SECDEF Gates Loses Intelligence-Gathering Opportunity?

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 6 months ago

With the (then) upcoming North Korean missile launch, I had settled on the idea that the U.S. would shoot the missile out of the sky.  This position quickly evaporated into one of watching Japan shoot the missile out of the sky.  With some thought, I landed on the notion that Japan doesn’t have reliable enough systems to ensure success, and so attempt and failure would no doubt be an intelligence boon for North Korea.

No, over time my position evolved to one of no attempt at a shoot-down, just high quality intelligence-gathering.  We’d pull a Sun Tzu on them – they wouldn’t get to see our capabilities, but we’d see all of theirs.  If they’re willing to show us their capabilities, then we should collect data – and lot’s of it.  It was the most sensible position to take, and I was sure that the Pentagon would follow this line of thinking.

Not so, apparently.

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.

There are several potential reasons for this decision that have been floated.

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 …

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.

The first potential justification for this decision is that it would be seen as provocative.  We’ll come back to that in a moment.  The second potential justification is that the technology was associated with a satellite launch.  This is of course irrelevant, since the North Koreans are attempting to perfect missile technology, whether the technology is used for satellites or warheads.  The Obama administration had no chance of this justification passing muster, since the launch was a test.  The circumstances surrounding the test have nothing whatsoever to do with how the technology might be used in the future.

Let’s continue with the next excuse.

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.

Nice try, but again, that dog won’t hunt.  One cannot say ahead of time what data might be required after the fact to properly assess performance.  Ask any test engineer how precise he would like the test data, and you’ll get the answer “as precise as we can get it” every time.  This senior official has offered an uncompelling excuse for utilizing what is arguably the most suitable technology for the situation.  If not now, then when would the technology be used?

Finally, the worst excuse floats to the top.

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.

Oh good grief.  They should have stopped with just poor instead of ending up with ridiculous.  Now they look like they’re just making stuff up.  If you want to know if the system can “survive the maritime environment,” just ask the weapons design and testing engineers.  The GAO won’t know something that they don’t.  If the engineers don’t know, then this presents yet another unmatched opportunity to test our own systems real time and in a live environment.  Who knows when the North Koreans will launch another missile?

In short, the most plausible reason for this decision is the first, i.e., that a huge floating radar system would have been “provocative.”  Thus we’ve missed a once in a blue moon opportunity for valuable intelligence-gathering.

Whether Gates supported this decision behind closed doors is not known.  But one is left to wonder, would he have made the same decision while working for the previous administration?


You are currently reading "SECDEF Gates Loses Intelligence-Gathering Opportunity?", entry #2694 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Department of Defense,Intelligence,Korea,Secretary Gates,State Department and was published April 15th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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