environment," said Mr. Coyle, now with the Center for Defense Information.
The administration's restrictions on missile defenses were disclosed as Mr. Gates announced last week that he is planning a $1.4 billion cut in missile defense funding.
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, wrote to Mr. Obama on April 6, urging him to reject the missile defense cuts.
The senators warned that the planned missile defense funding cut would undermine international cooperation with Japan, Israel and other states at a time when missile threats are growing.